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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Beijing, at the Ming Tombs

After our tour to the Badaling Great Wall, we travelled for about 45 minutes in the after noon to the Ming Tombs.  Located within the suburban Changping District of Beijing,  the site is burial place of 13 emperors and 23 queens of Ming Dynasty , as well as many of the princes, concubines and maids.

The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain, enclosed by the mountains in a pristine, quiet valley full of dark earth, tranquil water was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. According to the fengshui principles, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped valley area at the foot of the mountains was chosen. The Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum here, nemed the Changling Tomb.

The succeeding twelve emperors had their resting places built around Changling during the next 230 years, covering a total area of over 120 square kilometers. This is the best preserved mausoleum area with the most emperors buried.

Known for its trade expansion to the outside world that established cultural ties with the West, the Ming Dynasty is also remembered for its drama, literature and world-renowned porcelain.

The Ming Dynasty saw a publishing boom in China, with an avalanche of affordable books being produced for commoners. Reference books were popular, as well as religious tracts, primary school  books, Confucian literature and civil service examination guides. It was during the Ming Dynasty that full-length novels began to grow in popularity. Many books were adaptations of ancient story cycles that had been part of oral traditions for centuries.

One of the best-loved exports of the Ming Dynasty was its porcelain. The Ming dynasty saw an extraordinary period of innovation in ceramic manufacture.  Created by grinding china-stone, mixing it with china-clay and then baking until translucent, the technique was developed during the Tang Dynasty, but perfected in the Ming era. Though various colors might be featured on a piece, the classic Ming porcelain was white and blue.

Source : Wikipedia

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Beijing, at the Great Wall

There are so many things said and written about the Great Wall of China, which express the greatness of the Great Wall.  It derives fame from the countless works of poetry, folk literature, theater, movies and stories written about it by rulers, soldiers, literati, artists and poets.

Even the famous writer Franz Kafka wrote a short story in 1917 about the Great Wall. In his style, he questioned why did the emperor order the construction of the wall, against whom was the wall to provide protection, and why did emperor instructed the wall to be built in sections, rather than continuous ?

He wrote that the wall was built to protect the people from the people of the north, although  there was no real threat from people of the north. The north people are decribed as devils, pictured with their mouths flung open, the sharp pointed teeth stuck in their jaws, their straining eyes, which seem to be squinting for someone to seize, whom their jaws will crush and rip to pieces. When children are naughty, the parents hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into their parents.  The chinese people know nothing else about the northern lands. They have never seen them, and if they remain in their village, they never will see the people of north.  

So, Kafka suggested that the construction of this magnificent Great Wall was based on rumor to create fear of a false enemy. Written in 1917, Kafka would have known that the people of north, the Monggols, the Manchurians, did attack the Chinese several times. But the attacks happened  hundreds of years later and Kafka wasn’t writing about history, he was writing how the people followed the instruction of the emperor although it didn’t make sense.  He wrote that they didn’t understand the enemy from the north and didn’t understand why the emperor instructed the wall to be constructed in sections, leaving gaps in the wall that could be used by enemies to penetrate into their country.  They didn’t understand it, they just followed the instruction from the emperor, or so they believed. Kafka wrote that they didn’t even know who was the reigning emperor, they only knew those emperors that had been long dead! Kafka was writing about the absurdity surrounding  the construction of the Great Wall.

Actually later on in 221BC Emperor Qin Shi Huang commanded the linking of the separate sections of the walls built by previous states. After unifying central China and establishing the Qin Dynasty the  Emperor wanted to consolidate his power and rule the country forever. He sent a fortune teller named Lu Sheng to seek for a way of immortality. After countless empty-handed returns, Lu finally brought back a rumor that Qin would be overturned by the northern nomads. Hearing that, the Emperor was so frightened that he immediately issued an order to connect the walls and extend new ramparts to guard the northern border. It is surprising to know that the decision for this huge project was made due to a rumor!

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China,  is often referred as the initiator of the Great Wall.  Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC; these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger by Emperor Qin Shi Huang , are collectively referred to as the Great Wall.
His public works projects included a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by thousands of the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC during his tour of Eastern China.

