Sunday, June 9, 2013

Beijing Museum Review: Beijing Museum of Natural History (北京自然博物館)

Photo of Guo's Calligraphy Displayed
at His Former Residence in Beijing
Founded in 1951, the 24,000-square-meter Beijing Museum of Natural History (BMNH) is situated at Chongwen District (祟文區), housing over 200,000 specimen. 

This is the perfect spot if you want a break from all those traditional Chinese buildings and would like to spend an afternoon looking at something more universal, more natural, and a little bit Western. 
Primarily the architecture of BMNH is of classical Western style, with Guo Moruo's calligraphy at the main entrance. A photo of the calligraphy could also be found at the Guo Moruo's Former Residence. The word "自然" refers to nature, whereas "博物館", museum - so there it is the name of BMNH "自然博物館".

The decor also displays the same style as its exterior, which goes well with the very good lighting in the lobby. On the walls of the lobby, there are oil paintings of important scientists like Darwin, as well as Chinese scientists. 

Science was not praised in ancient China as it is a domain regarding tools and how things work; traditionally, Chinese deem metaphysics to be the more important subject for exploration. That said, there were a number of historical figures who carried out scientific inquires to pursue the answer of how to make sense of the reality we perceive. 

Back to the hotel. You know what they say - "Every silver lining has a cloud." The not-so-perfect thing about BMNH is that their specimen are arranged in several thematic sections - not chronologically. For such a huge collection of historical specimen and models, chronological arrangement in accordance with the evolutionary paradigm would make much more sense to the visitors. What makes matter worse is that the locations of the four halls - Paleontology, Zoology, Botany and Mankind Evolution - seem a little bit arbitrary, rendering visitors clueless as to where to go next. 

The lighting of most sections is a bit dim (except for "the Dinosaur World") to the extent that sometimes it's hard to see the displays clearly. And some of the specimen arrangement are strange and unnatural: predators are at times placed next to their preys as if their relationship is commensal. Alright, may be it's not only a cloud but a few.

All in all, despite the museum management can be greatly improved, it is a nice place to step out of the whole Beijing scene and embrace the universality of nature and science for a moment.

Charles Darwin on the Wall

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Beijing's Shichahai (什剎海) Lake Tour Series: Pipe Byway (煙袋斜街)

When you go to Shichahai, you may find different kinds of hutongs almost everywhere around the lake. In this article, we are going to present you a very famous, very old hutong at the Hau Hai (後海) area - Pipe Byway (煙袋斜街).

Two ladies running into each other 
and exchanging greetings
Shichahai is not only a tourist spot, but also a community for local residents. It is a very much "alive" area of the old Beijing.

To preserve the cultural heritage of hutongs, restorations of the exterior walls are carried out at times. Still, the architecture and the surrounding environment reek of the nostalgic ambiance of old Beijing. Pipe Byway is the oldest byway in Beijing. With proper maintenance, the appearance of Pipe Byway is preserved as it was in 600 years ago. This byway was built during Yuan Dynasty in light of the pier at Ji Shui Tan (on the northern side of Hau Hai), and got its name during the Qing Dynasty for its increasing pipe shops.

The Pipe Byway has great historical values for two other specific reasons: First, since it was built to link the pier and Gu Lou (鼓樓)*, the byway became prosperous as an important business-related district. Second, except for pipes, it was also a hot spot for Qi Ren (旗人) to sell their antiques after the demise of imperial China.

The Pipe Byway is only around 200 meters; when you are walking down the byway, however, you will be stunned by the interconnected hutongs as well as the texture of some of the dilapidated brick walls. These very ancient alleys are revitalized with modern cafes, little shops, restaurants and bars. This is also true for the famous South Luogu Lane (南鑼鼓巷) nearby - be sure to include it in your itinerary as well!

*Gu Lou (鼓樓) is a historic architecture nearby; in Chinese, the word Gu refers to drum and Lou, tall building. On the northern side of Gu Lou, there is a Wen Tian Gu ("聞天鼓" whereas "聞" means heard and "天", sky) which is a big drum. Before the advent of mechanic clocks, the drum-hitting at Gu Lou served as the function of a clock tower to remind people the time of dusk. Zhong Lou (鐘樓), on the other hand, reminded people the time of dawn by ringing the bell, and hence the Chinese saying - "晨鐘暮鼓" ("晨" means morning and "" means sunset.)

A Familiar Face


Outside Barbecue Ji (可愛いね~え?日本語?(笑))


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lu Xun (魯迅)

The man in the last photo of our previous article is one of the China's most influential writers - Lu Xun. 

