Tuesday, November 12, 2013

October 23, Beijing

We usually leave the hotel at 8:15 AM, have an hour back in the hotel in the late afternoon, then out for dinner and an evening event. I'm getting a little tired. The weather was better, though: today I could see the sun actually strong enough to cast a pale shadow. Maybe I'm imagining it but I could feel raspy in my throat, so I wore the mask most of the day anyway.

The first thing this morning was a factory where they make silk hand-knotted carpets. There was a woman at a loom weaving a carpet and when they asked for volunteers to try it, naturally I volunteered. (Afterward a woman said to me, “You're so brave!” Amazing.) When they measure the quality of a carpet by the number of knots per square inch, now I understand why. They take two vertical strands, pass silk thread made of half a dozen strands through them, knot them, and cut off the remaining strand. It is unbelievably intricate and boring work. The carpets have a nap to them so that the color of the silk changes when you turn them upside down. We saw some selling for thousands of dollars, and no question but that they were worth it.

Then we went to the Summer Palace, another over-the-top place, saved for me by its huge man-made lake and its willow trees. 

It would have been lovely if it had been empty and quiet, and I tried to imagine it that way. They had a sign up: there were 59,000 visitors yesterday. 

There is a Chinese saying: the common people are like water and the emperor is like a boat. Water supports the boat but can also overturn it. One empress decided to demonstrate that no water could overturn her and had a marble boat built. Yes, really marble, but of course it would sink so it is attached to the lake bottom and doesn't go anywhere; they used it for imperial banquets.

The last emperor got overthrown in 1911. So much for theory.

Mike talked to us about child policies and sex education. Mao encouraged as many children as possible early on. In the 70s someone did some arithmetic and figured out this would bankrupt and strip the country, so family planning was introduced. “One couple, one child” is oversimplified, he said. Actually, it's “one couple, one birth,” and even this had exceptions. It applied to Han Chinese couples living in cities; rural couples and non-Han couples were allowed two births. Obviously if you had twins or more you hit the jackpot. They also encouraged “late marry, late birth.” Before, couples tended to marry early and produce at least one child by age 20. The later the birth the lower the birthrate. Think generations: having children at 20 means five generations per century. Having them at 25 means four.

The preference for boys was and is prevalent in rural areas, where boys' strength is needed for farm work. China is becoming more urbanized, and city people tend to prefer girls. Why? Boys' parents pay all the wedding costs. Increasingly it is felt that daughters do a better job taking care of elderly parents than sons, even though traditionally it is the eldest son to whom this job falls. The ideal now is a “4 – 2 – 1” family: four grandparents, two parents, one child. But do the arithmetic. Two children grow up and marry: how can they possibly between them care for twelve elderly grandparents and parents? To say nothing of the fact that the Chinese birth rate is now below replacement. Japan tried that and it was a disaster; the arithmetic isn't any better here. There won't be enough prime-of-life working people to support their elders.

Would you like to know the Chinese version of “The stork brought you”? A long time ago your daddy and I took a walk to a pond, and there were many babies swimming in the pond. Most of the babies were crying, but you were smiling. We decided to take you home and make you a part of our family.

What happens now if an unmarried girl gets pregnant, especially given the later marriage ages? This is a terrible thing. The girl and her entire family lose much face. It is her choice what to do about it, and generally such girls choose abortion or give the babies up for adoption in orphanages – the origin of my granddaughter, Xiao Ling. Pregnant girls can decide to keep the babies but then they and their families face a lifetime of negative social pressure, so few do.

Lunch for the first time featured wheat noodles, a bit like thick spaghetti, served with a choice of sauces. In northern China they grow wheat; in southern China they grow rice. They even call themselves the wheat people and the rice people.  So here it is common to have both – a huge bowl of sticky rice is always served with lunch and dinner. A lot of carbs!

After lunch came a real benefit for taking this tour. Every visitor to Beijing goes to the Summer Palace etc., etc., but we were treated to a visit to the Peking Opera School. We filed silently into four classrooms, stayed for five or ten minutes in each to watch but not disturb, and then went on to the next one. This school consists of kids ages 10 to 19 from all over China who compete to be accepted; only about 15% are. This is a rising figure, as traditional Chinese opera is diminishing in popularity with the advent of television and the Internet. The students are taught acrobatics, martial arts, dancing, singing – the main elements of the traditional Peking Opera, and about 40% of them continue as performers.

These girls are learning how to throw and twirl a baton without dropping it.

This boy sang -- in a Chinese-opera falsetto voice -- and struck mannered poses for his teacher.

These girls were learning to dance gracefully.

This boy was somersaulting across the room. After this we saw boys trying to learn how to do an entire somersault in the air and land smoothly: almost impossible.

These girls were trying to learn how to take a robe with long, long sleeves and catch all the fabric in her hands when they raised their arms. From the second girl's expression, you can see the frustration with how difficult it is.

We saw all this in practice after dinner when we went to a performance of the Peking Opera. (“Peking,” by the way, is Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong; “Beijing” is Mandarin.  They are written the same but sound entirely different.) They hold a stripped-down performance for foreigners of an hour – a normal Chinese opera performance is three hours. There are translations projected and there were three acts. The first was a slapstick farce skillfully done with some of the somersaults and poses we had seen earlier, in which two men try to fight each other in the dark, and since it's dark they can't see each other. The second act was about a Buddhist woman scattering flowers along with her teachings. In the third act a woman fights defenders of a magic herb that will cure her dying husband. If you've ever heard a soprano singing Chinese opera, you know it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, definitely an acquired taste. But the costumes were elaborate and the whole thing was so stylized that to me it was extremely interesting, especially since I'd just seen kids practicing these very moves.

No comments:

Post a Comment