Visiting Confucius Hometown

A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to Qufu, the hometown of one of China’s greatest philosophers, Confucius. Confucius was a philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period. I first heard about Confucius at the age of 12 when my parents returned from a trip to China, having spent two days in Qufu studying Confucian thought. Until I went to Qufu, I figured pretty much everyone in the world had at least heard of Confucius, being one of the most famous Chinese philosophers and all. As it turns out, westerners either haven’t heard of him, or just aren’t that interested in visiting his hometown. In Qufu I got as many stares from people, on account of being a foreigner, as I normally get in small villages in China.

[singlepic id=156 w=320 h=240 float=left]In Qufu there are three major sites: the Confucian temple; the family mansion occupied by his descendants after Confucian thought became the basis of Chinese society and the basis on which emperors maintained power. There’s also the wooded graveyard where Confucius and many of his descendants are buried. I got a part-English, part-Mandarin tour of the Confucian temple, from a 76th generation descendant of the man himself. That was good Mandarin practice for me, and my guide’s English competence meant that I could get clarification on anything I didn’t understand. It seems Confucius has provided well for his descendants. They have a whole city to themselves with an endless supply of domestic tourists. Who says studying philosophy doesn’t pay? Bill Gates will never be able to provide this kind of endless economic opportunity to his descendants.

Though Confucian thought originated in China, I don’t think there’s much of it left here. It was exported from China a long time ago, to neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan. It still remains strong in those countries, but as a result of the Cultural Revolution in China, it’s just not that strong anymore. My tour guide at the temple told me of how the majority of the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. One of the tablets that was not destroyed had a red mark on it, placed there by a student, indicating that this particular tablet should not be destroyed. The reason he marked it as such, was because that tablet was written by an emperor who had grown up as a farmer. During the communist days, farmers and labourers were held up as the most important members of society. That that one tablet was not destroyed seemed a bit random to me. Why save it, just because it was written by a former farmer turned emperor? Sounds like typical ideologically-driven thinking to me and also sounds like it could have gone either way, as mobs roamed through the Confucian temple.

[singlepic id=155 w=320 h=240 float=right]Then I started to wonder. How did that student, in the middle of all the destruction, come to mark that tablet and save it from destruction? He or she was obviously educated enough to know what the tablet meant. As someone who was educated, he risked being a target of the mobs destroying things during the Cultural Revolution, not a participant. Who was this person? Did he agree with what was going on, but also think this tablet deserved to be saved? Or was he participating because he had no choice, but when he saw the opportunity to save a piece of history, he took it? Was there a debate among the students at the time about the merits of saving something written by a feudal emperor praising Confucius, given that they were trying to destroy both feudalism and Confucian thought? Did that student get denounced as a counter-revolutionary because of his suggestion? Did he survive the Cultural Revolution? I bet there are a lot of stories like this, with anonymous actors and unanswered questions, throughout China and throughout history.

[singlepic id=173 w=320 h=240 float=left]Among the notable sights at the Confucian temple are the ten dragon pillars. In imperial China nobody except the emperor could claim to have any affiliation with dragons. Not only were there ten dragon pillars in the Confucian temple, but they were considered to be even more elaborate than anything in the Forbidden City. Any time an emperor came to visit (and several did, some of them several times) the pillars were covered up, so that nobody would wind up losing their heads.

In the evening, back at my hostel, I found they stocked a bottle of fine French liquor called Pernod. I’ve rarely seen good liquor in hostel bars, and I never seen Pernod anywhere. I guess the Confucians have good taste. However, I had to teach the bar tender how to serve it. I sat there that evening, in the hometown of Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, drinking French liquor and talking to my friends online. The next morning I took a bus to Jinan, and then the bullet train back to Beijing.

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Flowers in Beijing

It’s spring in Beijing, so it’s the season when people love to go to the local park to see flowers in bloom. There are two particularly notable flowers blooming in Beijing. The first is the Japanese Cherry Blossom. The other is the Peonie which is, unofficially, China’s national flower. A few weeks ago I went to Yuyuantan Park to see the Cherry Blossoms in bloom, and more recently I went to Jingshan Park (just north of the Forbidden City, and the site where the last Ming Emperor hung himself) to see the Peonies in bloom. I arrived a bit too early for the Cherry Blossoms and a bit too late for the Peonies, but what can you do? I still saw a lot of beautiful flowers.