If one knows a thing or two about Chinese literature, he/she must have heard of Lu Xun. Especially from the May Fourth movement onwards, Lu Xun greatly influenced not only the literature scene but also modern China's political arena. When Lu was young, he studied medicine to become a doctor in Japan; after witnessing the flaws in the mind of Chinese, he turned to literature in the hope of curing the old Chinese mentality such as superstitions.

The works of Lu Xun are of very high literary value, manifested by his mastery of motifs and irony. "Diary of a Madman", "The True Story of Ah Q", "Medicine" and the list goes on - all are still relevant and stunning as it were in 1920s in China. When someone talks about the Chinese, one of the most common words associated with the Chinese culture is "Confucianism". In Lu's works, you will see how confucianism is/was regarded in China and how they will shake your stereotype "Chinese = Confucianism".

There is a museum dedicated to Lu Xun in the northwestern part of Beijing (Fuchengmenwai Street), which is close to his former residence. Visitors are recommended to take the tour of both the museum and Lu's former home in order to get the whole experience of this great writer. 

The Lu Xun Museum Beijing is strongly recommended for its unique ambiance - the simplistic style of decor, the quotations of Lu's on the walls, the inspiring displays of Lu's belongings (e.g. his philosophy books including Kantian philosophy). The quotations on the walls are indeed striking and memorable, as one is entering the world of Lu which is harsh, caustic, heart-shattering, passionate, patriotic, witty and wise.

Before going to the museum, one may start with reading Lu's story collections - "Call to Arms", "Wandering", and "Old Tales Retold" - to learn more about Lu's thoughts and writings. Without reading anything written by Lu, it would be quite unconvincing for one claiming to have learnt anything  about China.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Beijing's Shichahai (什剎海) Lake Tour Series: Historic Site/Museum Review - Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling (北京宋慶齡故居)

 Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling

Who is Soong Ching-ling? 
The former residence of Soong Ching-ling (宋慶齡) is located at the Hau Hai (後海) area of Shichahai (什剎海) in Beijing. There is a famous Maoist saying about the three daughters of the Soong family - "One loved money. One loved power. One loved her country." The eldest, Soong Ai-ling got married with a rich man; the second, Soong Ching-ling, Sun Yat-sen; the youngest, Soong May-ling, Chiang Kai-shek - the leader of Kuomintang and the first president of the Nationalist Government after moving to Taiwan. Consider the political background of Mao, you may guess which sister is considered patriotic, and which zealously pursued power in his saying.  

As Soong Ching Ling was the wife of the founding father of China - Sun Yat-sen, the two of them were very active in the revolution and building of modern China; they frequently travelled across the country and therefore lived in many provinces, just as this one in Beijing. 

Entering the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling...

Walking down the path to the main building, the very first thing you will see (well, except for the ticket booth and security) is a shelf at some point in the courtyard. This shelf is not just some decoration; it was originally made for growing grapes exclusively serving Soong Ching-ling. 

The Marriage

The two of them standing in front of the first airplane that was built in China in 1923


Most of the area is used for exhibiting photographs and personal items of Soong Ching-ling. Here is some highlights of the memorabilia displayed at this old residence of Soong. As mentioned at the outset, Soong was the wife of Sun Yat-sen and they lived through a long period of wars and revolution. Soong Ching-ling's father was Sun's friend, and Soong admired Sun and became his assistant and later his wife. On the left, there are the utensils which were used at the time they got married; the pistol on the right was the wedding gift for Soong Ching-ling given by Sun, which not only shows his love for his wife but also his fear for the dangerous future that would fall upon them.

Soong and Mao
As the wife of the founding father, Soong Ching-ling has always been a respectable figure in China - even for Mao. This is the first print of the selected works of Mao - a gift from Mao to Soong. Mao's saying of the Soong sisters emphasizes the legendary, influential element in their life stories, albeit might not be accurate.


The Soong Sisters
All of the Soong sisters were alumnae of the Wesleyan College in the United States. 
Highly educated, rich, beautiful - the Soong sisters transformed from the students of a prestigious academic institution to three significantly powerful political figures in modern Chinese history.


(Wonder who the man with the mustache on the canvas behind Soong Ching-ling is? Don't forget to check out the next article!)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Beijing's Shichahai (什剎海) Lake Tour Series: Historic Site/Museum Review - Former Residence of Guo Moruo (郭沬若故居)

Formerly as a part of Prince Gong's Mansion (恭王府) located at Qian Hai (前海), Guo Moruo (郭沬若) - a crucial cultural and social icon in the fields of literature, drama, history, archeology and science in modern China - lived here for 15 years where his former home became a memorial museum after his death.

The Former Residence of Guo Moruo is of a traditional courtyard (四合) style. As mentioned at the outset, it was part of Prince Gong's Mansion - Guo's former home keeps its original style and structure. The place is absolutely serene where visitors may contemplate on Guo's ideology and the past events of his life as well as the history of modern China.

