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Ancient China in Modern Beijing

Back in Beijing, the girl playing the ancient “xun” instrument inside the main hall of the Confucius temple is playing “Old Lang Syne” to attract buyers. Outside the hall are long rows of stone steles with the names of Ming and Ch’ing Dynasty scholars. These men spent much of their lives preparing for and taking a series of incredibly difficult examinations to become chinshih, the highest award granted. (their diligent study of ethics and philosophy would ill prepare them for the encroachments of Western military might.) Chinese characters in one of the stones reads:

The Emperor Ch’ien Lung began to have the following 155 names carved in this stone during the 45th year of his reign, 5th month, 10th day (1781)

I lean closer to read the names.

Li Kwang Shih, from the county of Chi Ning in Shantung province Wang Lin, from Liu Ho prefecture south of the Yangtze

But the stones appear abandoned, some are in disrepair and almost all have small bugs irreverently crawling over the names. I think of the pride of these men, of their families and of their villages. The jubilation, the triumph, the rejoicing. Part of a way of life and of a dynastic cycle which has passed forever. As I pass between the long rows of carved, silent stones, I can just make out the faint sounds of “Old Lang Syne.”

There is also a clinic inside this temple and I happily chat with a middle-aged doctor who explains that there are 27 kinds of pulse, each indicating what is right and wrong with the body. She shows me a kind of twig that resembles a plant in winter and an insect in summer. A perfect symbol, I think, of how the West has viewed the ever-changing mosaic of China over the centuries.

At this temple are also rows of beautifully formed Chinese calligraphy and I remember the dynastic story of the two Chinese generals and their armies facing one another. One of the generals wrote a note to the other suggesting that to avoid bloodshed between men of honor, he surrender to him. It is said that when the general read the note, he could discern from the strength and beauty of the characters that his opponent had far greater character than he and he surrended his army on the spot. As for thousands of years, Chinese have practiced their characters to improve their character” the story rings true. I try to think of Ulysses S. Grant surrendering his army to General Lee because of Lee’s penmanship. Or Westmoreland. Or Powell. No. Some things work only in China.

My favorite temples, though, are the Taoist. Thoroughly disliked by everyone from the Tang Dynasty’s Confucian Judge Dee to Mao Tse-tung, I enjoy their laid-back, irreverent and even sensual atmosphere. Thick streams of incense curl up beside colorful drawings of very lifelike gods and goddesses and victims undergoing imaginative tortures. A man in a painting has a wooden square around his neck known as a cangue. It is so wide that it prevents him from reaching his mouth with his hands and he must rely on others for food. Along with defeated politicians and bankers convicted of embezzlement, he will soon find out who his real friends are.


Eureka! A discovery! The McDonalds’s south of South Gate has a squat toilet in the men’s room. I don’t know exactly why that makes me happy; but it does. Where warlord armies once assembled and where Red Guard factions once fought there now exists Minder’s Cafe, Flower City Music Cafe, Car Wash Cafe and Cafe Cafe, but still, the McDonalds south of South Gate has a squat toilet in the men’s room. Some piece of tradition to hang on to.

This particular outlet also sells beautiful blue-and-gold T-shirts with the McDonald arch and the Forbidden City and five Chinese characters which mean “Beijing McDonalds.” Wait! I’m not really going to demean myself by buying a McDonald’s Beijing T-shirt, am I? I buy two. After all, I figure it is only a matter of time before the rapidly growing McDonalds’s chain in China will join the Great Wall as the only man-made structure on earth supposedly visible from Outer Space. And when I return to Hong Kong, I will swap one of the T-shirts for a Time magazine T-shirt with Chairman Mao on it. Yes, Time has come a long way also.


“He who has not climbed the Great Wall cannot be counted as a real man. And he who has not viewed true peking opera at Zheng Yi Ci may live to regret it.” This, along with a painting of a character from Chinese opera, is painted on the wall of a small lane near the beautifully renovated late Ming Dynasty temple now serving as a Chinese opera theater. Whether the painted words are meant as a threat or as a statement of fact, I’m not sure, but the performances here are among China’s best. During intermission, I spot a cryptic notice that among the service items available is “the karaoke of Beijing opera.” Some things are best left to the imagination.

