Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great (Long) Wall of China

As a foreign invader, I only needed about 80 yuan to breach the Great Wall. China needs a little work on its fortifications.

Estranged from our college-student counterparts, Katy and I found ourselves stuck in the kiddie van for the hour-long trek to the Great Wall of China. The 13-year-old girls in the seat behind us could play with my ears all they wanted. I was going to stay grateful that we weren't having to take a cramped taxi around the winding curves that took us out of the urban sprawl of Beijing and up into the countryside, where the whisper of traditional, rural China can still be heard.

We parked at the bottom of a hill, at the curve in the street where lines of cars gave way to rows of shops. Salespeople mauled us as we walked toward the ticket gate, hawking everything from cold drinks and furry Russian hats to Mao merchandise and aluminum trekking poles. We made it through the gauntlet by dishing out a steady stream of "bu yao," which means, "I don't want," the essential phrase for traveling in any tourist area in China.

We took the easy way, buying what I call the "fat American special." This ticket, which included a cable car up the mountain and a toboggan sled back down, was a hit for those of us who wanted to save our energy to explore at the top, which included everybody. Besides, I didn't see a trail, and if there was one, it would've taken a few hours to conquer. Evan and I flashed our student IDs and scored a 20-percent discount. Who knew that a UGA card could save you money overseas?

As our lift ascended, our eyes filtered through the dusty fog that seemed to hang perpetually over Beijing. The wall seemed to go on forever, and we knew were only looking at a small piece of the gargantuan serpent that crawls over the lush mountains for about 1500 miles. The Chinese call the wall "Chang Cheng," which literally means "long wall." I guess English translators used the word "great" for the grandiose connotations that come along with it. But now, looking at it, I realized that the Chinese know their structure a lot better than we do. Vertically, the wall is formidable enough, but the true accomplishment is that the builders were able to sustain this height for such a long horizontal distance over terrain described by warning signs as "treacherous" and "perilous."

"How'd you like to attack this place?" I asked Katy as we plodded down the steep stairs and then back up again, gasping for air while my legs assumed the consistency of jello. In all, we probably covered about 2 kilometers and reached the highest peak in our sight range. The vantage point was so high that an approaching army would have nowhere to go before getting pummeled by a shower of arrows. And unless the Mongols had mountain goats as steeds, they'd have a hard time even getting to the wall on these steep slopes.

So why wasn't such a sturdy, well-positioned edifice more efficient at performing its intended function of protecting the empire? Apparently, the wall was so long that there weren't enough people to staff it, and even those at the posts weren't immune to a little bribery. It seems interesting that a structure with all the promise in the world, that cost so many lives to complete, could be penetrated by a little cash. From this perspective, the wall doesn't seem quite so "great."

Our historical appetites satisfied and our legs shot, we took the toboggan sled down the mountain and weaved our way through the shop owners back to the vans. All this walking, and our day wasn't even halfway over.

The Temple of Heaven

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the landmark feature of the Temple of Heaven, peeks over the walls that keep ignorant tourists (us) from treading once-sacred ground.

One of the Chinese government's qualms with Christianity is that it's a "foreign" and "western" religion. But a look at the Temple of Heaven suggests that atheism, which emerged as the Communist government's preferred worldview, is even farther removed from the traditional Chinese psyche than some of the more "superstitious" ideologies.

Heaven holds a prominent place in the traditional Chinese belief system. Of course, when the Chinese say "heaven," they don't mean the place where the saints will reign with Jesus Christ one day. Nor do they think of heaven as a concrete location boasting golden streets, crystal seas and cherubs strumming harps. While I haven't researched much about their view, I do know that it's steeped in Confucian and Daoist traditions. Defining Chinese cosmology is a tricky thing because it changes depending on what mix of belief systems is operating, but I think it's safe to say that in varying views, heaven can be both a realm that houses deities and a sort of fate-like entity that guides events on earth.

