Thursday, December 29, 2016

Peking University

Peking University, Beijing, China (May 25, 2016)

Peking University is the top higher learning institution in mainland China. It is also the first modern national university established in the country, founded in 1898 replacing the old imperial academy.

KIAA at Peking University
As I mentioned before, the purpose of my trip to China was to participate to a scientific meeting. The meeting was not in the University, but was organized by the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA), which is located in the campus of Peking University. The institute occupies a modern building made in a traditional style (photo on the left), situated next to the pond in the photo above. The University campus is on the former site of the Qing Dynasty imperial gardens, and is an attraction in itself with the numerous traditional style buildings, pagodas and manicured gardens. The central Weiming lake is very beautiful, and is surrounded by many walking paths, smaller gardens and ponds, and there are several museums that are worth the visit. The campus is very popular, and there is a permanent line of tourists at its main gate during the security check before entering the grounds . If you want to visit the gardens in your next visit to Beijing it is well worth it, but remember to bring along your documents to gain access (that is true for all touristic attractions, including the Forbidden City and the National Museum). 

Peking University
I actually managed to avoid the line at the entrance since I was accompanied by a colleague of mine that works at KIAA, one of the organizers of the conference. He is from the Netherlands and a few years back found a new scientific home in the institute. He was not the only person I visited on campus: the fellow with me in the photo on the right was one of my office-mates when I was in graduate school in Trieste (Italy). After graduating he worked for a while in Sweden (his interest are theoretical calculations about black hole mergers) and then returned to China where he is now chair of the department. I was very happy to meet him after so many years. He was a very gracious host and walked me around the campus, showing me the architecture and the landscaping, and telling me about the history of the university. We also had some time to talk about his experience of getting back to China after having lived and worked for a long time in Europe. The government is investing a lot in science, and his department is expanding significantly, with new hiring and the development of state-of-the art astronomical facilities. This is something I gathered also from other sources, and that is true in other fields of physics (e.g. particle physics), where both the quantity and quality of Chinese scientific production has greatly improved in recent years (I see that also in my own department faculty and graduate students coming from China).

I sometime get asked why somebody would want to move from a more free country (e.g. the Netherlands) to a place with a less democratic form of government. I am in no position to judge: people make their own choice based on their own circumstances, priorities, family constraints. We don't chose the place where we go to live and work in abstract terms: there are many factors that influence our decisions. Both my friends are happy to live in Beijing and work in the university: the place definitely shows the kind of dynamism that physics and space science had in the US in the 50s, at the heigh of time when the american government believed and strongly supported science. In other fields it may be different. I heard from some sources that humanities are suffering under a more strict ideological control that is being exerted by the current leadership, in a change with respect to the more laissez-fare attitude of the previous government. Science however appears to still have little central oversight, and a lot of support and funding in today's China.

Weiming Lake and the Boya Pagoda, Peking University, Beijing, China (May 25, 2016)

Friday, December 16, 2016

The National Museum of China

National Museum of China, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China (May 22, 2016)

With over 2,2 million square feet of display space, the National Museum of China is one of the largest in the world, and it is visited by 7.5 million visitors every year. The museum is on the east side of Tiananmen Square. Still tired after the long walk the day before, we decided to make it our destination, after strolling for some time under the Tiananmen Square relentless sun.

Terracotta Army
The museum is in fact two different museums combined. One part is dedicated to the history of China through the ages, literally, the first artifact being the 1.7 million years old Yanmu Man (元謀人). The other side is instead dedicated to a somewhat hagiographic portrait of the legacy of the Chinese Revolution. I don't need to tell you which side we visited... It was actually worth it. The collection of ancient artifacts, revealing how China had a very refined culture at time when our progenitors were still living in caves, is impressive. The bronze artifacts, in particular, are stunning: some of them are incredibly massive (there is a rectangular vessel weighting more than 800 kg), but at the same time have most delicate ornaments and inscriptions. Whoever made them really knew their craft. The museum has sections covering each and every dynasty in the long history of China. Each with a different style, a different concept of art. One small display has a sample of the famous "terracotta army", with one horse and two soldiers. I was happy to see it there since the whole thing is far from Beijing, impossible for me to visit during this trip.

Blue and white porcelain vase
A large section of the museum is dedicated to the ceramic wares. This is an art that China has been developing for tens of thousand of years, with the first pottery produced in neolithic times, almost 20,000 years ago. The blue and white porcelains (青花, literally "blue flowers") are the ones that I found more appealing, like the vase in the small photo on the right. This is a style that dates back from the 9th to the 14th century, when the blue pigment based on cobalt minerals were first imported from Persia. It is interesting how the technique, after being perfected by Chinese artists, found its way back to the middle east, inspiring a renaissance of ceramic production with islamic themes. The world is after all is small, and goes in circles... Other interesting sections of the museum were the one dedicated to the development of Chinese writing, and the innumerable artifacts with astronomical significance, like the many maps of the sky, with the stars grouped in the strangely familiar yet alien patters of the Chinese constellations. We spent the whole afternoon in the museum, until one by one our legs and backs started to give way to age (well, at least in my case), and we finally made our way back to the train station under Tiananmen Square, and to the hotel for dinner and the final rest before the first day of our conference meeting.

Floral Exposition in front of the National Museum of China, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China (May 22, 2016)