Historically, hundred os years later there were several major attacks by the Mongols and the Manchurians.  In 1554, the Mongols used ropes to climb the walls. Chinese repelled them using arrows, crude cannons, clubs and even rocks. Although a useful deterrent against raids, at several points throughout its history the Great Wall failed to stop enemies. In 1576 there was another major Mongol attack. This time they penetrated through an area so rugged and remote building a wall was not considered necessary. During this raid the Mongols killed an estimated 20,000 Chinese.  In 1644 the Manchurians under Qing dynasty marched through the gates of Shanhai Pass and replaced the most ardent of the wall-building dynasties, the Ming, as rulers of China.

The Great Wall of China visible today largely dates from the Ming dynasty, as they rebuilt much of the wall in stone and brick, often extending its line through challenging terrain. Some sections remain in relatively good condition or have been renovated, while others have been damaged or destroyed for ideological reasons, deconstructed for their building materials, or lost due to the ravages of time. For long an object of fascination for foreigners, the wall is now a revered national symbol and a popular tourist destination.

The Badaling Great Wall near Zhangjiakou is the most famous stretch of the Wall, for this is the first section to be opened to the public in China, as well as the showpiece stretch for foreign dignitaries.

Source: The Great Wall by Franz Kafka, Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beijing, at the Forbidden City

From the outside, the Forbidden City doesn’t look impressive, it looks like a fortress or a prison due to the high red coloured walls surrounding the palace. Actually, indeed the walls in the past were there to protect the Emperors from outside world, or in the case of Pu Yi, The Last Emperor, the walls isolated or imprisoned him in the Forbidden City (read also previous blog about Pu Yi).

Coming inside, it is like a completely different world, large halls, large courtyards, large gates, large space, too large to be a palace or a prison for an emperor. There are halls after halls connected with other halls through stairways, gates , bridges and courtyards. It is an impressive example of city planning that is carried out on a huge scale yet is balanced, harmonious, graceful, and beautiful.

Chinese people believe in an essential unity between the universe, humanity, and nature. The Forbidden City, was created according to these principles of benevolence, harmony, balance and stability. All of these principles represent the essence and core of Confucian thought.

The design and its layout followed the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology considering the Forbidden City as a ceremonial, ritual and living space. The lay-out considered that all activities within the city were conducted in the manner appropriate to the participants’ social and familial roles. All activities, such as imperial court ceremonies or rituals, would take place in dedicated palaces depending on the events.

The unforgettable colossal scene from the movie “The Last Emperor” by Bernardo Bertolucci, the coronation of the 3 year old Emperor Pu Yi, took place in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. After the imperial seal was imprinted on the proclamation, wearing a small yellow imperial dragon robe,  Pu Yi went out of the hall and looked into the huge courtyard beyond. Thousands of government officials and palace servants are arranged in ranks in the courtyard and in the square beyond. To rhythmic chants and commands, they all kowtow to the new emperor in a series of prostrations.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the coronation of Pu Yi  and other important ceremonies took place, is the highest and largest building in the whole city. Behind it is the Hall of Central Harmony, which is smaller and once served as the lounge for the emperor ready to hold the ceremony or be enthroned inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Behind this hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, it was used for formal functions too, and where students past various studies and examinations in the Qing Dynasty.

Keep walking forward from the Hall of Preserving Harmony and through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, and you will enter the inner court. The inner court was the family residence of the emperor and was not open to the officials or civilians of that time.

The three most important palaces are located in the inner court, named The Palace of Heavenly Purity, The Hall of Union and The Palace of Earthly Tranquility.

The Palace of Heavenly Purity was built as the emperor's principal residence, where emperors slept and worked. Beginning in the Emperor Yongzheng reign, this palace was no longer a residence. The nearby Hall of Mental Cultivation took over that function. However, it was still a venue for emperors to conduct routine government business and celebrated major festivals and rituals.

The Palace of Earthly Tranquility is the residence of the Empress, and  she held ceremonies here on the major festivals and celebrations receiving tributes. Since the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the hall was used to keep twenty-five imperial seals, each of which was designed for a certain purpose. These seals are laid in boxes which were covered with yellow silk as what they were.

The Hall of Union  symbolizes the the union of the heaven and the earth which bring peace forth.  
The hall is square in shape with a pyramidal roof. Stored here are the 25 Imperial Seals of the Qing dynasty, as well as other ceremonial items, including the clocks that set the official time in the palace.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

An Interview with Pu Yi

The impression depicted by the movie “The Last Emperor” by Bernardo Bertolucci about Pu Yi’s childhood was that of a playful, cute, and innocent boy, although a bit naughty like any other boy of his age. A three year old boy who suddenly became the Emperor of China, leaving his parents and siblings to be isolated within the walls of the Forbidden City, served by the eunuchs loyal to him. The boy who still liked to play outside was appointed to be the emperor of this great country. Imagine that!

