Thursday, May 25, 2006

On The Da Vinci Code

Last Sunday, I got to watch the movie, Da Vinci Code, which is based on a best selling novel by Dan Brown of the same title. My conclusion after watching the movie is that the movie and hence, the novel is purely fiction. There is no truth to the author’s claim. I’m no believer and I’m writing to defend the faith rather that my interest with the subject matter is merely philosophical. Actually, I don’t find the idea of Jesus Christ having a descendant preposterous rather I find the “proof” put forward by the author flimsy. My reason? In the latter end of the movie, the movie revealed that the heroine is the descendant of Christ since her surname is St. Claire, which traces it lineages back to the Merovingian line and this is where the problem lies. The Merovingians are the first dynasty of kings that rule Gaul, the modern day France after the fall of the Roman Empire during the 5th century. The progenitor of the Merovingian fortune is Clovis, a grandson of Merovech, from which the name Merovingian was derived. Clovis is the king of a confederation of barbarians that invaded the Roman empire known as the Franks from which France derives it’s name. Like all ancient rulers, the Franks sought to legitimize their rule by claiming divine association. The Franks like all German barbarians at that time are Arians, a Christian sect that believed that there could be only one God and Christ is different from God the father and therefore, human albeit divine. They didn’t believe in the holy trinity. Clovis capitalizes on that prevailing belief to proclaim himself as the descendant of Christ, a very visible manifestation of the divine rights of kings. Since time immemorial, rulers tend to manipulate religion in order to garner the support and loyalty of a god – fearing and religious people. As an example, the Chinese call their emperors, the Son of Heaven, believing that the emperor alone possesses the mandate from heaven to rule the entire humanity. Roman emperors after Constantine the Great uses Christianity to legitimize their rule claiming that the Roman world is the mirror image of paradise and that since there is one God in paradise so there should be one Emperor as God’s vicar on earth, a designation contested by the Pope. Egyptian pharaohs believed that they are the son of Osiris, a god and this in fact induces, Alexander the Great to think himself as a son of God, specifically, Zeus. As late as the 19th century, religion still provided the necessary legitimacy needed by would be rulers. A case in point, Hong Xiu Chuan, who claimed that he is God’s second son and Christ’s younger brother, led a rebellion against Machu rule in China. The rebellion is known in history as the Taiping rebellion. In modern times, the Japanese emperor still claims descent from the Shinto goddess, Ameratsu. My point? Religion and divinity is always a potent and common tool used by kings to generate support, the Merovingians are no exception. To use the Merovingian genealogy as the basis of claim as Christ’s descendant is pretty weak. However, the idea put forward by the movie is quite compelling. What if Jesus Christ is not what we think he is? What if he is human and not at all divine? Intriguing, because the root word Christianity is derived from Christ. Would Christianity survive without Christ? The answer is simple, it won’t but I do wonder, why not? Why can’t it survive at all? Gautama Buddha is not at all divine but simply human. He never claims divinity and yet, the religion he founded to reform Hinduism survives up to this day. Mohammed the prophet wasn’t divine either but claims to be the messenger of Allah. Again like Buddhism, Islam is still going strong up till this day. My point? A religion survives not because of the person who founded it but rather on the basic tenets it profess whether such tenets are divinely inspired or self – meditated like Buddha because such tenets appeal to the common people. Christianity isn’t about the resurrection and the miracles of Christ rather it is about the idea of a loving (without discrimination and prejudice), forgiving (in spite of all the sins committed by Man), and compassionate God as opposed to the previous belief of an unforgiving and jealous God. God is not in the disease, the calamities, or the unfortunate mishap but is in every human soul that has compassion for others. Christianity may not be the same without the divine Christ but can’t Christianity be about the belief as expounded by Christ?

