Our first visit to China took place exactly three years ago and included a trip to Beijing to see my nephew and his partner, by then old China hands. By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago we again travelled to the capital, on business for Fintan and for leisure for me. It was our last journey within China before we leave and it was an opportunity to reflect on our China adventure.
Roses grow in profusion in Beijing, often and counter-intuitively trained along metal fences in the middle of the multi-lane highways, and they were once again at their best in the middle of May. Despite my fears of heavy pollution, the air was clear and blue sky was in evidence. Apparently a few coal-fired power stations have been closed down in response to concerns about the environment, and the effect has been significant.
I had plenty of time to myself, and arranged to meet a fellow student from my MA course, now living in Beijing and taking an intensive Mandarin language course before starting work at the Beijing office of the FT. A simple idea to meet up with someone, but something I could not have contemplated when we first came. Then, I was a passive recipient of our hosts’ kindness and knowledge of the city. I remember the awe I felt when my nephew’s girlfriend spoke Chinese to the driver, and the feeling of helplessness as we gazed at the gigantic monuments and seething crowds in Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. The idea of being able to navigate comfortably around such a vast place seemed a pipe dream.
Yet there I was, Beijing Metro card in hand, confidently planning a couple of days of sightseeing on my own, looking for a small café in a hutong (small street) to meet my friend, occasionally asking locals for directions and thoroughly at ease.
I focused on a small area north of the city centre which I hadn’t seen on my previous trips. I wanted to see the Tibetan Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College. Fintan has since been reading about the looting of Tibet for cultural artefacts by British soldiers and colonists in the 19th century. During the Opium Wars the Lama Temple was a convenient base for reaching the Summer Palace, further out of Beijing to the northwest, from whence more stuff was stolen. However, this dark past was not in evidence on a sunny May morning and I simply enjoyed the gold encrusted complex of buildings central to Tibetan Buddhism, and refreshed my visual memory of the distinctive colours of Beijing’s religious and imperial buildings – turquoise, blue, terracotta, amber and gold.
After lunch I found the Confucius Temple and the adjoining Imperial College, a series of buildings set in quiet gardens with fish-filled ponds and big, graceful cypress trees. Rows of about 200 grey, imposing stone tablets listed the names of all the men who had passed the fiendishly difficult imperial exams which allowed them to become administrators – or mandarins. The Hall of Discipline displayed the stocks, handcuffs and ropes used to punish young men who were not studying to the required levels. The entire known works of Confucius were carved on another set of stele – now forming an awe inspiring corridor of stone.
In the middle of its rapacious embrace of capitalism, China seems to be undergoing a revival of reverence for Confucius, as could be seen by the bus loads of tourists in identical orange caps making their way to the statue of the great man. They followed young tour leaders who gave their spiel through amplified loudspeakers, destroying any tranquillity one might have been hoping for.
The most striking element of the whole complex was the late 18th century triple arch that marked the entrance, decorated in imperial colours with ceramic tiles, reliefs of the imperial dragon and inscriptions written in the Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy. Visitors filmed each other jumping through each arch, leaping and whooping with excitement. The purpose of the arch is to glorify an educational institution – the Imperial College.
It is easy to become disillusioned with China and to focus on its downsides – the crowds, the traffic, the spitting, pollution, not to say the infantilising of the population by the government. But, like those exuberant visitors, somehow my spirit was lifted by the notion of building a triumphal arch, not to celebrate the suppression of other nations in the Roman style, but to champion the importance of learning. And for me the last three years have been about learning, in particular learning a difficult language, but also learning about a new culture. It’s all been voluntary of course – I haven’t faced painful punishments when my grammar has been substandard, and it’s not been about proving myself to a watchful parent as a callow youth, rather I’ve tried to show that even the over 60s can enjoy new intellectual challenges.
Our belongings are pretty much packed and the shipping company’s agent has been to size up our goods. We will soon be gone and our China ‘gap’ years will be over. I think this will probably be my last blog, so thank you for reading it and for the comments you have posted. The interaction has been hugely encouraging and I hope I have been able to share something of our experience here.