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Announcing the New Chinese Blog

Lotus has just launched a Chinese-language blog to accompany its newly revamped Chinese website. It’s called 美国Lotus教育基金会中文博客, which simply means Lotus Educational Foundation Chinese Blog. Maybe we should start a competition here on the English blog to come up with a more creative name for the Chinese blog.

In case you’re wondering, our Chinese website is targeted at students and host families here in China. It provides information on hosting foreign students in China, as well as information on Lotus newly launched program, for Chinese students to study English in the United States over the summer.

If you think your Mandarin is up to the challenge, we invite you to join the discussion on our other blog (but don’t abandon us here at the English blog!) and see what staff and others at Lotus in Beijing are up to these days.

Lotus Springtime Staff Outing

Lotus staff took the day off on Monday to go visit some of Beijing’s rural areas. Staff have been working feverishly for the past two months preparing for Lotus summer programs in Beijing, as well as introducing a new program for Chinese students to study English in the US while living with a local host family. It was a much needed break which included staff, some members of the board, interns, and family.

We rose early in the morning (most of us anyway) and headed out to Mentougou (门头沟) in the mountains northwest of Beijing. There are a couple of folk villages there, including one with walls dating from the Ming Dynasty. We also went for a leisurely hike in a small valley in the areas. Well, it’s small by my standards, since I’m from a city near the Rocky Mountains in Canada.

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Up to the Mountain

Longquan Temple

[singlepic id=87 w=320 h=240 float=right]It seems that a lot of religions have stories about mountains. Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, the Yellow Emperor studied Daoism at Qingcheng Mountain (there are an awful lot of holy mountains in China), and who doesn’t love to build a monastery or a retreat house in the mountains? This story, which is long overdue, is about three days I spent at Longquan Temple at Phoenix Mountain (凤凰岭自然风景公园), northwest of Beijing.

Lonquan Temple (龙泉寺) is a Buddhist temple that dates from the Liao Dynasty. These days it’s a lot bigger than it was back then. Recently a lot of new buildings have been added and more are planned. It’s a kind of modern monastery. The current abbot runs a translation centre, translating his own writings into various languages for global consumption. There seems to be an active evangelism component to the mission of Longquan, though the extent of this mission is not quite clear to me. Longquan Temple maintains an active online presence through a blog, and a network of volunteers using QQ (a Chinese social networking site and popular chat client). It also has a well-equipped media room for audio and video production.

New Year’s Eve

I went up to Longquan (or up to the mountain, as everyone who goes there says) at the suggestion of my colleague Holly. Holly is a big fan of the abbot and the work they do there. It was Chinese New Year, and I had nowhere else to go. Honestly, my preference was to spend some time with friends, setting off firecrackers and drinking baijiu (a Chinese liquor), but that plan didn’t work out. Holly told me the monastery would be ‘bustling’ for the Chinese New Year. I very much doubted her. In fact, I was right, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun or interesting.

Holly and I went up the mountain together on New Year’s Eve (that was February 2). Lonquan was hosting a “Multi-lingual Dharma Assembly” during the week-long New Year holiday. She told me I could go up there to volunteer and to recite the Sutras in my own language. I wasn’t terribly interested in reciting the Sutras, but I did think volunteering for a few days would be fun. That way I could do some manual labour and wouldn’t have to stress about my day job or my studies. I was assigned to the kitchen (大寮) which suited me quite fine.

[singlepic id=62 w=320 h=240 float=left]As usual with many new experiences, on arrival I just had to follow the crowd. Bow when they bow, clap when they clap, etc. I basically had no idea what was going on for about six hours. There was a New Year’s Eve show put on, with various short skits about living the Buddhist life, singing, musical performances, a speech by the abbot, and a year-in-review video of the monastery’s activities over the past year. At the end of the festivities, we recited a Buddhist text as the clock struck midnight. Then we all received our lucky money from the abbot as we went outside. Outside everyone had their chance to ring the temple bell for good luck in the new year. From Phoenix Mountain there is a great view of Beijing, and there were fireworks going off everywhere across the entire city.

A note about fireworks in Beijing. I was told fireworks and firecrackers are banned inside the fifth ring road in Beijing, due to population density and fire hazards. The fifth ring road encloses most of the city. Outside that there’s a sixth and maybe seventh ring road. However the term “ban” is relative in China. Whatever ban there may or may not be, nobody cares. There are fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, every day of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, even up to the first morning back at work. You might as well say the Communist Party is banned in Beijing. It’s complete nonsense.