Friday, May 19, 2006


April 16, Easter Sunday, Day 4 of my vacation. The weather was great that beautiful Sunday morning. The temperature is in the high teens, not too cold nor was it was hot either. The wind was also calm (level 1 – 2 according to the weather report), a perfect day to climb the Wall. Like the day before, I was again late because nobody told me that we would be leaving by 0830 instead 0900 (Dang!). Despite that, I was in a good mood and really didn’t mind about it. Can’t help it but feel great for there is something about past relics that brings out the sentiment in me as a historian and a romanticist even though it is just “a mere stonewall”. Maybe, it is the fact that as a historian, I always wanted to “verify” about what I read and with what I actually see and try to appreciate the whole thing from the perspective of men from a bygone era. Anyway, before we even reached the Great Wall, Kitty, our tour guide brought us to shopping (of jades) at a Jade Factory. Oh, how I hate shopping (More on that later)! I was getting impatient with the dilly dallying of our guide but still I manage to keep my cool after all it was a great day. After something like an hour of shopping, we proceeded to Pa Tat Ling, the mountain range where the Great Wall lies. As our bus approaches the mountain range, I noticed that one of the slopes looked surprisingly like a dragon claw. In fact, the entire mountain looked like a sleeping dragon. According to Feng Shui, burying ones’ ancestors near the “mouth” of the dragon ensures that their descendants would remain on the dragon throne for all eternity. This is probably why the Ming Ling or the Burial Complex of the Ming Emperors is located nearby presumably near the “mouth”. As we approach the Shan Hai Kuan (Pass or Gate), I can’t help myself but recall the stories and legends surrounding the Great Wall. I don’t know why but I recalled one particular legend, the legend of the lady Meng whose husband was forcibly recruited by the Chin Emperor to build the wall. In her desperation to reunite with her husband, lady Meng embarks a journey to the Great Wall (which was under construction then) but she couldn’t find her husband and so she wailed and cried for 3 days and 3 nights (?). Her sorrow so touched heaven that it brought the Wall down and reveal the corpse of her husband underneath and so she was able to finally reunite with her husband. I doubt it if I could see the spot where that happen if it did happen at all but that is the point, so much history has passed in this place, so many people, so many stories, so many legends and yet only the stone wall remains up to this day. This is truly a monument that withstood the test of time. As we arrived at the Gate and alighted from the bus, I make a sweep of my surrounding and took in the incredible view. Indeed! This is a strategic place. The Shan Hai Kuan was nestled between two mountains in a valley beside a river. The mountains are steep thus making an attack on its wall a near impossible uphill battle. The road in front of the Gate is so narrow that no matter how huge the attacking army was, only a few columns could approach it. A handful of defenders would suffice to hold off the siege. No wonder, Shan Hai Kuan is called the “most strongest gate in the (Chinese) world” for it could withstand the most determined sieges and only a miracle could make that Gate crumble against an attacking army, which it happened during the end of the Ming era when the defending Ming general, Wu San Kuei opened the gates and “invited” the Manchu army in to “restore” order to the universe. The Manchu eventually establishes the Ching dynasty, the last Chinese dynasty and the rest is as they say is history. We lined up for our ticket (cost 35RMB but the guide paid for it since it is part of the package) and entered the Pass. Inside the Pass is a temple dedicated to Kuan Yee, China’s Warrior god, the god of honor, loyalty, and martial prowess as well as the patron saint of the common soldiers. Kuan Yee is actually a historical person. I planned to pay my respect for the noble hero (not to worship) but had to skip it due to the sheer number of people paying their “respect”. At any rate, I was up with the entire tour group as well as several hundreds of tourist on the lower section of the wall through the Gate. Again like in the Yu Garden, I had this sense of surrealism with me when I was at the walls. But then and there, I “discovered” a marble inscription containing the famous words of Chairman Mao, “Pu Tao Chang Cheng Fei Hao Han”. It means, “If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you’re not a man (or a hero depending on the translation)”. Well, getting to the Great Wall was easy; you just need to get in a plane and ride a bus and presto, you’re here! Climbing the Great Wall is altogether different (due to its distance and steepness). Now, if one were able to climb the Great Wall, what would he be? Probably, it’s the challenge offered by Mao and the fact that, I rarely back down from a good challenge for suddenly, the “sentimental old fool” in me was gone and in it’s place was an adventurous egoist eager to take up the challenge. And so, with that, I began my arduous climb to conquer the Great Wall of China. Not all of the group members climbed, most of the “senior” citizens stayed put. Megan (entrusted to the Doc’s and my care during the climb by her grandma), the Doc, and I teamed up. I went ahead