Guo as an Intellectual

As an academic, books and papers never left Guo in his entire life. His works range from academic papers to poems and other forms of creative writing.
Guo's poetry is the pioneer of modern Chinese poetry; his poem collection, "Goddess" (女神), was published in 1921 just before he co-founded the Creation Society (創造社) with Yu Dafu (郁達夫) and others. Guo's literary works had a great impact on the literary scene, especially for younger generations, during the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement in China. His important historian works began during the time he exiled to avoid arrest in Japan, serving as a cornerstone of historical materialism in China.

Despite his achievements in literature and history, Guo is often criticized for his practices of sitting on the fence which is evident in his attitude towards Lu Xun (魯迅) before and after his death. To many critics and writers, Guo's personality is far more questionable than his achievements as an intellectual. But, it was during the hard times of the civil war, Japanese invasion and the Cultural Revolution; while it is understandable for some not to find him admirable, it should not be that easy to judge a human against the backdrop of the whole country spiraling down to hell.

Surprisingly, for someone who was that aggressively passionate, Guo's calligraphy is very poise. In the museum, you may also appreciate Guo's calligraphy which is one of his famous strengths - elegant, free-spirited, dignified. The museum sign of the Beijing Museum of Natural History is one of his works.

Guo, Japan, and the War

A photograph of Guo when he was in Japan after the May Fourth Movement. Guo was the one sitting in the middle in the front. The others were Chinese students studying in Japan at that time.
Just as some other famous Chinese intellectuals in the same era, Guo went to Japan for studying Kyushu Imperial University to become a doctor in 1914, similar to the academic background of Lu Xun. In 1928, Guo returned to Japan so as to escape Chiang Kai-shek's arrest.

Guo was also an important political figure in modern China. In the photograph on the right bottom, Guo and the others took a picture in front of a train in Hankau "漢口" (a town in Wuhan, Hubei). Guo was on a mission assigned by Government Army. When Guo was in Wuhan, he initiated the anti-Japanese resistance cultural movement which greatly helped during the war against Japanese's invasion in 1937.

Guo's identification document and pocket watch during the civil war.

The rooms are kept as they were back in the days from 1963 to 1978. 
Guo passed away on this premise in 1978.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Chinese Words and Phrases II - "甭"

Last time, we have seen how the Chinese character "您" is consisted of the upper part "你" and the lower part "心"; one of the interesting things about Chinese characters is that this rule of combining different characters into a new one with an extended meaning is often seen in many cases as well. For example, "甭" (pronounced as béng) means "not necessarily" in Chinese. The upper part of "甭" is "不", meaning "no" or "not"; the lower part, "用",  usually refers to "use", but it is interpreted as "have to" or "necessarily" in this case. As you can see, the combination of "不" and "用" is a phrase saying "not necessarily" if used alone. To some extent, the word "甭" is exactly saying the same thing as the phrase "不用".

So, how do we use "甭" in a sentence? For instance,

1) 甭說了。

As "說" here means "talk" or "speak", the whole senence is "say no more".

2) 甭客氣!

"客氣" means being polite. Here the whole meaning is akin to "take it easy".

3) 票掉了就甭進。

If the ticket ("票") is lost ("掉"), you can forget about going in ("進").

As for the last sentence, it is not a direct translation but it does translate the meaning and captures the tone of the original sentence, especially for its second part (the direct translation for "就甭進" should be "don't have to go in".)  From the  example 1 and 3, the word "甭" is used as an indirect or more polite way to say something - sometimes it's not really about you "don't have to" or it is "not necessary to" do something. The subtext of "you don't have to speak more of it" is you have said enough.

But in today's China, the indirect meaning of "甭" has become as direct as a simple "no". Hence it depends on the context and the tone of the sentence as well.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Chinese Words and Phrases I "你" & "您"

In Chinese, the word "you" is represented by the character "你"; this is the same for Cantonese and Mandarin. Interestingly, there is another way to address people other than "你" - a more polite way.

Sometimes we would hear people use "您" instead of "你" in Mandarin (perhaps in written Chinese for a Cantonese speaker too). You may recognize the upper part of "您" is no different than "你"; the lower part "心" means "heart". Addressing others as "您" is to express your true feelings and respect from your heart for that particular person.

Now, let's see the different pronunciations of "你" & "您":

"你" (nǐ)

"您" (nǐn)

So when should we use "您" rather than "你"? As we have mentioned above, it is a more polite way to address others. It would be appropriate to use in occasions such as a receptionist talking to a guest. For traditional Chinese families, younger generations may also use "您" to address their elder relatives.

Next time when you hear or read "您" instead of "你", then you would know who is being extra nice to you!

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