China Index |  Ting Chinese English Dictionary |  Beijing |  Great Wall |  Xi'an |  Shanghai |

Active Beijing

The Streets

Street life varies from the farmer's markets to the glittering joint-venture buildings which 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 is 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 under passes, in vacant lots, 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 market's 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 which 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 which 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.

Hot Red Peppers 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.  From left to right -- secretary, Liu Yu Rong, Ren Meng LLong, Pu Xi Yang 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 sighted 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.

Return to the China Page and Main Menu

Go to: Beijing | Active Beijing | Great Wall | Xi'an | Shanghai

Go to: Beijing History in Pictures | Modern Beijing in Pictures | Great Wall Pictures | Xi'an Pictures | Shanghai History in Pictures | Modern Shanghai in Pictures
Last update: January 2002
© Marilyn Shea 1996, 1999, 2002