After taking my turn at ringing the bell and watching fireworks for a while, I went back into the monastery and chatted to a few people for a bit. I met Hongmei, who was in charge of the kitchen. She wasn’t actually who I was told to find, and I never did find my kitchen contact the whole time I was there, but I did get where I needed to be. Hongmei told me the wake up call would be at 4 AM and work starts at 4:30 AM. I found my bunk in what looked like a gymnasium turned into sectioned dormitories. My dorm had at least 40 beds. Others were bigger. I think I got to bed after 1AM that first night.

The Monks Run a Tight Ship

[singlepic id=76 w=320 h=240 float=right]On the first morning, someone’s alarm sounded at 3 AM. Then he put it on snooze and it sounded again at 3:15 AM. If you know me, you know I don’t like to be disturbed in the morning hours before my planned time to get up. The Chinese philosophy is that “early to bed and early to rise” is good for your health. Fine, I can go along with that, but how healthy do I really need to be? Isn’t 4 AM early enough?

I made my way to the kitchen at 4:30 AM as directed. I wasn’t actually doing any cooking, I was working under Hongmei doing food preparation. We’d retrieve vegetables from the various food stores around the monastery, clean them, chop them, and then deliver them to the chefs for the next meal. We were always preparing food one meal in advance. So at 4:30 in the morning we were preparing the food for lunch. At any given time there were between four and twenty people working on food preparation. I always seemed to be in an awkward position with work assignments. First of all, my Mandarin is mediocre at best so giving me instructions isn’t that easy, and second, I don’t think anyone ever expected to see a white man do manual labour, so they were afraid I’d injure myself or something.

The monks run a massive kitchen operation. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like: organized, logical and efficient. Hongmei ran a tight show as head of food preparation. There are huge pantries and food stores all over the monastery and it has its own tofu-making facility. The kitchen is a full industrial kitchen except it has no dishwashers. Dish washing is all done by hand. The monk in charge of the kitchen, who I really liked, told me that the monastery acts as a place of refuge in case of emergency. They have their own water supply from a spring in the mountain and their own farm at another location. Though there is electricity there, the stoves are wood-fired. I believe the monastery can support 1000 people without any outside resources, and there were about 800 there during the Chinese New Year holiday.

[singlepic id=74 w=320 h=240 float=left]I spent most of the day in the kitchen. At some point Hongmei told me they would need help distributing food at meal time. I wound up doing this every meal time for the next few days, and I quite enjoyed it. I had to do a quick study in hand signals. At meal time we’re not allowed to talk. If you want more or less of some food being distributed, you have to indicate what you want with a hand signal, and the guy distributing food (me) needs to know what you’re talking about. Food is distributed in large buckets. By the way, the food is fantastic. I’m not vegetarian but these were the tastiest vegetarian meals I’ve ever had.

Food distribution was an interesting experience. In China, people sometimes ignore all the rules (see above, about fireworks) and sometimes they queue up and follow instructions military (communist?) style. This was more of the latter. The food servers worse blue aprons and a white hat. There was a young man in charge who lined us up and marched us up to the dinning hall. We lined up all the buckets and he assigned each person a bucket to distribute and told us which rows in the dining hall we were responsible for feeding. He then said a prayer and we all went to work. When we were not distributing food we were supposed to be standing neatly in a line by the wall waiting for further instructions. We were not allowed to engage in idle chit-chat. Distributing food to a few hundred men only served to make me famous. Before that I was the white guy mysteriously doing manual labour in the kitchen, and only known to whoever else might have been working in the kitchen. Now I was the white guy mysteriously serving other people.

[singlepic id=86 w=320 h=240 float=left]Meal times are also interesting because they’re gender-separated. I believe everything is gender-separated at the monastery, not just the dormitories, but also meal times and prayer and scripture reading times too. We all worked together in the kitchen though. As a consequence of the gender separation, from New Year’s Eve, when we all went out to ring the bell, I didn’t see Holly again until we both returned to work in Beijing. In fact, she left the monastery before me and I didn’t even know she was gone.

The Abbot of Longquan Temple is somewhat of a hero for the many young people who were there. It’s a big place, so we didn’t see him often, but on the first night I accidentally had a quick one-on-one chat with him, which made some of my kitchen workmates a bit envious. I was coming back down to the kitchen after serving dinner and saw that there were a lot of people blocking the kitchen door. When people stand around doing nothing in front of doors or at the top of the stairs in a subway station, it drives me nuts. Can’s they go gossip in a corner somewhere? I just pushed right through the crowd. That’s how you get by in Beijing, with lots of elbow, so I’m good at it now. After pushing through I suddenly found myself in the middle of a circle of people surrounding the abbot. At this point I felt a bit embarrassed. There wasn’t much of substance to our simple chat, just him asking me where I’m from and how I came to be at the monastery. My impression of the abbot is that he’s a very sincere guy, dedicated to his work. He’s always got a big smile on his face.