But then I notice a photograph of four men on the wall which captures my attention so completely I am almost late for the second half of the show. It is a 1960 picture of Chairman Mao shaking hands with the great opera female impersonator Mei Lan-fang, the talented playwright, T’ien Han, and the famous writer, Lao She. All are smiling broadly as Chairman Mao shakes Lao She’s hand. The caption does not speak of their fates. It does not mention how during the “Great Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76, the “ten years of turmoil” in which China devoured itself, T’ien Han was tortured and died in prison; Lao She, no longer able to stand the fury of the Red Guards, drowned himself in a lake. Only Mei Lan-fang escaped such a fate by dying in 1961, before the worst of the madness began. But something about the fate of those men made me decide that during my last full day in China I would visit lesser known attractions now serving as small museums: the homes of Mei Lan-fang, Lu Hsun and Soong Ching-ling.

Lu Hsun, who died in 1936, was China’s greatest modern writer, and the few rooms open to public scrutiny reveal how simply he lived. His pictures clearly portray one of those sensitive faces that immediately reveals his artistic soul. What impresses me most about Mei Lan-fang’s house is the inscription on the fan presented to him by Rabindranath Tagore in 1924:

You are veiled, my beloved, in a language I do not know

As a hill that appears like a cloud behind its mist.

For me, however, it is Soong Ching-ling who holds the most interest. The widow of Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of Modern China,” and the only one of the three famous Soong sisters who stayed on under Communist rule. I walk through the rooms scanning her pictures as she evolves from the delicate, croquet-playing bride of Dr. Sun into the portly, sharp-eyed, representative of China’s rubber stamp parliament. Again, the captions reveal little. There is nothing about her inner turmoil, her arguments with Mao Tse-tung, her passionate love for her male secretary and the danger she faced from the Red Guards which forced Chou En-lai himself to intervene to protect her.

I spot a photograph of Dr. Sun and his young wife surrounded by loyal Chinese soldiers on board a steamer commemorating their escape from one of China’s many warlords. But every historical Chinese photograph has at least one untold story and in this one I spot the head of none other than the flamboyant Two-Gun Cohen, the British/Canadian/Jewish bodyguard of Sun Yat-sen. A man who once saved Sun Yat-sen’s life and the life of Chiang Kai-shek. A man whose actions may have changed Chinese and, hence, world history. A man who, not unlike so many others in China’s long historical tapestry, has himself faded into history.


A potpourri of facts gleaned from Beijing papers during my stay: The city has 11 million people; most adults are smokers despite the new ban on smoking in public places and the 85,000 people mobilized to enforce the “Kick Butts Campaign;” a small number of sea burials have begun as a means of combating the soaring prices for burial ground in the city; Chinese authorities have banned articles discussing the 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution as conclusions might hurt the Party’s image; China is still the largest bicycle producer in the world with 470 million bicycles in the country; Beijing’s famous shopping street, Wangfujing, now has new pay-to-use, automatic, odor-free, non-flush toilets; because of construction of hotels and plazas and destruction of courtyands and hutongs (narrow lanes), Beijingers don’t find their way around town as easily as before; the Liberation Daily is complaining about “advertisements featuring blonde-haired, blue-eyed people…as if a product that has been accepted by foreigners must be good;” foreign agents of the music, film and software industries who lead Chinese authorities to illegal shipments of pirated goods are in danger of being prosecuted for “illegal surveillance.” And, in the provinces, thunder editorials indignantly, a huge amount of garbage from the United States has been uncovered. As a new Yorker, I am well aware of New York’s history of sending its unmanageable, overflowing garbage outside the state by barge, train, truck, whatever, and, during my last few days in the country, I decide to keep a low profile. After all, those no-fat, low sodium pretzel bags and back issues of Village Voice might be traced directly to me.

Well, then, Beijing – sprawling, dusty, fascinating without being in any way charming, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter – what and whither? I would not be so foolish as to predict anything beyond the most mundane observations. Beijing, like so much of Asia, has transformed frm a romantic adventure for foreign travelers into an engine of a powerhouse economy. There will be fewer budget travelers and more luxury hotels, more plazas, more discos. More bicycle and automobile traffic will continue to ignore more crosswalks. More joint ventures. More threats of tariffs. More cultural misunderstandings. Fewer heated discussions of ideology and more heated towel rails. More prickly relations with the West in which a little sediment of pulp is to be expected.

But as the experts on China say: there are no experts on China, only varying degrees of ignorance. So perhaps it is best to close by quoting the wise preface to the great fourteenth century Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of Chairman Mao’s favorite books: “Here begins our tale – The empire being divided must unite; being united, must divide. It has always been thus.”

Dean Barrett

Dean Barrett is an author, playwright and master sinologist.