Sunday, September 30, 2007

Journey to China: The Summer Palace

[Temple embellishment-The Summer Palace, Beijing]

Mr Li met me at Beijing International Airport. There were perhaps one thousand cardboard signs held by one thousand greeters, each with a thousand distinct names written in black marker. It took ten minutes to find mine. The fourteen hour plane trip melted away as a renewed jolt of adrenaline shot through my bones. It is nice to arrive as a guest in a foreign land...

Mr. Li took my bag and negotiated a taxi into the city. Crowded freeways heaved under the strain of congestion and sleek office towers reached the heavens. As far as I could see, endless forests of construction cranes filled the sky. Beijing is growing. Beijing is expanding. Beijing is not fooling.

In the backseat of the Taxi, Mr Li was full of questions for me.
"What is your opinion of China? What area of art is your expertise? Are you hungry? Feeling tired?"

Soon we were discussing my impressions of the architecture, the traffic, the color of the afternoon air, the smells of spicy food from a passing street vendor... The thrill of travel is often simply the perception of simple things as being novel, beautiful and magical. So it was when the taxi finally reached our hotel , snug in Haidian district, the University district of Beijing.

In two days I would be lecturing about how art changes lives at The International Conference on the Comparison of Chinese and Western Art Education. For the time being, I would need to sleep. My hotel room was waiting.

After checking in and crashing on the bed for an hour, Mr. Li awoke me. It was dinner time.
Eating in China is so constant a theme, and so important an aspect of life that one of the common greetings in China is: "Have you eaten yet?" Our party of art professors and translators met in the lobby and we walked west to a lavish former royal garden residence of a Qing dynasty prince that had been turned into a kind of fantastic theme restaurant called "Bai Jia Da Yuan"

[The garden setting and costumed servers of the Bai Jia Da Yuan]

The jaw-droppingly picturesque restaurant promotes their establishment with the following lines:

"...When you go into Restaurant of Family Bai, you will hear the leisurely ancient music, lingering and reverberating, and smell the fragrance of flowers and grass permeating in the air. By a squatting down ( ancient form of etiquette) and a saying of " Nin Ji Xiang" ( ancient greeting, meaning " Good Luck to You" or " Welcome "), the " maid of honor " holding a silk handkerchief in the hand, will lead you into this poetic and picturesque wonderland. Architecture of the Qing Dynasty, garden of the Qing Dynasty, habiliments of the Qing Dynasty, etiquette of the Qing Dynasty, music of the Qing Dynasty, caterings of the Qing Dynasty .. The impressive cultural atmosphere of the Qing Dynasty, all will take you back into the history 300 years ago."

It was time for my first meal on Chinese soil.

The meal was a sumptuous banquet. We were served Peking duck, shrimp, whitefish, sea cucumber, wine and a dozen rice, vegetable and fruit dishes. Did I mention the wine? Toasts to our new friends, toasts from our new friends, toasts to the arts, our respective nations and the beauty of the evening contributed to my swooning feeling of excitement and joy. I learned that I would have a full day in Beijing to myself before the train trip to the conference , and I eagerly chose to see The Summer Palace.

The true name of the Summer Palace is Yíhé Yuán; literally "Garden of Nurtured Harmony." begun in 1750, it was a vast garden built by the Emperor, who wished to have a retreat from the Forbidden City.
Destroyed by Invading French troops in 1860 and again by French British and American forces in 1900, the Summer Palace was rebuilt by the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi who used funds earmarked for the Chinese navy to carry out her plan starting in 1903. (The vision of this stunning place burning twice under the pompous hands of Anglo-Allied powers was haunting and horrific to me.)

The next morning , Mr. Li Xiujian joined me as guide, and friend to the Summer Palace.

[The steep steps leading up longevity hill to the temple of the fragrant Buddha at the Summer Palace.]

[The view from the top of the steps, looking back down over Kunming lake.]

[The old and very modern collide. A view of Beijing in the distance...]

[My airport greeter and translator, the charming and highly educated Mr Li Xiujian.]

[Yours truly, posing with a lion-dragon at the base of the famed 17 arch bridge.]

This stunning 150 meter long bridge was built in 1750 by the Qing Emperor Qian Long. The bridge is constructed of 17 arches. The number 17 is based upon the use of Chinese numerology.
The number eight is symbolic of luck and wealth . Nine is considered the most auspicious for Emperors. The largest arch in the span of the bridge is the ninth, symbolizing the Emperor, with the remaining sixteen arches being split: eight arches on each side...

There are 544 carved stone lions along the railings.

[Travel back in time across the lake on one of the dragon boats...]

[The Grand Pavilion]

[Standing in the center of the pavilion, and looking straight up...]

After walking through innumerable palatial residential structures and courtyards, we found ourselves funneling towards the eastern entrance of the "Long Corridor".

The Long Corridor, it is said, was built by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty in order that his mother might safely walk by the lake shore without the inconvenience of having the sun shine upon her pale complexion...

It is the agreement among scholars and bedazzled tourists alike that at the top of all classical Chinese corridors must be listed the "Long Corridor" at Beijing's Summer Palace. By any standards, ( artistic, architectural, or for sheer ostentaciousness), the Long Corridor is a force to be rekconed with. A seemingly delicate structure of 728 meters, it stretches its 273 bays between the hill and the lake, broken at even intervals by four octagonal pavilions, each honoring the four seasons of the calendar year. Upon all of it's beams, and upon every square inch of it's visible surface are vibrant hand-created paintings featuring full-colored images of poetic landscapes, mythological and traditional human figures, floral motifs, exotic and domestic birds and scenes reflecting historical battles and popular folk stories.

These paintings total more than 40,000 in number. Mathematically, a focused and captivated visitor would need eight hours simply to linger two seconds before each individual picture.

My guide Mr Lee was an avid student of the stories and characters depicted in the decorative panels, and I got a detailed rundown of the major stories and symbolic motifs that were represented.

[ A portion of the seemingly endless Long Corridor]

[A final view of the Temple of the Fragrant Buddha.]