On our ninth day in Beijing, we met some people from Canada at the Beijing Opera. They had been to Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou, Guilin, Thailand, and had spent two days in Beijing. While in Beijing, they had already visited most of the places we had seen. The image of seeing the Summer Palace at a dead run stays with me. We spent a day there, they spent an hour. It would take a lifetime to appreciate and savor all that we saw; we could have spent our three weeks at any one of the sites and still left with regret.
Ours was the first University of Maine at Farmington summer experience in China. The summer program was designed to give more people the opportunity to develop or expand their interest in China. We have an ongoing semester/year exchange with Beijing Polytechnic University for our students and faculty. In return, each year since 1987, a professor from BPU has offered beginning through intermediate courses in Chinese at UMF. As a result, there is not only increased interest in the language, but in the culture as well. Not everyone is able to spend a year in China, but many would like to visit. As long as the interest continues, they will be able to do both. In May of 1997, I will go to China with another group. Join me.
Students, staff, faculty, alumni -- well, anyone who is interested in further information about the summer program should talk to Marilyn Shea, (Psychology), Rob Lively, (International Exchange), Jan Provenzano at 207-778-7074, or to the current Chinese exchange professor.
On the left, Fred Brittain, Denise Edgar, and Kay Sullivan (seated center) are all now graduates of UMF. Kay and Fred are both computer specialists at the UMF Computer Center. Judy Zink, seated on the far right, is a Psychology major and will graduate in '98. Standing in the center, wearing her vest, is Beth Lundy who works with the business office. I am standing (leaning) to the right of Beth. I am a Professor of Psychology. When I visited colleagues in Beijing on an earlier trip, I became determined to share what was a great experience for me. Thanks to the hospitality of my friends at Beijing Polytechnic University, I was able to bring friends back with me.
We stayed in Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai, and visited the area around each.
Although Beijing is an ancient city and was often used as the capital by one warlord or another, its modern history as a capital begins in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan. It is here that Marco Polo made his base, as he visited and travelled with the Khan. He spent over 20 years as a guest of the Khan before returning to Europe with his vivid descriptions of the great civilization to the east. Most of what we see today in Beijing was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
It is a city built to inspire; to awe the populace with the power of the emperor. Built for the rites and ceremonies performed to maintain the Mandate of Heaven, as well as for defense, it achieves grace through power and size rather than through ornament and variety.
The Mings looked to the past for their design. Beijing, like most major cities in China, was built with a series of concentric walls. The outermost wall surrounded what was the Chinese city. A major highway, which provides access to the outskirts and links the city with the major arteries to the rest of the country, sits on its bed. At various points along the highway, you can see the guard towers which loomed above the old gates to the city and provided early warning of invasion. One might regret the loss of this ancient wall, but the alternative would have been to raze whole neighborhoods in one of the most densely packed cities in the world.
Tiananmen Square lies within the area defined by the next wall. Formal access to the square is through the Zhengyang Gate, which marks the boundary of what was once an enclosing wall of grey stone and brick. The tomb of Chairman Mao is centered in the path of the gate. The square itself is fairly recent. It used to be filled with shops and alleys, as the streets surrounding it still are today. Tiananmen is large enough to diminish the impact of two enormous and recent additions to the center of the city. On one side of the square lies the People's History Museum and on the other, the Great Hall of the People. The Great Hall is used for major meetings of the government and state occasions. Elaborate receptions are held there for foreign dignitaries, and it contains over 50 rooms, each dedicated to a particular province or minority.
The square serves as a setting for the Imperial City, in which lies the Forbidden City. The red walls, golden roof tiles, and the portrait of Mao Zedong contrast strongly with the surroundings of grey and buff. Thousands of tourists from all over China visit the Forbidden City daily. Fred observed at this point that we were of as much interest to the Chinese as was the Forbidden City. Westerners still are a rare sight.
At one time there were vast gardens and parks adjacent to the Forbidden City where the elite could walk freely. Although urban encroachment has swallowed many, we visited Zhongshan Gongyuan, named after and anchored by a statue of Sun Ya-tsen. If that is confusing try this; Sun Zhongshan is the formal name for Sun Yixian, which is the new spelling of the informal name of the person we call Sun Ya-tsen or Sun Yatsen. Sun is the family name and Zhongshan is the given name. In China, to indicate respect, admiration, and fondness, the given name is often used. Therefore, Zhongshan Gongyuan is Sun Ya-tsen Park. By whatever name, the park was beautiful.
