Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Modern Beijing, Old Beijing

Whew. I'm almost back to what passes for normal.

With the Beijing Olympics beginning, I thought it would be appropriate to post something on Beijing. A friend sent me this article. I've excerpted a portion below. As usual, if you'd like to see the whole article, which includes pictures, click on the title of this post.

Old greets new in modern Beijing

Sunday, August 3, 2008

(08-03) 04:00 PDT Beijing -- As the River Dragon boat chugs up the limpid Kun Yu River, the towers of new Beijing loom in the background, symbols of the Chinese capital's newfound modernity and prosperity. In the foreground, however, Old Beijing is very much alive: Elderly gentlemen dangle fishing rods in the water beneath soft-green willow trees; bathers in skimpy swimming trunks dive into the water; middle-aged ladies atop the riverbank make courtly dance steps to recorded ballroom music.

Old Beijing is slower, quieter and more culturally conservative than the glittering metropolis now anxiously putting the finishing touches on its preparations for the Olympic Games, which start Friday. Just as new Beijing is eager to impress the world, old Beijing is content to take tea, go about its business in traditional courtyard houses, talk things over and watch the world go by.

Old Beijing is not necessarily ancient. With 1,100 years of history, it is young compared with Athens, Rome or Jerusalem, and virtually no traces of Kublai Khan's 10th century capital survive here. Outdoor ballroom dancing, embraced as a form of morning exercise, dates only to the 20th century. Even the oldest sections of the Summer Palace, where the River Dragon is headed and where the emperor used to take his court in the beastly heat of summer, date from 1750 - fairly young by Old World standards.

But the vestiges of old Beijing that survive among the car-clotted 12-lane expressways, the throbbing discos, the mammoth shopping malls and the rowdy expat bars seem as if they've always been there. They do not endure in splendid isolation - as do major antiquities outside Beijing, such as the Great Wall or the Ming Tombs - but stand amid the high-rises and neon of the new city of 15 million.

The Summer Palace, on man-made Kunming Lake, is a popular green park near high-tech corporate campuses and elite universities. It seems to have nothing in common with its up-to-the-minute neighbors. Walkways lined with willows, stone buildings made to last, steeply arched bridges, pagoda-crowned hills, the half-mile Long Corridor covered promenade that connects imperial pavilions, the elaborately carved marble replica of a steamboat at the water's edge - they are more than the sum of their parts. Popular with both Beijingers and visitors, the Summer Palace rarely feels touristy.

On a warm morning, squadrons of uniformed schoolchildren scampered where emperors, court eunuchs and concubines once strolled. The children were having a grand time, unwrapping snacks and sipping bottled water. "They come here to have a picnic with their schoolteachers," explained Beijing guide Mandy Lu. "It happens every spring and fall. It's a tradition. It's meant to give the children a day off and let them enjoy themselves with their teachers."

Near the marble boat was a cozy bookstore with a small selection of English-language books. Also on hand were evocative photo books with black-and-white views of the Summer Palace when it was a royal retreat. After the 1949 revolution, the Communist government threw the grounds open to the public and installed the bookstore. Before that, it was a teahouse favored by the Empress Dowager Cixi, remembered today as something of a Wicked Witch of the North, and memorably portrayed as such in the Bernardo Bertolucci film "The Last Emperor." Another book on sale is "From Emperor to Citizen," the autobiography of Puyi, the boy ruler who was dethroned in 1911 and evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924.

The Forbidden City

The monumental, institutional side of old Beijing is best represented by the Forbidden City - officially, the Palace Museum, a national historic site.

Unlike the Summer Palace, there is no placid water approach to the Forbidden City, though it is easily reached on the subway from the Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West stations. Otherwise, visitors must fight their way through Beijing's increasingly epic traffic jams along Chang'an Avenue, the city's main east-west artery.

Historic Beijing was built along a north-south axis and designed to be a harmonious, geometric work of art. Much of that visionary urbanism has been lost, but in the Forbidden City, Beijing retains its historic air of grandeur.

Although it is nearly always swarmed by tourists trailing guides, their triangular flags and parasols held aloft, the Forbidden City cannot fail to impress. Dating from 1417, the place is vast. Courtyard after courtyard, historic pavilion after historic pavilion, dignified stone lions and gleaming marble staircases, the whole surrounded by a high wall and a moat, it is rivaled among big Asian antiquities only by Bangkok's otherworldly Imperial Palace and Cambodia's moldering Ankor Wat.

Even before you enter, the Forbidden City commands attention. The high balcony just in front of the palace grounds, from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, is fronted by a large portrait of The Great Helmsman himself. This is the very heart of what the West used to call Red China, when foreign media variously called the city Peking, Peiping, even Beiping.

Most of Old Beijing easily predates Red China, of course. Tiananmen Square hosts the kitschy, creepy Mao Mausoleum, which displays the embalmed body of the former leader, who died in 1976. But this windy, flat concrete expanse was, in earlier, smaller incarnations, a vibrant center of political life. Mao expanded the square by knocking down many of the twisty, funky alleyways and rambling compounds that bordered the south side of Tiananmen. Colorful fragments survive, with their crowded streets, and vertical signs overhanging narrow passageways.

During the 1960s, in a successful push to expand the physical limits of his growing capital, Mao demolished the city walls; today the second ring road hums where the walls used to stand guard. Mao's business-minded successors unleashed bulldozers to further modernize the city, first demolishing, then radically rebuilding it.

Fortunately, some major monuments escaped the wrecker's ball. So, too, have a handful of neighborhoods in the heart of the city that are essential to old Beijing.

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