An Ordinary Day at Longquan Temple

Day two at the monastery started at 3 AM, just like the first. I really wouldn’t have minded the extra hour of sleep until 4 AM, but at this point I had to resign myself to getting up at 3 AM because after that alarm went off, many other people started to stir too. Let me tell you this, if I had been able to figure out whose alarm that was, I would have made sure he didn’t get any breakfast. I’m not very zen.

The second day went by like the previous. I worked in the kitchen, discovered new food stores, which continuously amazed me, and helped in food distribution at every meal. The monk running the kitchen invited me to take some time off from the kitchen to go recite the Sutras. I told him I probably wouldn’t understand what was going on, so I might as well just stay in the kitchen. I think he understood, both the reality that my Mandarin just isn’t good enough for that, and the fact that I wasn’t really interested. In Chinese culture, you don’t often say “no” directly, so saying I wouldn’t understand was the perfect way to decline the invitation. In the afternoon I went hiking on Phoenix Mountain with Linyu and Zhibing, a couple of friends I’d made in my dormitory. It wasn’t quite as cold out there as it was in Beijing and the sun was shining so it was a fantastic hike.

[singlepic id=88 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Buddhist Retreat

Before I went up the mountain, Holly had been asking me to help with some translation. The organizers of the week-long “Multi-Lingual Dharma Assembly” needed some terms on the schedule and program introduction translated into English. There was some discussion between us about whether the word ‘assembly’ was the right word or not. I don’t know much about Buddhism, I only have a vague notion of what the Dharma is, and before I went to Longquan I really didn’t know what was going to be happening, so I didn’t know what to call it.

After two days at the monastery, I started to figure out that it was essentially a Buddhist retreat. It had all the hallmarks of any church retreat I’ve ever been on: sleeping in dorms; a massive kitchen operation running to feed hundreds of people; everyone early to bed and early to rise; lots of prayer times; and people addressing each other in ways they would never do on the street. We all addressed each other using a form of the word “brother” (师兄) which is typically only used among those studying Buddhism, Taichi, or other such things. There is a word for sister (师姐) but I was told that it typically isn’t used. It reminded me of Star Trek, where everyone addresses their commanding officers as “Sir” even if the CO is a woman. One thing that did distinguish this retreat from church retreats I’ve been on, was the number of young people. There were a lot of enthusiastic young Buddhists at the monastery that week. That’s good, because every religion like every society, needs new life to pass its values onto the next generation and to carry the torch. Obviously the Longquan Temple’s evangelism work and online outreach programs are effective.

A lot of people assumed I was a Buddhist when they met me. A perfectly reasonable assumption, else why was I hanging out at a Buddhist retreat when I could have been drinking baijiu and lighting fireworks? Others didn’t really know whether I was a Christian (as Chinese people assume all westerners are) or whether I had no religion at all. Some tried to encourage me to become a Buddhist. As is typical of people engaging in evangelism, some of them were more more pushy, and others were more tactful and respectful. I tried variously telling people nothing at all, and telling them I’m Catholic, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in how they reacted to me.

Coming Down the Mountain

My third day at Longquan Temple started at 3AM just like the previous two days. What can you do? I worked in the kitchen in the morning and then made preparations to leave in the afternoon.

[singlepic id=90 w=320 h=240 float=left]As I was trying to leave, I was approached by one of the volunteers and a friend of Holly’s who told me to follow her quickly to some unknown destination with a purpose she didn’t seem to have time to explain to me. We arrived at a room somewhere in the back of the monastery where I’d never previously gone, which was full of young people. These people, who I think were all volunteers, had been invited to have a quick audience with the abbot. He wasn’t there at this point, but we were being briefed by a monk on what to do when we met him. We were all given “lucky money” envelopes to give to the abbot when we saw him. As usual, I didn’t understand a great deal of what was going on. At some point everyone got up and filed out of the room to meet the abbot. I think things got a bit mixed up, because we ran into him outside the monastery on our way to the appointed meeting room. We all handed over our lucky money gifts, and then paid our respects to the abbot by kneeling down and bowing with our heads touching the ground. We did this three times.