It was a Sunday and the place was filled with the laughter of children and the sight of couples strolling among the trees. Children were often dressed in their finest so that their parents could take their pictures. There was a long, winding covered walk that ran through the trees. A path eventually led us to a building that housed a formal garden. Kay discovered the magic and shed off the fatigue of 35 hours of traveling to relax and discover China.
The Imperial City
As you cross the bridge in front of Mao's portrait and enter the Imperial City through Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), you see the Meridian Gate, which leads to the Forbidden City. Only those who had official business with the emperor or one of his ministers were allowed inside the Forbidden City. That doesn't mean that it was a quiet place. It was the center of vast empires. There were hundreds of ministers who had offices there or in the immediate area, there were probably over a thousand servants, and then there were the palace guards . . . At one point there were over 70,000 eunuchs attached to the Forbidden City in one capacity or another. Today the area is filled with museum offices, ministries, tourists, small souvenir shops, and restaurants.
The first Ming capital was at Nanjing. The first Ming emperor, Hung Wu, wanted to rid the country of Mongol influence, just as he had rid it of Mongol rule. Traditional rites and ceremonies of the Chinese were brought back and celebrated. Nanjing was close to the supply routes from the southern breadbasket and provided much better communication with the provinces, both for defense and administration. Yongle (Yung Lo), the third Ming emperor, overthrew the second Ming emperor from his stronghold in the northern provinces. He gave up the advantages of the southern capital and moved his capital to Beijing for political support.
He continued to emphasize Chinese and Confucian principles, and incorporated them into his design for the new northern capital. The design of the city reflects a return to Confucian principles of order, ethical conduct, and the importance of rites to express filial duty. The emperor was the Son of Heaven, and this was the source of his Mandate to rule. All others owed filial duty to the emperor.
Yongle sent a survey team to catalog the city of the Yuan dynasty and then he had it destroyed. The new city would be Chinese. Over two hundred thousand workers dedicated 20 years to the building of the new city and palaces. The Palace wasn't finished until 1421. As you go through the gates and penetrate the depths of the city, it is still possible to feel the remove, the isolation from common concerns required by and of the emperor.
As you cross an open courtyard, you approach the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where vigorous final examinations were given to scholars during the early Ming dynasty. The Ming emperors revived and expanded the civil service system, which required mastery of the classics to enter government service. If a family could educate a son to this level, the entire family benefited, and the scholar became a revered figure among the ancestors in following generations. The system continued until the early 1900's and provided stability to successive governments.
After the Hall of Supreme Harmony, you encounter two more major structures; the Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Perfect Harmony, which were also used for public functions. Only as you retreat further and further into the center of the palace do you find some sort of quiet and repose. The actual quarters of the emperor are rather simple by palatial standards. The low-slung buildings have large rooms, but not so large as to be uncomfortable for daily living.
The Imperial family would never be alone. There would always be someone in attendance. The emperor ate with an attendant at his elbow to remind him not to take more than three bites from any dish. If he had a favorite dish, he had to keep it to himself and hope that by accident it would show up again. Poison and assassination were a constant presence in daily life, by dint of the measures used to prevent them. Imagine living and accepting a life of such paranoia that your fears of those close to you were as great as the fear of threat from outside. Mao Zedong lived a similar life in his compound adjacent to the Imperial City. His thorough knowledge of classical history led him to adopt many of the same personal safeguards developed through the centuries of dynastic reign.
The Temple of Heaven -- Tiantan Park
The Forbidden City and the three Halls of Harmony look directly south, toward the Temple of Heaven. Twice a year, at the Winter Solstice and again in the fourth lunar month, the emperor would proceed from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven to ask for blessings for the people. He would dress in the Hall of Middle Harmony and then go to the Hall of Supreme Harmony to form the procession.
The streets between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven were cleared. All doors and windows would be shuttered, the people closed in behind them. It was forbidden that a commoner look upon the person of the divine emperor. The procession, made of all high ranking ministers, marching in order of importance, would go through the Meridian Gate, out through the main gates, and across what is now Tiananmen Square. Only the emperor could use the center doors. The two side doors were designated for either the military or the civil ministers. Separating the military and civil ministers was a custom that arose after many squabbles about rank and order of precedence between the two branches of government.