The Temple of Heaven, built in the 15th century by the Ming Dynasty, was a place reserved for the emperor and his attendants, where he would go to make sacrifices to appease the gods (or the fate-driven cycle) that produced a plentiful harvest throughout the land. I could spend days researching tidbits like the many ways in which the imperial number nine is incorporated into the architecture, or describing the way the cosmology of the day is reflected in the roundness of the three tiers of the temple's main structure.

But the most interesting thing about this place is looking beyond the present-day structures to their ancient precursors. What made the Ming emperor and his court choose this particular site upon which to build their premiere temple? It's likely that it was a sacrificial site before they decided to build it. And the fact that sacrifices occurred before 1420 AD begs the question: Did the Chinese ever have it right? Were they ever in possession of the truth?

The Bible says that after the Babel incident, God confused the languages of men and dispersed peoples throughout the earth. Obviously, the banished peoples, who shared the same language and milieu before Babel, would also share a similar heritage and mythology even though they could no longer communicate with one another. Some Chinese characters illustrate this possibility, and it's possible that prayers to heaven could have once been directed to the Lord of Heaven, whom the Chinese call Shang Di.

Of course, much of this is speculation, but that seems fitting considering the fact that we had to speculate about what the inside of the complex looked like. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the three-tiered, circular, orb-topped building featured on postcards of Tiantan, was only visible at the points where it peeked over the outside the walls of the complex. Unfortunately, the government cares more millions of people that will come to Beijing in 2008 for the Olympics than a few American tourists who made it just before closing time. Renovations are good for everyone except the people that plan their trips during them.

Having given it our best shot, we exited on the north side of Tiantan park, a beautiful and peaceful retreat stuck in the middle of bustling Beijing. Then we stuffed ourselves into taxis and headed back to the Sino-Swiss Hotel, where we'd try to stay up just long enough to allow our bodies to adjust to the time change before crashing onto our customarily hard Chinese beds.

Sources: and

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mai Dan Lao

When I'm in the States, I try to eat fast food as little as possible. But there's this burger joint called Mai Dan Lao that I've grown to love as I've traveled in China.

Mai Dan Lao is great for a lot of reasons:

1) It's ubiquitous in China. Large metropolitan areas usually have at least one franchise. Special economic zones may boast 20 or more.

2) It's inexpensive. A value meal comes with a sandwich (the double cheeseburger is my favorite selection) or a chicken dish (American nuggets or Chinese delights) along with fries and a drink. In China, the drink and fry sizes run smaller, so I make sure to splurge an extra 2 kuai (about $0.25) for the super-size meal, which usually lands a drink about the size of an American medium.

3) It's relatively healthy. As many stray chickens and cows as I've seen in China, I'm assuming that all the meats here are "free-range," meaning they were grown in pasture land away from all the evil growth hormones American farmers use to fatten our cattle and poultry (I'm totally making this up). Also, as I said before, the sizes run smaller. Smaller portions equal less unnecessary fat and sugar intake. Heck, they don't even let you refill those 20-oz. cups they're passing off as super-size Cokes.

4) It's relaxing. Almost every time I've eaten at Mai Dan Lao, it's been after coming in from long walks around the city. And to ensure comfort and relaxation, they don't even make you take your tray to the trash can. They have bus boys to take care of that.

5) It's much better than McDonald's. While fast food jobs are looked down upon in America, working at a fast-food franchise in China is the fast track to success. And the quality of the food and service in China compared to America reflects this disparity. The Chinese employees, who are happy to have beaten out the stiff competition for their jobs, take their work seriously and in turn deliver fresh, piping hot food to the customer quicker than you can say "cheeseburger." American workers generally grumble and complain about their jobs, and half the time they don't even get your order right.
There's just one thing that bothers me about Mai Dan Lao. Aren't they infringing on some kind of international copyright laws by using those golden arches and even being bold enough to write McDonald's on the sign? With such a difference in quality, it can't be the same restaurant, can it?