and they “catch up”. I was so full of energy. My adrenaline was probably pumped up for I practically “sprint” my way up. The climb was a challenge indeed! It was too steep with the angle is somewhere near 90 degrees! The steps though wide are unevenly separated. Some steps are just a few inches apart while in the steepest section of the climb, the distance between the steps could reached as much as 2 – 2 ½ feet! If not for the rails (a modern addition), I doubt that most people could climb the walls. In fact, some people literally climb using both hands as well. Somewhere in the middle of the slope, I was already panting from the arduous climb (dang! I’m in a terrible shape!). I felt like I had 10 workouts already! Funny, back at the lower end of the wall, people were laughing and joking around but by the time they reached the middle of the slope, everybody is silent except for their heavy breathings! At that section of the wall, I found a lot of the tourist resting on the steps even though the path is narrow (good for 2 ½ people to move around). Mindful of my companions, I proposed that we rest on that steps and catch our breath like what others did (I actually need to catch my breathe as well but I was just too proud to admit to it then). As we were resting, we took sight of the view “downstairs”. The first thing I see were the tourists, hundreds of them “charging” towards me. Each of them seemed hell bent as I am in reaching the top for there is nowhere else to go but up. The view “down there” is quite magnificent for from our vantage point, it would seem that the wall has become the “stair” for the “pilgrims” to reach Mount Olympus (the legendary home of the Greek gods). After resting for sometime, we continued our ascent to the top. I don’t if Megan did it intentionally or she just really meant it, for she started to repeat a popular question in the movie, Shrek. She repeatedly asked, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” She was so cute. The Doc and I played along and replied, “No, No, No, No, Yes! We’re here!” and laughed. It was fun and we were actually the only ones laughing all the way. It is things like that that makes the climb easier and merrier and memorable. Finally, we reached our first watchtower (the second according to Megan). We stayed at the small portico and survey the surroundings. I peered out of the wall and “discovered” a narrow dirt road. Actually, it looked more like a clearing, a trodden path one might say. Somewhere in the middle of that path, it split into two with one running parallel to the wall and up the mountain and the other running towards the wall that I’m in. could this be the path whence the barbarians took centuries ago? Maybe. At any rate, I would never know. We went inside the tower to find out how it looks like. The inside of the tower looked cramped and dark probably could hold 10 people or 20 at most if you want to have a “sardine”. We then went up the tower to it open top. The staircase going up is likewise steep and narrow, too narrow that it could accommodate one person at a time. And oh by the way, it doesn’t have a handrail. At the open top, we were treated with the beautiful view of the mountain slope with its yellow green grass and scenic mountain afar. We also “discovered” some “modern” art – graffiti to be exact etched on the wall forever proclaiming to posterity the visits of those authors. After lingering for a while, we went down the watchtower and continued our climb. The ascent to the second watchtower (the third according to Megan) was shorter and was relatively easier to climb but was nonetheless challenging and fun. By the time, we reached the second watchtower; there are far fewer tourists than the first tower about only a third of the number. We rest a little, looked around and then continued our climb. Somewhere between the second tower and the third tower (the third and the fourth by Megan’s insistence and I’m not about to dispute that), we came across a “plateau”, more like an open parade ground and by then we looked up at our watches and discovered that it is quarter before 12 noon, our supposed assembly time down at the Gate in order for the group to head out for lunch. Megan by this time is also beginning to feel tired and wanted to head back as well. Hahhhhhhh….. I’m almost at the top. If it were left for me alone, I would have forgone lunch and told Kitty to leave me behind and come back for me latter in the afternoon after I’ve made my climb. I could have also left my companions and proceeded alone (leaving Megan to the Doc’s care). But then and there, I realized that there are things more important than reaching the top. Things like responsibility, of being responsible to the one entrusted to your care, of being responsible to the one you care, to the one I cared and of course, lunch! I could only sigh. It was so close yet so far away. I had no choice but to get back to earth again but not until I did two things aside from getting some pictures. First, I went to the corner of the wall, looked out in the open, put both hands in my mouth and shout at the top of my voice against the wind, “I AM THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!!” (That was about the second time I did it, the first time I did it was when I’m at the Yang Ming mountain in Taiwan en route to the airport. We stopped for fresh air and for no apparent reason, I crossed over a fence and walked up to the edge of the