When they arrived at the Temple of Heaven, the emperor would retire to the Hall of Abstinence to meditate and pray alone for the night. Sacrifices would be prepared in the triple roofed Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest. Just before dawn, he would rise and prepare. Each ritual, movement, utensil, and costume had purpose and symbol. The emperor wore a blue gown embroidered with gold. The roofs of the buildings were tiled in blue -- a sacred color symbolizing Heaven. Just as the gold roofs of the Imperial Palaces were only used on buildings of the emperor, blue was reserved for Heaven. The procession passed down a long elevated concourse to arrive at the Altar of Heaven.
Three tiers of white marble, glistening in the false light of predawn, lent beauty and majesty to the ceremony. The only roof -- the Heaven above. There, as the tip of the sun shown over the horizon, the emperor would offer the animal, grain, and silk sacrifices which had been prepared the previous day.
This ceremony was first performed in the Zhou dynasty (1100-771 B.C.). The last time it was performed (December 23, 1914), a republic had been founded and Yuan Shikai, the President, wore the imperial robes of the emperor.
These rites linked culture and tradition through multiple dynasties. The cost of this heritage was painful. Hundreds of thousands of workers labored to build the palaces and fortifications at Beijing, Xi'an, Nanjing, and other major cities of the Ming dynasty. Taxes were deep and production was diverted to provide material for the construction. Due to graft and corruption, much of the good farm land was used by the nobility for pleasure sports or mismanaged until it was barely productive. By the end of the Ming dynasty, the population of the country had been reduced by about half through starvation. While reviving Neo-Confucianism, the rites and rituals, they forgot the Confucian ideal that good government takes care of the needs of the people first.
Today the grounds of the Temple of Heaven are a welcome relief from the dense crowding of the city. Each day, but especially on Sunday, thousands come to walk, play, practice Dai Qi, listen to or play music, and fly kites. I spent an hour listening to a group play selections from the Beijing opera. An elderly woman sang. I was told that she had only studied for the past four years -- after her retirement. Her voice was as clear as a bell; she easily sang some of the most difficult trills.
The long covered walk that leads to the main Temple is a meeting place, gaming room, private club, and way of life. Mah-Jongg and dominos are the most popular choices, but you also find Chinese chess, card games, and dice. A group of women were doing complicated march/dances in formation while playing a straightforward beat on their drums. They may or may not have been practicing for some future performance; just doing it is enough for many groups. Watching is also a popular pastime. Activities from a game of Mah-Jongg to the women marchers were surrounded by groups of spectators.
The Summer Palace
It takes three days to get to the Summer Palace if you go by barge along the canals and river to Kunming Lake in an imperial convoy. It takes about a half-hour by bus. The Summer Palace seemed like a remote "get-away" for the emperors who were enclosed in their own stifling prison.
The "palace" is actually a garden encompassing a small mountain, a lake, a river, and innumerable buildings. Most gardens in China are places to enjoy the shape and contour of nature. The gardener creates a perfection of nature and tries to encourage appreciation of its beauty. It has little resemblance to what we would call a garden.
Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, built a garden here in honor of his mother in 1750. He expanded an earlier Ming temple, enlarged the lake and called it Kunming Lake, and renamed the mountain the temple stands on from Jug Mountain to Longevity Mountain. His name for The Summer Palace was the Garden of Pure Ripples.
In 1860, the British and French destroyed the Garden of Pure Ripples as well as Yuan Ming Yuan (what we call the Old Summer Palace). Yuan Ming Yuan comprised acres and acres of buildings housing the treasures of China. The British and French were "negotiating" with the emperor to get better trade agreements. Victor Hugo wrote an open letter at the time, deploring the action and calling it one of the great tragedies of history.
The Dowager Empress Cixi began rebuilding the Summer Palace in 1873 for her retirement and renamed it Yi He Yuan -- Garden of Peace and Harmony in Old Age. That remains it proper name in Chinese. The Dowager Empress Cixi served as regent, and was able to channel funds from the treasury that had been targeted for the navy. She is often blamed for the easy victory won by the Japanese navy and the subsequent humiliation of the Chinese government in 1895.
It was burnt again by Russian, British, and Italian troops in 1900 as retaliation for the Boxer Rebellion. Cixi began rebuilding in 1902 and actually got to use it for awhile. She died in 1908.
We entered the grounds through the back door to visit "little Suzhou" in full sunlight. This village was build to replicate one near Shanghai to give the emperor the illusion of shopping and exploring its beauty. Eunuchs and ladies from the court would play the roles of shopkeepers and artisans while the emperor meandered through the stalls. There is still a feeling of play-acting as you go from shop to shop. The only thing that seemed quite real was the river.