The Chairman's Image

Mao's larger-than-life portrait watches over Tiananmen Square.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Heavenly Peace

When most westerners think of Tiananmen Square, they think of the violent confrontation between the Chinese government and thousands of protesters on June 4, 1989. But few know that Tiananmen literally translates to "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and as we made the rounds, I found out just how ironic that name is.

We exited the rectangular complex of the Forbidden City on the south side through Tiananmen, which opens into the square of the same name, a huge concrete mall lined with government buildings on all sides and dotted with monuments heralding the exploits of influential party members. The square is modeled after Moscow’s Red Square, and it’s interesting to see the Soviet architecture juxtaposed with the traditional Chinese buildings in the Forbidden City. Each style helps tell the story of 20th-century China, the gradual shift from the secluded rule of the emperors in the Forbidden City to the Communist rule established by Mao Ze Dong in 1949.

As I was researching Beijing, I thought my ideal itinerary in the Forbidden City would start by passing under Qianmen, the "front gate" south of the square, then traversing the square and entering through Tiananmen, beneath Mao’s giant portrait, which hangs above the center of three alcoves. But exiting here gave me a more chronological experience, bringing me from the Ming and Qing dynasties into the modern era, where Mao’s specter still lingers but seems to be fading as capitalism encroaches and the Party loses relevance.

There were murmurings, at least by our friends, that the government was considering taking Mao’s face down. If they did, I wondered what they would put in its place, or if they would replace him with anything at all. I thought a cross or a mural of an empty tomb would be nice to see there, looking over a place that has seen so much oppression in the past century. The government now acknowledges that Mao was wrong at least part of the time, but he’s still revered for uniting the republic under one banner.

Tiananmen was the place where about a million people came together to celebrate the Communist takeover of China and the installment of Mao in 1949, as the world was reeling from war. While there weren’t any protesters mowed down at this rally, this was where Mao, the self-proclaimed "Great Savior" of the people, started his rule and received the authority to begin reforms like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. These campaigns spelled death for innumerable Chinese citizens who were casualties of negligence and government inefficiency or were simply killed because they didn’t agree with the ideals of the Party.

And as most westerners know, Tiananmen is also the site of the June 4, 1989 incident, where a peaceful protest was crushed when the Chinese army rolled in with tanks and guns blazing. According to our friends, the event is known in China as 6-4, and it evokes images and feelings similar to those Americans get when they hear "9-11." I don’t know how much the Chinese media actually leaked about the event, or if foreign news services were on hand to grasp the atrocities in all their grim detail. In China, the line between news and propaganda is blurred at best. But the government couldn’t keep it hush-hush, as I’m sure they knew when they ordered the attack. They took a risk, knowing they’d lose credibility in the eyes of the world, but certain that pesky supporters of democracy would fear the iron fist that had pounded the center of the square.

This brand of oppression has been the signature of the Chinese government since the People's Republic was founded, and one last tourist attraction perfectly represents the Party's desperation--and inability--to hold onto its original ideals as the country gravitates toward globalization and capitalism.

Scanning the Lonely Planet China book before our plane touched down in Beijing, I read something that shocked me: Chairman Mao's embalmed corpse is put on display in a glass vault/case for 2 hours a day, and pilgrims from all over China and the rest of the world can come pay their respects, or if they're like me, wonder why anyone would memorialize--or mummify--someone who had caused so much harm. The government schedules maintenance, taking care of the Mao's carcass much like they would any other historic relic.

Unfortunately, we didn't arrive during visiting hours. I wanted to be the only guy at my university to have thrown up on Mao's rotting remains. To put this exhibit into ghastly perspective, this year marks the 30th anniversary of Mao's death. And to think, when Jesus called Lazarus out, the people were afraid of his four-day stench!