cliff, looked down the ravine, take a step back and put my hands on my mouth and shout, “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD” after which, I raised my arm in victory, beat that). Megan and the Doc looked at me bewildered (more like shocked) at my antics and tried to dissociate from me by moving to the side (I was actually planning to do the Tarzan’s call of the wild but that would be too “inappropriate” to the scene as we are in the Great Wall and not in the jungle). I did attract attention from the few people there but they just shrugged it off and continue their own enjoyment. Next, I pulled out a pen and with Megan, we “lightly etched” our names along with the Doc on the stone wall including the date for posterity (what’s the point of not writing? Everybody writes. Dang! I should have bought a marker or a knife instead). I took a last look of the top, hoping that it would forever etch into my conscience and turn my back and head towards the stair. And so with a heavy heart and an empty stomach, Megan, the Doc, and me make our way back to earth. Funny how the return trip seemed faster than the trip the other way around. Probably, it is gravity but then again it must be the lure of the lunch on a growling stomach but it could also be due to the sprint of joy for we all manage to achieve something that day even though it wasn’t earth shattering but momentous nonetheless in our lives. As we reached the base of the Wall, we visited the display of ancient Chinese weapons there and we took some pictures. The ladies decided to take the picture together and asked me to take it for them. They made that Charlie’s Angel kick – ass pose in front of the display, which is really cute (I wish that I had that picture). It is journey (or any other journey) like this with partners and friends that makes the journey easy and worth every moment of it. As we went our way to meet up with the group, we passed by a store selling “hero” certificates (in reference to the inscription). Megan wanted to buy one but I asked her, “what’s the point?” I told her that people who didn’t climb could buy that certificate to “prove” their feat but we don’t need it because our proof is inside us and that is our memory and no certificate could replace that (aside from that, we had pictures and our “etched” names preserved for posterity). “Pu Tao Chang Cheng, Fei Hao Han”, right on Chairman Mao, right on. Someday, I’ll be back and finish the climb and nothing is going to hold me back. I would definitely reach the top but then again, why stopped at the top when I could go even further?

When I was writing this piece, I realize how difficult was it for the ancient soldiers manning the Great Wall. The importance of the Great Wall cannot be undermined. For the Great Wall was the demarcation line between civilization and barbarity, dividing the agricultural farmlands from the desert, and serve as a bulwark of order against chaos. The ancient soldier was given this great burden and the task was by no means easy. Imagine soldiers wearing full armor, carrying spears, arrows, and swords as well as provisions running up and down the steep slopes of the wall without the aid of a handrail. It is bad enough to climb the wall, what more carrying all those things? There are times when winters are harsh and the snowfall heavy, soldiers are forced to “stay” at their post at the towers without relief for days perhaps. Imagine them shivering in coldness and hunger. The scenery although magnificent and awesome are all too familiar to them for they have watched the slopes turned from green to brown to white and to green again. Their routine task everyday may not be much since they’re just simply watching, waiting, wondering when would the barbarians come and perhaps at times, they would their gaze towards the north, inside the Great Wall, also wondering……….. wondering when they would go home…….. if at all.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


April 15,2006: Day 3 of my trip to Shanghai – Beijing. I woke up early at 0400 (roughly 3 hours of sleep) that day because I had to get myself ready for the flight to Beijing. The flight wasn’t until 0900 but the airport is at the outskirt of the city and it takes 2 hours (?) or so to get there and frankly, I don’t want to be late and missed the flight. And so, by 0430, I was all done and down at the lobby waiting for the rest of group. Apparently, I’m too early because I was the only “guest” in the lobby (aside from the 2 hotel staffs, a bellboy, a guard, and a janitor). I was about to read the book that I bring along when I realized that I was being “stupid”. After all, I could just have waited in my room till the 0600 meeting time. With that thought, I went back up to my room and watch TV (they had HBO by the way) until the appointed time. By the time I went down again, I was surprised to “see” everybody at the lobby “waiting” for me! They thought that I had overslept and had the operator call me and even sent a bellboy to “fetch” me. Poor me, I had to insinuate rather strongly that I was at the lobby by 0430 and had to go back up because no one was there yet but nobody believed me. Dang! I learned my lesson, never be too early to a meeting and never wait till the exact time to show up either! We had our packed breakfast courtesy of the hotel at the bus (the only time I didn’t have a “heavy” breakfast) and got to the airport just in time for the opening of the counter