We climbed Longevity Mountain to the Lama Temple at the top. On the way, you could begin to appreciate what Cixi had planned. The entire garden is laid out to create moments. Cixi would have an entire wall built so she could put a window in it. As you walked along the wall, your senses would relax, and the sudden view framed by the window would recall the freshness of the view.
The Marble Boat was built by Qianlong, who compared the boat to the state, and the water to the people. The people keep the state afloat, and without their support the ship sinks. Cixi changed the top of the boat, adding the superstructure and paddle-wheels. She also installed a large mirror in the cabin so she could sit gazing at it on rainy days. The mirror would act as a frame for the different views behind her.
The names of the sights at the Summer Palace are as much a part of the experience as are the structures themselves: Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Strolling through Painted Scenery, Floating Heart Bridge, Gate of Welcoming the Moon, Hall for Listening to Orioles Sing. While the Summer Palace is not a simple thing, part of its purpose is to enhance the perception of and enjoyment of simple things.
At the end of the day, as we were waiting for our bus, Denise and Fred were talked into doing one of the simple things. We not only had a great time setting this up, I am afraid I missed the best picture; when I finished shooting with the various cameras from the group and was paying the vendor, I noticed that a crowd of about 50 people had gathered to watch the show. I imagine we made an interesting story over the dinner table that night.
Street life varies from the farmer's markets to the glittering joint-venture buildings that dot the landscape. Our favorite streets were filled with small kiosks and stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to shoelaces. Most of these burgeoning businesses were run by farmers who had come to Beijing in search of jobs and a better life. As reforms are put in place in the economy, the greatest opportunities are in the urban areas. Progress in slow in the rural areas, where the lack of facilities and access make it difficult to establish factories and businesses. The large population from rural areas gives the city a country flavor.
In the past several years, Niu Yangge dancing has become popular. No one seemed to know where it started or why. It was brought from the countryside and became part of the life of the city. In the evening, if you go outside and listen carefully, you will hear the sound of pounding drums. Beneath underpasses, in vacant lots, and in parks, the Niu Yangge dancers are dancing in long snake lines, curving in upon themselves as they follow ever more complex steps and arm movements. Most of the dancers are women holding pom-poms of streamers in each hand, while the drummers are usually men. The dancing continues from sunset to midnight. It is exhausting and filled with energy. It is a release and an expression.
In 1976 Beijing suffered a severe earthquake. As you drive around the city, you see beautiful old buildings which have fallen into disrepair. Kept for hundreds of years, now there just aren't enough resources to repair the damage of the quake. The cost of adding modern plumbing and facilities to an existing structure is prohibitive. Modern high rise apartments are a much more attractive alternative. In Maine, we see the same phenomenon. The large Federal and Victorian homes, which characterize the New England town, house businesses, if they survive, while families move to modern energy-efficient maintainable homes.
Liulichang is a street where renovation allows us to catch a glimpse of the past. It is a commercial street near the section of the city where the old legations and embassies were built. The stores specialize in art and art supplies, and cater to the tourist and collector alike. The decorations under the eaves, on the doorways, and walls are as interesting as the contents of the stores. If you leave the main street and walk through the area, you can still see bullet holes in the sides of some houses, souvenirs of the Boxer rebellion.
The markets are everywhere. We visited several "free" markets, so called because they were and are allowed to trade goods and services outside of the collectivist organization. Many of these markets are in lean-tos, but we visited one near the Temple of Heaven that had been transformed by the government and moved into a large air-conditioned building. I am afraid that I preferred the original market which I had seen a year before. Somehow the sense of discovery is gone when it is easy to find what you are looking for -- but they probably tripled their sales, judging from the number of bags people were carrying. The prices were still excellent.
The silk market near the American Embassy does a brisk trade with both Chinese and foreign visitors. You can find brands from all of the top fashion houses of Europe and America. The market specializes in overruns and factory seconds -- one big factory outlet. On many items, we could get better prices in Walmart or in Freeport, but you would never find the selection and variety in one place in the States. There are over a hundred stalls, and if you look in them all, you will find twenty different styles of formal blouses, in as many colors. Judy did some major shopping for herself and her daughters, getting items that you just could not find without exhaustive searching in the States. Denise found the most luxurious pajamas, and the rest of us just enjoyed the colors.