As I said before, Mao promised to save the people from their ailments--physical, economical, and spiritual. But his body is still here, and although his ideas still linger, he's become more of a pop-culture icon than a shepherd to the massive flock that is the Chinese population.

In total darkness a meager candle is better than an absent sun. Where there is a dearth of the Gospel, false saviors can flourish. A struggling people desire someone to unify them and guide them through dark days. For the latter half of the 20th century, Mao was the man who stepped in and promised to do so. With him gone and his image fading, there is opportunity to infuse this culture with a new Savior, One who speaks to the needs of their hearts, and one who doesn't need to be preserved because the grave could not hold him.

He is the only "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and my vision is that one day this square will be used to announce the establishment of a new kingdom, one where hearts searching for a Great Savior can rest because they are fully assured that they have found the true one.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Enter the Forbidden City

From the Capital Airport we originally planned to take taxis to a subway station and ride the rail into Beijing proper. About halfway there, we realized that it wasn't worth the hassle to switch modes of transportation to save a few yuan. I was fine with the decision. It gave us more time to listen to our driver's blaring Chinese music and watch the VCD player built into the sun visor of our shiny new green taxi.

A half hour and about $12 later, we arrived at the northern gate of Beijing's Forbidden City. In all my travels in China, I'd never made it to the capital before. Coming here would be one of the highlights of my trip. For me, seeing sites isn't about a traveler's bragging rights. They're portraits of history, tools to help understand a culture with a mindset and heritage vastly different than my own. You can't speak to someone's heart unless you understand the things they hold dear. And for a culture as ancient as China, history is the prized possession.

The sheer size of the northern gate took me aback. With the pagoda-style roof, cylindrical columns and traditional red, gold, blue and green paint, it looked familiar. But it also had an otherness about it that I couldn't explain until further thought. Then I realized it: the same architectural style imitated in Chinese restaurants in America, the roof structure that tops gazebos and temples throughout China. These explain the familiarity. But this place is the archetype, the model from which all the copies got their roots--and their blueprints. This explains the otherness. A lightbulb can remind you of the sun, but look once at the sun and you'll see that they're not the same.

A thick red wall stood about 20 feet high and surrounded the entire complex, which is said to cover about 2 square miles. I wondered if it has always been red, or if it was painted that color after the Communist takeover in 1949. People swarmed the paved area outside the gate. An Indian family snapped a picture. A Chinese couple marveled. And our group of 13 Americans moved toward the ticket booth, where surprisingly those waiting had formed some semblance of a queue. Desperate tour guides barked at foreigners in multiple languages hoping for some group to enlist their services. Looking at the teeming masses of people, I thought "Forbidden City" is hardly an appropriate name for a place so crowded.

In fact, if you have 60 yuan to spend, the big gold-studded doors will fling open and usher you into the playground of the 13th-century ruling class. The walled complex, built during the Ming dynasty, is known as "forbidden" because of its original purpose--to keep God-ordained emperors and other members of the elite class from mingling with the common people. While the city was still in use, it served its purpose well, but this isolation left the emperors largely uninformed about the lives of the people they ruled. So, according to our friends, emperors delegated away a lot of the authority and served more as ceremonial figureheads than active leaders.

As we walked, Elayne said something about how the last emperor to live in the Forbidden City would occasionally sneak out so he could experience relief from the pressures of ruling and the freedom of the common people. Even though my research has proven that he only left because he was forced out, I still thought I'd like a someone that saw materialism and ease as a poison to be escaped from, not as a tub to soak in.

Then I began to think about the great city in heaven our sin forbids us to enter. Just like this Forbidden City was opened to the public after 500 years of seclusion and now draws millions every year, we want to see the throneroom of God--for which Jesus is the gate--opened to a people that have no idea about the love and benevolence that lives inside, or about the king that forfeited his high position to clear the path. When they enter this kingdom, they won't be tourists snapping pictures, trying to capture memories. They'll be citizens with direct and eternal access to the King.