This impression stuck in my mind until I met Pu Yi for a conversation at the Salt Tax Palace, his exile in Manchuria. When I met him as an adult the impression I got about the boy depicted by the movie suddenly disappeared. Off course, his childhood history is only a beautiful memory of his past which is a small part of his dramatic life.

His face pale, looked tired dan didn’t like to talk. He had a fixed stare behind his black-framed glasses. When we were introduced, he responded with a friendly nod. But his smile lasted only a second.

I opened the conversation:
 “Surely you still remember that day when you were picked-up from your home by the palace officials at 3 years old to be carried to the Palace.”

Pu Yi:
“On the evening of 13th November 1908, without any advance notice, a procession of eunuchs and guardsmen led by the palace chamberlain left the Forbidden City for our home to inform my father  that they were taking away his three-year-old son Pu Yi to be the new emperor. I screamed and resisted as the officials ordered the eunuch attendants to pick me up. My parents said nothing when they learned that they were losing their son. As I cried, screaming that I did not want to leave my parents, I was forced into a palanquin that took me back to the Forbidden City. My nanny Wang Wen-Chao was the only person to go with me, and she calmed me down by allowing him to suckle one of her breasts; this was the only reason she was taken along.”

I said:
“And then how was the your coronation ceremony to be the Emperor on 2nd December 1908?”

Pu Yi:
 “The ceremony was very long and tiresome, it was moreover a very cold day, so when they carried me into the Hall of Supreme Harmony and put me up on the high and enormous throne I could bear it no longer. My father who was kneeling below the throne and supporting me, told me not to fidget, but I struggled and cried, “I don’t like it here. I want to go home.” My father grew so desperate that he was puring with sweat. As the officials went on kowtowing me my cries grew louder and louder. My father tried to sooth me by saying, “Don’t cry, don’t cry; it’ll be soon finished, it’ll be soon finished.”

When the ceremony was over the officials ask each other surreptiously, “How could he say ‘It’ll be soon finshed’? What does it mean, his saying that he wanted to go home?” All these discussions took place in a very gloomy atmosphere as if these words had been a bad omen.  Some books said that these words were prophetic as within three years the Qing dynasty was in fact “finished” and the boy who wanted to go home did go home, and claimed that the officials had a presentiment of this.”

I said:
“ And then how was the situation of your abdication from throne?”

Pu Yi:
 “ After making a very poor show as emperor for three years I made a very poor show of abdicating. One incident of those last days stands out clearly in my mind. My foster mother  Empress Lung Yu was sitting on a paltform in the Mind Nurture Palace wiping her tears with a handkerchief while a fat old man knelt on a red cushion before her, tears rolling down his face. I was sitting to the right of my foster mother feeling rather bewildered and wondering why the two adults were crying. There was nobody in the room besides us three and it was very quite; the fat man was sniffing loudly while he talked and I could not understand what he was saying. If what I had been told is right, this was the occasion on which General Yuan Shi Kay directly brought up the question of abdication and to end the Qing dyansty.”

I said:
“On the 12th of February 9012 your forster mother formally proclaimed your abdication as the Empreror of China, and then China became a Repubic, and you were exclied in the Forbidden City. How did you feel?”

Pu Yi:
“It was this tiny world where I was to spent the most absurd childhood possible until I was driven out by the National Army in 1924. I called it absurd bacuse at a time when China was called a republic and when time that mankind had advanced into the 20th century I was still living the life of an emperor, breathing the dust of the 19th century.
Whenever I think of my childhood my head fills with a yellow mist. The glaced tiles were yellow, my sedna-chair was yellow, my chair cushions were yellow, the lining of my hats and clothes were yellow, the girdle round my waist was yellow, the dishes and bowls from which I ate and drank were yellow, the padded cover of the rice-gruel sauce pan, the material in which by books were covered, the window curtains, the bridle of my horse.. everything was yellow. This color, the so called “briliant yellow”, was used exclusively by the imperial household and made me feel from my earliest years that I was unique and had a “heavenly” nature different from that of everybody else.

I said:
“ That was probably why you got angry when you saw him wearing a robe with yellow inner lining, the color of Qing Dynasty, in the palace.”