There are farmer's markets where the Beijing people do their daily shopping. Fresh food is important to Chinese cooking. People prefer produce that has been picked that day. We saw heaps of spices, fruit of every sort and variety, and meat markets. A morning walk in the market near BPU gave the group a chance to stretch their legs and awake to color and great smells.
There were stands where you could get "fast food." This man is making a concoction called jianbing guozi which is similar to a tamale or a crepe -- an egg with hot sauce is wrapped in a large thin pancake. I prefer it without the egg, but the other members of group liked them "as is." A number of stands sold quantities of cut mixed vegetables in every combination for stir fry. Precut vegetables significantly shorten preparation time for families in which both the husband and wife work. I always wondered how anyone had the time to prepare elaborate evening meals.
Two Special Events
When I discussed the types of experiences the group would like to have during the trip with Cai Zunan, Deputy Director of the International Program at Beijing Polytechnic University, I mentioned that a brief introduction to calligraphy would be ideal before we visited art museums. Chinese calligraphy is a high art form. The placement and strength of characters help interpret poems, the beauty and life of the characters give insight into the person of the calligrapher, and the style of the characters is developed and interpreted by an individual through a lifetime of practice.
When we arrived that afternoon, we found that Cai and BPU had invited Ren Meng Long, an internationally known Chinese painter and Pu Xi Yang, one of the five top calligraphers in Beijing to give demonstrations of their art forms. This was so much more than we had expected. We were honored by the extraordinary hospitality shown us. The demonstration took place in the president's conference room. An enormous painting by Ren Meng Long hung on one wall. Secretaries brought in blue ceramic bowls of water and ink. In the photograph to the right, Professor Liu Yu Rong, who translated the lecture for us, is second to the left. Next to her is Ren Meng Long and Pu Xi Yang is on the right. Gradually, the room filled. Ren Meng Yun, special assistant to the President, and his wife were there. Ren Meng Yun had brought an exhibition of Chinese art to UMF several years previously, and has been a great friend of the UMF people visiting China. Other administrators came in. It is not often that people get to see great artists at work and it was a chance that they couldn't miss.
Pu Xi Yang began by showing us the origins of Chinese characters and the development through the shell and bone era up to the modern Kaishu characters. His touch with the brush was sure and strong. We were then given a chance to try our hands. I can't say that we were too sure, but all of our characters bore a faint resemblance to the model.
Pu Xi Yang then cleared the work space and spread a new sheet of rice paper. He had been asked to create the character "meng," dream. It is one of my favorite characters. The word includes hope, aspiration, daydream, creativity, as well as the sleeping dream. The room became silent. He chose a large brush and began filling it with ink. He stood for a moment and then wrote the character. As the last stroke was pulled from the paper, the group gasped. We had all been holding our breath.
The table was cleared again and Ren Meng Long began to tell us of the classical principles of Chinese painting. With a few swift strokes, he created a bowl of grapes and cherries. Form and balance are the essence of both calligraphy and painting. The symbol is more important than the object. For this reason, some schools of classical painting use almost no color, relying on the viewer to abstract the meaning.
Qi Baishi wrote the classic description of painting. His principles must be mastered before a painter begins to individualize his work. Ren Meng Long illustrated by doing a painting of shrimp. As in calligraphy, the stroke order and direction is important to the effect. The different strokes call for different densities of ink, achieved by loading the brush with a mixture of water and ink. Ren Meng Long did this by "feel" which can only come from years of experience. Brush and ink are demanding tools. You can't build a line as you do with pencil or charcoal. Each stroke reflects the tension of the hand, arm and shoulder. The direction of the stroke is defined, and changes the entire impression if done incorrectly.
Chiang Yee described one of the horizontal lines used in calligraphy as "... so written as to seem like a formation of cloud stretching from a thousand miles away and abruptly terminating." (Chinese Calligraphy, 2nd ed., 1954, p. 112) We saw two men who were able to do that with a brush, and it gave us a deeper appreciation of the art exhibits we saw later on the trip, and just a glimmering of understanding.
Acupuncture presents a wonderful puzzle to science. How does it work? The placement of the needles is based on energy centers, or Meridians. There is no obvious anatomical relationship between the position of the needle or needles and the effect. The art is old, probably derived from early acupressure and massage. It is used in the West primarily for blocking pain, but has a wider range of applications in China.
