Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?

No, it's too perilous.

Which was a shame, because the rock formations were those really sweet eroded limestone hills they have here, the ones with the random holes and wacky textures.

Like this.

Anyway, it’s Midterms Week, which means it’s procrastination time, and therefore time to update my blog. I mean, uh, we went to the Forbidden City(故宫,Gugong, or literally Ancient Palace) and I want to share the experience with my friends, family, and schoolmates.

It was a very serious cultural experience.

So when Kublai Khan conquered China, beginning the Yuan Dynasty, he moved the capital to Beijing, a former dynastic capital and provincial town. It was far south enough to be definitively in ethnic Han “China,” far north enough for the geography to be similar to Mongolia and good for cavalry. Over the next two dynasties it was burnt down and rebuilt a couple of times by conquerors, and the Ming eventually built this huge imperial complex in the heart of the city, where the imperial family and their army of eunuch servants lived.

The man in the red jacket on the left is my host father. The man in blue is our old Chinese teacher, Gao Laoshi.

This tradition of isolation for the imperial family was maintained until the fall of the Qing in 1911, to the detriment of the Chinese people. Some rulers (notably Empress Dowager Cixi, the last real monarch of China) never left the Forbidden City during their entire lives, and as such they lacked perspective and let internal power struggles undermine their ability to rule the country and effectively battle imperialism in ways that some smaller, more dynamic kingdoms (Thailand, the Punjab, Zululand, Japan) were able to. Cixi, in particular, was famous for this–fearing the growth of either traditionalist or modernist forces, she played off both sides against each other. She never left the imperial city and never really understood the poverty, corruption, misrule, imperialism, and banditry that was the late Qing.

Of course, walking around the Forbidden City, it's easy to see how China saw itself as the centre of the world. It's called a "City" for a reason–it's huge.

Imagine a quarter of Carlisle, or an area the size of the Mexican War Streets, reserved for concubines alone. Another quarter or the North Shore for guard barracks. It’s that big.

We had a little semi-guided tour, courtesy of our old pal Gao Laoshi, not my host mom but the crusty old Beijinger. We also had these automatic audio tours that told us stuff. Weird occurence of the week–they had those little tour guide machines in like sixty languages, and of course everyone in our group was given an English one, except me, who got a German one, and I have no idea why. I was thrilled though, because I miss German. It’s a nice language and a cool culture, but isn’t very useful for what I want to do with my life. I could catch some of it, but my skills are quite rusty. It was nice to hear that nice, soothing Hochdeutsch baritone that all German recordings seem to use.

Much like D.C., Beijing is a short city, especially in the central area. From even the Tiananmen Gate lookout tower, you can see for miles.

And as usual, all the names sound infinitely more impressive in German. “Die Verbotenstadt” and “Kaisernpalast” both sound like such  impressive and more natural translations of “故宫.” While the Hall of Heavenly Purity sounds silly and pretentious, die Halle der Himmlischen Reinheit sounds like you’re going to get shot by a seven-foot tall Einsatzkommando named Jurgen if you track mud on the floor. Considering the kind of place it used to be, that’s a much more accurate translation.

I am struggling to understand the traditional Chinese obsession with massive fields of pavement. I guess it's a humanist thing? Or a purifying thing, trying to remove the nature and her unpleasant green reminders of the farming peasantry from the cities.

The tour was cool, although repetitive after a while. A lot of the museums and landmarks here are quite static and repetitive, they don’t really engage you. They seem to rely on an unstated meaning and significance, and try to overwhelm you with their physical presence. You’re supposed to be impressed by their grandeur and power and authority, rather than be a consumer to be engaged and entertained. I suppose American landmarks are much the same way, places like the various war and presidential memorials. Culture is a very subjective and local thing, and it’s difficult to spread ideas, much less communicate values, across language and cultural gaps. Sigh, solidarity…

The PLA/PAP/Beijing police (can't tell the uniforms apart yet) who guard the place actually live in the old barracks of the palace wall…

…which means pool tables and basketball courts scattered around the southern inner keep. Totally surreal. I really wanted to go play ball.

Afterwards we went out to dinner, which was interesting. As per usual, we were given concert tickets and snack food (large bags of Chips Ahoy/趣多多!/Very Very Delightful! and hawthorn jelly candies) and had a huge banquet of food ordered for us, which I personally thought was one of the better spreads we’ve had, although I may be in the minority there. At the end we had stinky tofu, which tasted nasty, although most other people had much more violent reactions to it than I did.

Anyway, little to tell beyond that. The concert tickets were for some early modern troupe–a harpsichordist, two cellists, and a cellist/violinist. Their last piece was a Beatles song, which should amuse Matt Michrina, although it will disappoint him that I don’t remember which one it was. Nina will bug me about it later.

Midterms now! I am so behind in my work that it is not very funny. I’m just so used to being my little pretentious “gifted” polymath self that having to just study one subject and stick to a couple of small tasks really bores me and I lose interest after a while, especially for longer written pieces above my comprehension level. I wish we were taking a more intensive cultural/political/socio course like some of the other roundeye kids here are.

Nose to the grindstone now! Hui tou jian!

This place was built before Colombus was born, when parts of Spain still spoke Arabic. Five years after the battle of Agincourt, for goodness. And this is the youngest capital in China.


  1. Nina Geller Said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    The Beatles song was the Beatles. You were right about how I would bug you about it…

  2. Mom Said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    I completely understand about wanting to climb the limestone. Good thing I wasn’t there to egg you on. There are some parts of this mom thing that I still need work on.

    Obviously your dad and I are embarassingly proud of you. Love you much & miss you.

    Sunday night I read a short story from Sherman Alexie to Devon. It was brilliant, but gory. Devon loved it. I laugh at how my only child to be a fan of the Bubble is also the biggest fan of the brutal mystical reality style othat is Alexie. Sorry you werent’ here for the story, you would have liked it.

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