On the second day at Longquan Temple, I had been interviewed by the volunteer journalist for an article on the Longquan Temple blog. He asked me what I thought of the place and the people there. I told him that Christians believe our faith should be shown through our actions, that it’s not just words and prayers. I said that it was clear by the way they welcomed me and made me a part of their retreat without hesitation, that the people I met at Longquan Temple were sincerely living out their faith. I’m not sure if he understood what I meant, because that quote didn’t wind up in the article, but it’s the highest compliment I can offer them.

That afternoon I walked down the hill to the bus stop and caught the bus back into Beijing. The city was still empty and quiet, most people having not yet returned from the Chinese New Year holiday. But there were definitely fireworks.

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Chinese Painting Class

Last weekend Lotus hosted a traditional Chinese painting class for students. There aren’t too many students here during the winter, so we beefed up our numbers by inviting some Lotus volunteers from Beijing Normal University. Our guest blogger, Doug, was there as well. Some of the Lotus staff were working overtime this weekend preparing for the summer programs, so they took turns joining us when they needed a break.

I’m a programmer, so I don’t know much about art. I do know that this was a lot easier than our calligraphy lesson in December. I also thought it was curious that we sometimes mixed the paint, which I think was oil-based, with water (on the brush) in order to get a water-colour-like effect when painting. We painted everything, fruit, a Lotus flower, the famous panda, and an opera mask.

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Welcome our Guest Blogger Doug

I want to briefly introduce Doug. Doug hails from the American heartland, from Iowa. He speaks pretty good Mandarin, though for us he’ll be writing in English. For the next ten days, Doug will be volunteering at one of Beijing’s schools for migrant children. Doug is going to tell us about his experience teaching there and his life in China. All the readers of our blog will have a chance to taste what it’s like to participate in one of Lotus’ volunteer programs. I’m looking forward to it!

Traffic in China

You’ve probably heard that traffic in China is crazy. By western standards, it certainly is crazy. I’ve been here since September though, and I’m becoming numb. In addition, I recently travelled to India for a friend’s wedding. Traffic in India is a complete disaster. It makes me think everything is perfectly ordinary here in China. In any case, I give you this video so you can judge for yourselves.

Every time I look out the office window at the street below, it makes me laugh. Someone, a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist, is always doing something ridiculous. If you find yourself studying in China this summer, and you’re homesick or frustrated by your Mandarin studies, just take a look at the traffic outside your window. It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Beijing’s First Snowfall of the Season

Can you believe it’s February already and the first snowfall didn’t happen until last night? This is the first precipitation we’ve seen since October. It’s been extremely dry, and surprisingly sunny for the past few months. Many places in northern, central and eastern China are experiencing droughts this winter, the worst in 60 years.

View from 12th floor at 12 Suzhou St the morning after Beijing's first snowfall of the season.

View from 12th floor at 12 Suzhou St the morning after Beijing's first snowfall of the season.

Winter crops have been affected. The UN even issued a warning that global grain prices might rise in the spring if China’s crops fail and it has to start importing grain. We’ll see what happens come spring. I’m not sure how much this region relies on snow melt run off for its spring planting season.

Chinese New Year Migration

[singlepic id=37 w=320 h=240 float=right]The annual migration has started. The streets outside the Lotus office here in Beijing are much quieter than usual for a Monday morning. It’s more like a Sunday afternoon, but then, Sunday afternoon traffic in Beijing is not what you’re used to back home. Recently I’ve noticed a lot more inter-city coaches making early morning and late night departures. A few days ago there were five coaches parked on the sidewalk waiting for passengers to board. This is not a usual practice around here. Lately there are always people on the subway, luggage in hand, on the way to the train station.

I’ve been searching for accurate numbers on how many people travel during this period, but it’s rather difficult to pin down reliable numbers. I think it’s safe to say that in the four to five day travel period around the beginning of the New Year holiday, more than 100 million people will travel home. I’m sure you’ve heard it described as the largest migration in human history, and in China, they do it every year at the beginning of the New Year holiday, and then again a week later. The total number of people traveling is probably higher, but it’s spread out over several weeks as students and others who have longer holidays go home earlier, and return later.

[singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 float=right]I for one will be staying away from the trains during this period. I have been tempted to hop on a train and go somewhere just to have the experience of participating in the largest migration in human history, but I think the novelty would wear off quickly.  Besides, New Year train trips aren’t entertainment, for most people they’re a major headache.