Pu Yi:
“He thought the color was apricot. I said that the color was the imperial bright yellow. My brother then apologized ‘Yes Sir.. Yes Sir…’ and stood away from me with his hands on his sides. I said ‘The color is bright color, you have no right to wear it.’ ….. ‘Yes Sir…..’ he answered. With the ‘Yes Sir…” he answered me like how my servants answer me. The sound ‘Yes Sir..’ has disappeared for long time and sounds funny if I think about it.”

I said:
“A sweet memory but also bitter for you. But your chilhood wasn’t always funny and innocent as depicted in the movie ‘The Last Emperor’, I heard that since childhood you like to order flogging your eunuchs, is that true?”

Pu Yi:
“Wherever I went, grown men would kneel down in a ritual kowtow, averting their eyes until I passed. The Emperor was Divine. I could not be remonstrated with, or punished.  Flogging eunuchs was part of my daily routine. My cruelty and love of wielding power were already too firmly set for persuasion to have any effect on me.

But no account of my childhood would be complete without mentioning the eunuchs. They waited on me when I ate, dressed and slept; they accompanied me on my walks and to my lessons; they told me stories; and had rewards and beatings from me, but they never left my presence. They were my slaves; and they were my earliest teachers.”

I said:
“ But till you are an adult you treat the eunuchs as you like. You don’t trust them dan consider all of them are thieves. You obsessively went over the account books for signs of fraud. You also drastically cut back on the food allocated for your staff, who suffered from hunger.”

Pu Yi:
“They are basically all thieves, everyone, from the highest to the lowest. I found that by the end of my wedding ceremony, the pearls and jade in the empress's crown had been stolen. Locks were broken, areas ransacked, and on 27 June 1923, a fire destroyed the area around the Palace of Established Happiness. I suspected that the arson were caused by the eunuchs as they tried to cover up the extent of their theft.

 I heard that all the time the eunuchs smuggled treasures out of the palace and sold them in antique shops. I ordered an audit of the palace's collections. But before it began, the fire consumed the place.”

I said:
“Your wife, Empress Wan Rong, Western educated, is known as a woman who loved to go out dancing, play tennis, wear western clothes and make-up, listen to jazz music,  play piano , ride horses, read debauch foreign novels, write petty verses, and to socialize with her friends.”

Pu Yi:
“ I admit that I also like to buy Western goods, especially Wrigley's chewing gum, Bayer aspirin, cars, gramophone and movies. I like the new technology of cinema, I was so delighted with the movies, especially Harold Lloyd films, that I had a film projector installed in the Forbidden City despite the opposition of the eunuchs who disliked foreign technology in the Forbidden City.

Wanrong liked to go shopping with her friends, to the Central Plains, strolling the  streets, to Shunde Shihlin Ji to drink, eat,  also to Asgard saloon which had popular hair style, to the theatre to see a Mei Lanfang's "Shi Ming". She was spending money like water like she was still the empress.”

I said:
“But people say that Wan Rong complained that her life as an "empress" was extremely dull as the rules for an empress forbade her from going out dancing as she wanted, instead forcing her to spend her days in traditional rituals that she found to be meaningless, all the more so as China was a republic and her title of empress was symbolic only. Then she began to smoke opium during the exile period. Is it true?”

Pu Yi:
 “I encouraged her to do so as I found her more ‘manageable’ when she was in an opium daze. My arriage to Wanrong began to fall apart as they spent more and more time apart, meeting only at mealtimes.”

I said:
“In your autobigography “From Emperor to Citizen”  you said that one time her brother introduced her to a Japanese military officer. She subsequently had an affair with the man. And in 1935 you found out that she was when she was close to giving birth. How did you feel?”

Pu Yi:
“My feelings at that time were hard to describe, I was angry but did not want the Japanese man to know. All I could do was express this anger against her in person.“

I said:
“In the original edition of the autobiography, you wrte that after Wan Rong gave birth o a baby girl, you told her that his brother had adopted the child and insisted she make monthly payments for his upkeep. How did Wan Rong feel that time?”

Pu Yi:
 “'Until her death, she kept having the same dream, in which her child was living next to her. After the end of the war and our separation, her opium addiction worsened and her body became weaker. She died of illness in 1946.”

I said:
“And how is her baby girl?”

Pu Yi:
“The baby actually died shortly after birth………”

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Pu Yi, The Last Emperor.
Source: Authobiography “From Emperor to Citizen”, South China Morning Post, Wikipedia.