Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ancient Script

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

China is old. You won't realize it based on the modern buildings in the post-Olympics busy Beijing, but just enter in on one of the many pavilions inside the Palace Museum and you will breathe the air of history. The Forbidden City is actually one of the largest museum of the world, with 980 surviving buildings and 8707 rooms covering a total 720,000 square meters.

Ancient Script
This is much more than can be seen in just a brief afternoon visit, so we cherry-picked a few collections to visit, and that was still mind-blowing. I am not known to be a meticulous tourists, of the very organized sort that reads tons of guides and one month in advance of the trip knows the exact itinerary to maximize a visit. I do buy a guide or two, but then wait to the last minute before actually opening them, so that by the time of the tour I only have a sketchy idea of what I can see. Not the most efficient way, but on the other hand it leaves one's mind open to the surprise of discovery. This visit was no exception. It was also a hot day, and we had already walked a lot just to get to to the Forbidden City entrance, so it didn't take very long until we found ourselves looking for a cool place to rest. This is how we found a pavilion with the holy combination of shade, air conditioning, and an impressive collection of fine bronze utensils, musical instruments and weapons, some of them 5,000 years old.

Ancient Script
Several of the items were actually inscribed, with ancient characters that were at the same time familiar and novel. One example is in the photo above, that shows an example of such writing (on the left) with the corresponding modern characters. The resemblance is there, but the older version is more closely representing an actual drawing of the subject it portraits, while the modern equivalent is more stylized. The legendary origin of the Chinese characters refers to the mythical Cangjie (倉頡), the four-eyed historian of the equally mythical Yellow Emperor, the founder of Chinese civilization and the ancestor of all Chinese people. Legend has that Cangjie used his four pupils to see things that nobody else could see, including ghosts and deities, and was very observant. Tasked by his emperor to devise a method to record informations for posterity, he was inspired by the footprint of a pixiu (a winged lion), and created a large number of symbols to represent all things: the ancient Chinese script. Another version of the legend postulates that Cangjie was instead inspired by the veins in the shell of turtles: particularly interesting postulation, given that archeologists have unearthed fragments of turtle shells with actual writing on them. Whatever the inspiration, the legend of Cangjie would place the invention of Chinese writing around 2700-2600 BC, when the Yellow emperor reigned.

The earliest record of actual writing (apart from individual isolated signs inscribes on bones), however, go about as back as the Shang dynasty (about 1200 BC). One example is the inscription in the ox scapula shown in the small photo above (left), which I photographed the following day at the National Museum of China. That is where we will go in the next post.

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

The Forbidden City is BIG. After walking around its whole length along its perimeter wall and moat, we finally reached Tiananmen Square: there is where the South entrance to the Forbidden City is located, under a gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao, Mona Lina smiling at the long line of tourists clearing the security check leading to the red plastered walls of the monumental Gate of the Heavenly Peace.

The Inner Golden River
The Forbidden City had been the seat of Chinese imperial power for almost 500 years, until the 1912 abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of China. For the following twelve years the last emperor was confined in the Inner Court of the sprawling complex, while the Outer Court was, for the first time in history, opened to the public. This arrangement ended in 1924, when a coup ended once and for all the Qing dynasty and the imperial rule in China. The Japanese invasion, and then the Chinese Civil War caused many of the treasures in the Forbidden City to be evacuated. Much was returned at the end of War War II, but a small but highly valuable part of the collection is still missing, kept in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. In the years following the establishment of the People's Republic of China the palace was left in disrepair, and sometimes directly threatened of destruction, as during the Cultural revolution when in the eyes of the revolutionary zeal it became a symbol of the overthrown oppressive imperial power. It was only saved when the premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to defend the city. In 1987 the Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage site and the Chinese government has finally recognized its cultural (and economic, given its value as a touristic attraction) importance. Now administered by the Palace Museum, it is undergoing a massive restoration project aimed to bring back the splendor of its buildings in their pre-1912 state (much has been already done, but we could see areas still fenced off as the works continue).

Even though only part of the complex is open to the public, the sheer size of the structure is too much to be visited in a single day. One walks from courtyard to courtyard, passing under one gate after the other in what is the largest collection of preserved ancient wood structures in the world. The courtyard opening on the Meridian Gate is so expansive that a wide canal flows through it, crossed by 5 marble bridges (the Inner Golden River, small photo on the left). With 14.6 million annual visitors (for what I could see, a large fraction of them are Chinese nationals, or come from nearby asian countries) it is the most visited museum in the world.

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Just Two Subway Stops to the Forbidden City

The Moat and Wall of the Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

China is 13 hours ahead of the time zone where I live, which is as bad as it gets since it completely invert the sleep/awake cycle. Being able to function after such a time slip requires some adjustment, so I planned to arrive in Beijing two days before the start of my meeting. Adjusting to a new time zone however works only if you resist hitting the bed during the day, and stuck to the sleep schedule of the new location. That means keeping busy while the internal clock gets in sync with the sun.

Forbidden City Moat
I decided to spend the first adjustment day visiting the Forbidden City, just a short subway ride from my hotel. It is in fact quite easy to move around in Beijing. The city has 18 lines, 334 stations and 554 km (344 miles) of tracks making the Beijing subway the second largest system in the world (after Shanghai). All this is quite recent, since only two lines where in operation before 2002, with the largest expansion was completed for the summer Olympics games hosted in 2008. Since I read about how imposing was the wall and moat surrounding the Forbidden City, I convinced my graduate student that went along for the trip that we should get off the train before the main entrance, and walk a little along the wall. According to my map that meant walking for just a couple of stops, strolling through a modern boulevard leading straight to the back side of the Forbidden City, and then walking along the moat to the main entrance facing Tiananmen square on the opposite side. The weather was pleasantly warm and sunny, and the air exceptionally clear, without the dense cap of smog that the city is notorious for. What could go wrong?

Well, what went wrong is that I apparently don't know how to properly read distances on a map. The distance between the two stops turned out to be over 3 miles, and took a couple of hours to navigate in the heavy traffic of the big city, to then arrive at the entrance of the Forbidden City, which is something that in itself takes at least a full day to visit. My graduate student was not amused, and she is still reminding me of this episode every time she want to point out how my judgment may not be up to the task when we explore new directions in our daily research work. From that point onward she got in charge of navigating our excursions on the city's transport system. The trick for a successful career in academia is finding students that are smarter than you...

The Moat and Wall of the Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...