Paper-Making in Houhai

There is probably nothing more study abroad-like than participating in unfamiliar traditional activities. In only our second day of our one-week stay in Beijing, our next stop after lunch was at a traditional-style residence in Houhai where we learned how to make Chinese paper cuts! Before the activity began, I was personally a little fatigued after quite the busy morning in Tiananmen Square and Jingshan Park. However, a nice surprise welcomed me on our way to the residence: we got to ride a carriage! Here’s a POV clip below:

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He biked at the perfect pace, giving me enough time to enjoy the autumn breeze and a more traditional-looking part of China. It was a much-needed pleasant ride since I didn’t think my legs could support me any longer. Anyways, when we got there, we were greeted by a man named Mike, who spoke very fluent English with minimal accent. But because the residence was small and we came in a big group, we all split up into three groups, placed in three different rooms where Mike would spend time with each group one-by-one. My group went first while the other groups waited.

After we sat down at a felt-covered table, he first thing he told us was “these are very sharp scissors.” I didn’t think he was being serious, but he was. I poked myself, and it hurt. After sharing a few laughs with my fellow friend Mike, he taught us a brief history of paper-cutting (including its importance during the New Year: 窗花), common patterns of paper-cutting, and how to make one of the patterns, of which the name I sadly forgot.

I’m sure of one thing: paper-cutting is a very precise art. It not only requires cutting paper, but also requires folding paper. If you cut too much paper, you had to start over again. Making the wrong folds, meaning an inch off from what Mike demonstrated, frustrated me a lot more than I originally anticipated. However, Mike was very helpful and even satisfied that we were doing really well on our first ever try.

The end result? The most beautiful paper creation I made in my life, mostly because I haven’t done any paper work since my elementary school arts and crafts days. Let’s just say I made some pretty interesting things back in the day.

I really like these kinds of activities because I can study all the traditions of China I want on the Internet or in a textbook, but doing an actual activity in real life really adds a different depth to my overall personal impression. I find my mind to be a lot more engaged and excited when doing hands-on activities. Just like cooking Chinese food at the Linden Center in Dali, paper-cutting again made me more personally connected with Chinese culture simply because I actually participated in the activity. These kinds of activities aren’t easy, but the work is definitely worth the learning experience.

The Great Wall (of Pingyao?)

When you think of walls and you think of China, the Pingyao Ancient City Wall probably isn’t what comes to mind. Nevertheless, the ancient city of Pingyao, located about 600 kilometers from Beijing, remains one of China’s best hidden treasures – a place not many visitors to China have the opportunity to travel to, but one that we in the Davidson in China program are very grateful to have witnessed for ourselves.

The wonderfully preserved walls of Pingyao that we see today date all the way back to the Xizhou Dynasty, placing their construction at about 2,700 years ago. Originally built to shield the city from invaders from Eastern Mongolia, the ancient city walls have survived the test of time (and, most incredibly, evaded the destruction of the Cultural Revolution) to capture its current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The wall encloses the city inside in a square, and measures 10 meters high (for reference, that is very high) and is over 6,000 meters long (likewise, that is very long).

The drive from the train station to one of the wall’s main gates (we stayed at an inn within the walls interior) feels like a drive through time. Outside the walls, you see western clothes stores, McDonalds, and newly constructed buildings lit up in different colors. But as you approach the wall, you walk through the main gate and it feels like you are walking into another century. No western clothes stores, no McDonalds, no towering buildings. Instead, small shops selling Shanxi Province specialty dishes and sweets line the cobblestone streets – the only reminder of the country’s rapid climb to modernization while perhaps leaving its thousands of years of history and traditions behind can be seen in a knock-off Starbucks coffeeshop, seemingly attuned to the tastes of the few foreigners who make it inside the city.

The next day, we walked along the top of the wall, overlooking the roofs of the houses and hundreds of years of history below. Later that night, we walked through the very bustling streets of Pingyao’s ancient city, trying the local snacks (fried cookies with brown sugar inside!!), looking through souvenir shops, watching what the people were doing to see what makes the city so popular with tourists from all around China.

All in all, if you happen to be in China, I think all of us Wildcats would definitely recommend getting off the beaten path and taking a trip to Pingyao!!

The Summer Palace

On Tuesday morning, we got up and headed to the Summer Palace (颐和园) in Beijing. This imperial garden is world-known, and has been incredibly well preserved over the centuries. It was first built in 1750, and in the early 20th century, the grounds became a public park, where people could buy entrance tickets and roam throughout the palace. Toward the end of the 20th century, the Summer Palace was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and is now visited by millions of people from all over the world. The main attractions of the Summer Palace include Longevity Hill (万寿山) and Kunming Lake. Our guide William also took us over to see the Marble Boat, which sits on the lake. It was destroyed in the mid-19th century during the Second Opium War, but later rebuilt in marble under the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi.

         

Many of us have studied abroad in China before, so we’d had the opportunity to visit the Summer Palace in the past, but never have I been on such a beautiful and sunny day. The weather was practically perfect every day of our trip, which was pretty remarkable for this time of year.