It wasn't in the schedule, but things fell into place and Cai Zunan picked us up early one morning and we drove to a residential area where we picked up Dr. Zhao Jihui. Dr. Zhao Jihui had just returned from Norway, where he had been giving courses on acupuncture to physicians. We drove to the main Training Center of China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing and discussed some of the successes of acupuncture and the current developments in treatment.
On the ward, a colleague demonstrated the placement of needles and cupping while Dr. Zhao Jihui explained. We spent most of our time discussing the recent successes the Chinese were having in treating stroke with acupuncture. The treatment is by no means predictable, but in some cases he cited, the patients were able to regain use of limbs and functions quickly. The Chinese are placing greater emphasis on early intervention and therapy, as we have begun to do in Western medicine. Dr. Zhao Jihui stressed the need for further research to determine what makes one treatment successful and another a dead end.
Judy was curious and asked if she could try. The doctor agreed, and having examined Judy and asking several questions about her arm, did one placement. Judy described the feeling as unusual -- not unpleasant -- but as if there were an effect throughout her arm. It was not a tingle but a sense of activity.
The doctor then demonstrated cupping. A flame was placed into glass bowls and the bowls or jars were placed on the back in various positions. The flame is in the bowl briefly, just long enough to burn off the oxygen, creating a minor vacuum. When the bowls are placed on the skin, they remain there by suction, pulling the flesh into their centers. It sounds cruel, but I watched the face of the woman as the cups were placed and there wasn't a flicker of a wince. Still, no one in the group asked if they could try. Cupping is commonly used to treat backache and serves to increase circulation to the area.
Dr. Zhao Jihui discussed the growing trend in China to combine Western and traditional medicine. Many of our pills are merely refined herbal products, which extract the active ingredient. The Chinese emphasis on balance has had a positive influence on our development of holistic medicine. The Chinese in their turn are adopting antibiotics and some of our surgical techniques.
The Great Wall
Ever since she was a girl, Beth had dreamed of being able to touch the Great Wall. It is a symbol of China's greatness and of the ability of man to achieve. It functioned for hundreds of years to spare the villages the random raids of tribes from the north, lending a stability to life and continuity to the culture and government. It marked the boundary; China -- not China, and its defense and maintenance for the common good united the feudal states, as well as costing them wealth and untold lives. It is a wonderful dream Beth had -- to touch history.
The Great Wall is difficult to comprehend -- to photograph, impossible. At one time it stretched 12,700 li (a li is a third of a mile) across the border between China and the Hun territories in the north. I've read that if you dismantle it and rebuild it, it could go around the entire world; probably if you stretched it by molecule it could reach Andromeda. Different guide books give different dimensions, poetically the Chinese call it the Wall of 10,000 li. The point is, it's big. It isn't one place but many. It's size is better seen on a map or from an aerial photograph. Its beauty is caught in glimpses through the mountains and clouds, its human cost is experienced through climbing it step by step.
It started as earthworks thrown up for protection by different States. The individual sections weren't connected until the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Qin Shihuangdi, First Emperor of Qin began conscripting peasants, enemies, and anyone else who wasn't tied to the land to go to work on the wall. The tradition lasted for centuries. Each dynasty added to the height, breadth, length, and elaborated the design mostly through forced labor.
There is a traditional story about Meng Jiangnü. Shortly after she and her husband were married he was conscripted to work on the wall. Meng Jiangnü worried that he would suffer from the cold in the north and began to make a padded cotton jacket. After it was sewn she began the long walk from her home in the south to the site of the Great Wall. When she got there and finally found the other men from her village, she was told that her husband had died. She went to the wall and began keening and mourning with such pathos that 20 li of the wall collapsed and in the pit at the center, she found the body of her husband. Meng Jinagnü threw herself into the sea to join her husband. Her suicide personalizes the losses due to the Great Wall.
It was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the Wall took on its present form. The brick and granite work was enlarged and sophisticated designs were added. The watch towers were redesigned and modern canon were mounted in strategic areas. The Portuguese had found a ready market for guns and canon in China, one of the few items of trade that China didn't already have in abundance. The Ming Emperors, having overthrown the Hun dominance and expelled their Mongol rulers of the North, devoted large portions of available material and manpower to making sure that they didn't return.