The air quality was at its absolute best and the weather was phenomenal; in the pictures above, it is possible to see the mountains in the background, something that is often impossible to see when the pollution is particularly bad. The colors of the buildings were incredibly vibrant, the lake was glimmering, and the gardens were spectacular. Even the trees had changed colors, making everything very colorful.

      

Our guide took us through the palace, and allowed us to wander about on our own. At the end of our visit, we ended up at Kunming Lake. The enormous lake had many boats, and lots of tourists and visitors were sitting near the lake’s edge, and strolling through The Long Corridor. We took a boat back to the entrance of the park, and were able to admire the palace from the water. The lake takes up nearly ¾ of the entire Summer Palace, and thus it seemed only fitting that we take a boat ride during our visit!

 

                   

I thought that it was incredibly beneficial to go visit the Summer Palace with a guide. The beauty of the palace is definitely remarkable, but what makes it even more interesting is to know about the history and life within the Palace. This was one of the best days we had in Beijing!

      

 

 

Mutianyu Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is an architectural masterpiece, coming into creation as early as 220 BC through the leadership of Qin Shi Huang. The wall was originally created in order to protect China from foreign invaders along the northern borders in an east to west direction. Despite this seemingly unbreakable wall, the original wall has eroded over the centuries as it was originally made with earth, stones, and wood, and thus was restructured during the Ming Dynasty. The wall stems 13,171 miles in total and is still one of the world’s major wonders.

Although I had previously visited the Great Wall, my second visit did not fail to astound me – especially since we visited the Mutianyu section, which I had previously not been to. There was just so much history and culture embedded within those stones, and you could still feel the resolute and unwavering power of the Chinese. China is known for having one of the most detailed and longest histories, and through our visit it was very clear that the sheer force of China’s history was embedded within the millions of bricks and stones.

We took a cable car up towards a higher elevated part of the wall, and once we arrived at the top, we had two hours to explore the entire section (figure 1, 2). While initially I believed two hours was far too long, it was just the right amount of time. The sky was clear of any clouds, and the temperature was absolutely perfect (warm enough to traverse around without a coat). Traversing the wall itself was quite a challenge – numerous stones were out of place, other tourists were everywhere trying to get through the small entryways, and there were thousands upon thousands of stairs. While I was completely out of breath (due to the stairs), I was able to take a moment to appreciate the sheer force of history that I was climbing across – the amount of physical labor with limited technology, the planning, the execution, the representation of China as a solitary unit standing strong after centuries – it’s all quite incredible to think about. Once I had made it to the top, all the hard work paid off with the incredible view of the wall, the mountains, and the scenery (figure 3).

Though most of us had already visited the Great Wall, I think we were all still in awe by how incredible it was. There is really nothing that can compare to it, and it was one of the few times where I could look past the extreme modernization in the cities and actually see how China has become a leading force in today’s society.

 

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

My return to the Beijing hutongs was bittersweet. This summer, I spent most of my free time after my internship getting lost in the chaotic grey-brick mazes that enclave the Lama Temple and Confucius Temple. It was remarkable to see that in the span of a few months, the hutongs that I’d become so familiar with had completely changed. My favorite coffee shop on Yonghegong? Gone. Now just a brick wall with a tiny window that used to be the glass door entrance to this popular specialty coffee shop. That one cement table with four plastic chairs always occupied by 老北京人 (Old Beijingers) playing Mahjong? Gone. Now a state-of-the-art public bathroom with Western toilets.

I appreciate the preservation efforts of Xi and the mayor of Beijing to “carefully polish every historical cultural block.” Even though less than 1/3 of the hutongs remain, they still remain an integral part of Beijing’s OG identity– one step into the hutongs instantly transports you back to the old days. This summer, most of the hutongs around the Lama temple were barricaded by piles

of bricks and construction workers. This time round, there was much less construction happening, but it seems as if the more the government touches the hutongs, the less preserved it feels. According to a recent article by the New York Times, The government is hellbent on clearing out all unregistered settlements and private businesses.

Construction in Wudaoying Hutong

Installation of the public bathroom

Even though a lot of small businesses are being replaced by traditional grey-brick walls, the relentless preservation efforts seem to also be driving out the soul of hutongs. It saddens me to see the hutongs lose their exciting unpredictability. As long as Xi doesn’t knock down my favorite 炸酱面 (Beijing fermented bean noodles) or 面茶 (peanut porridge) place I can’t complain too much.

 

After spending a few nights reacclimatizing to the hutongs, I joined our group on a tour the Lama Temple. We lit up some incense and pretended to know what we were doing in front of the first shrine.

Visitor in prayer

After about the 5th buddha statue I decided to take a few pictures of the architecture and colorful artworks. The last shrine was home to an impressively large Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the future). With a clear emphasis on the future, I hope the Lama Temple and its surrounding hutongs continue to be cultural strongholds of Old Beijing– despite the questionable renovations.

炸酱面 (Fermented bean noodles)

面茶 (Peanut Porridge)

 

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