Since the 1600's, parts of the Wall in some areas have been either dismantled to provide building materials in the area or have been buried by silt. We visited a restored section of the Wall at Badaling. When you stand on the Wall and look to the north, you see the beginning of the great desert flatlands of the Hun. The view to the South is like a Chinese painting of layers of rolling hills covered by short brush and trees. The terrain is rough on both sides, and even today it is only accessible by a narrow road.
Throughout the centuries, armies were garrisoned along the length of the Wall to provide early warning of invasion and a first line of defense. Great piles of straw and dung used to build signal fires have been found during excavations. There must have been small garrison towns spotted along the length. There weren't many farms or trade towns to provide ease, relaxation, and food. The supply trails were over mountains, along narrow paths. To bring supplies to the top, ropes were slung over posts set in the Chinese side of the wall and baskets were hauled up, hand over hand. Supplies must have always been short and chancy, particularly in the winter.
The Wall served well. Only when a dynasty had weakened from within were invaders from the north able to advance and conquer. Both the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368) and the Manchurians (Qing Dynasty,1644-1911) were able take power, not because of weakness in the Wall but because of weakness in the government and the poverty of the people. They took advantage of rebellion from within and stepped into the void of power without extended wars.
The Wall extends from peak to peak. The height of the mountains is used to command a greater view and for its advantage in defense. Always take the high ground, particularly if you are going to use bow and arrows and javelins. It's steep. Most of us settled for climbing part of the restored section and returning, but Fred was easily able to circuit between the two major gates and return by road.
There is a holiday atmosphere on the Wall. Beth met an English teacher who had brought some of his students for a day of climbing. They had a good long talk while people climbed around them. We saw young women wearing high heels (and doing well) who were probably on dates. Some families took advantage of the availability of video recorders to document their climb. Young men and women stood at the entry to the base of the wall and, for a fee, would climb with you, taking your picture and pictures of the surrounding countryside.
Souvenir shops are abundant, and provide a cross-section of the handcrafts available in the north. Quilts, porcelain, enamels, hats, and bright toys added color and movement to the atmosphere. While we were waiting for the others, Fred had a seal carved with his name in Chinese characters. We watched several painters at work, and of course bought T-shirts proclaiming that we had "Climbed the Great Wall."
The Ming Tombs
We skipped lunch to spend more time at the Wall, but moved on for a short visit to the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. All but one of the Ming emperors are buried here. One emperor is buried outside Nanjing. Most of the outside statuary and buildings surrounding the tomb in Nanjing have been destroyed during the wars and revolutions in this century. The thirteen Ming tombs outside Beijing have been better preserved, benefitting from their remote location. Only the Ding tomb of Emperor Wan Li (Zhu Yijun) and his two wives is open to the public.
The tomb was built below ground in a great vaulted brickwork cavern. The story is that the workmen repeatedly set fire to the timber tomb which had been originally planned, to put off the day of completion, once the rumor spread that they would be interred in the tomb when they finished. A good plan, but then the designs where changed to use stone. The vault must be at least thirty feet high, and supports a rather large hill on its roof. You enter from the top, and there seemed to be about five or six full flights of stairs to the bottom. (Fortunately, there are only two flights up to the exit -- the archaeologists provided a pleasant surprise for tourists and went through the side of the hill.) This photograph is of the Ming Archives in Beijing (to the east of the Imperial City) but the vaults bear a striking resemblance to the design used in the tomb we saw.
While the tombs are impressive, the real attraction is outside. There are wonderful gardens of recent vintage, and a feeling of being inside the hills of China. There are pagodas on the top of distant hills, reminding you that you are in China. They are placed for prayer, contemplation, and remove from the life of the ordinary.
When a Ming emperor died, it was the death of a Son of Heaven. To provide a proper setting for the entombment, a concourse was built to be used only for the funeral processions leading to the hills in which the tombs were built. Great stone beasts and figures of ministers and warriors lined the path on either side. Their brooding presence gave stiff attention to the event. The gate at the end marked the passage to another life and the assumption of the Mandate to Rule by the new emperor. The Sacred Way is about 4 miles, measured from the gate to the entrance of the central tomb. The concourse or promenade, built for the funeral processions, was closed for renovations. The pictures I have included are from an earlier trip.
It was about 20° F and windy when I first walked the concourse. This gentleman gave my friend and me a ride for the return trip down the length of the concourse. I got the side car. I smile whenever I see this picture, it's a nice memory.
To Be Continued in the August 1996 Issue ...
Home || About Us || Back Issues || June 1996 ToC || Guestbook