check – in (Whew! For a while I thought we’re all going miss our flight because of me). While checking in, we were surprised that our tour guide, Sally requested us to fill up a performance evaluation form. It is quite an oddity since such evaluation was never done before but I could see why. There has been one too many complaints about “bad” services by Chinese tour guides and the travel agency apparently wanted to ensure the quality of service, which is a great idea whose time has come. Anyway, Sally did really a great job and so we gave her all 5s (the highest score) on the evaluation except for the driver (he got a 4). All things went well at the airport and the plane took off exactly on time. I had to say I had this “misconception” about Chinese airlines (I’m on China Southern, FYI). I heard many people say that the planes are old and dilapidated. The services are bad and the travel “bumpy”, which generally gave passengers a feeling of insecurity. Well, none of them are true. The plane we were on was a brand new Airbus. The travel was rather smooth and uneventful actually. In short, it was a safe ride! The food though ok was something left to be desired. I was expecting a “hot” meal for breakfast but instead I got nuts (packed pistachio nuts) and more nuts for snack (apparently, they don’t serve breakfast on the first flight)! When we arrived at Beijing, the temperature is a little bit warmer somewhere in the vicinity of 10 – 12oC. Nonetheless, it was still cold because of the strong winds. The wind in Beijing is different from Shanghai since it was both gusty and dry. I could readily feel my face being “stretched” and “scorched” by the wind. Later on, we would learned from our tour guide that after being exposed to the wind for sometime, one would develop “rashes” on the nose and the surrounding cheeks making it appear as if we were “blushing” (which is true and therefore, never fool yourself into thinking that Beijing women are “shy” when you flirted with them). This is also the reason why facial moisturizers are the best sellers in Beijing! Well, we eventually met up with our Beijing tour guide, Kitty and boarded the bus to the city. As we got out of the airport and went to the city, the first impression I got about Beijing is that it is “conservative”. Unlike Shanghai, where one could see “slick” new buildings and sky scrappers literally littering the sky, in Beijing, the building architectural designs are more “normal” and “shorter”. Beijing also has its share of tall buildings and modern elevated highways, lighted streets and pavements but it dwarfs in comparison to Shanghai. In fact, Beijing looks “parochial” if not “provincial” or worst, outright “backward” when compared to Shanghai. Maybe it is because Beijing is the “old” political – cultural capital of China and therefore, the government has to preserve some sense of “dignity”, of “reserve”, of “history”, of “mysticism”, and of “conservatism” in this center of China. As Kitty puts it, “if you want to see the face of modern China, visit Shanghai; If you want to see the beauty of 500 year old China, visit Beijing and if you wanted to look at what 1000 year old China looks like, then go to Xian”. Even so, Beijing like Shanghai is in the middle of a construction frenzy. This is in preparation to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and one could really see that the government is sparing no expense in “rebuilding” Beijing. Another thing I noticed about Beijing and to some lesser extent, Shanghai and that is the conspicuous public toilets. They looked like it was built somewhere in the 60s. At first thought, one might think that the public toilets are for tourist or for the “passing” city residents but its actually not. It is actually a neighborhood toilet, which indirectly suggests that most “old” houses here in Beijing and probably in most of China had no modern sanitary facilities. The government built all these to improve public health, which is actually a good thing when one considers the state of public sanitation in the Philippines, where there is a seeming absence of such in slum areas. I presume that the public toilets are free in “ancient” times but nowadays, they charged 0.50 RMB per use and by the way, they stink, big time (that is if you happen to pass by)! Furthermore, Beijing seems somewhat to be “sparsely populated” compared to the “crowded” party atmosphere at Shanghai. All of this gives me the impression of an “old” Beijing. Anyway, our first stop in Beijing was Chuan Si Te to get our lunch, the second of those great lunches we had during our trip. Chuan Si Te is famous for it’s Peking Duck (after all, where could you find the best Peking Duck in the whole wide world but in Beijing, the old “Peking”). According to Kitty, the secret to a delicious Peking Duck is not only in the herb and spices and how they cook it but also on the specific genus of the duck and how they are fed. These ducks are fed with the finest feeds and reared in cages so they could fatten up quickly. The end result? The Peking Duck we had was quite meaty with no fats, best of all, it is greaseless too! Outrageously delicious! The best Peking Duck I could remember. Aside from the duck, we were also served with 5 – 7 dishes with duck meat and innards as the main ingredients. All of them are delicious (dang! I just want to get back just to taste the Ducks!). I would say that I probably gained most of my weight gain from there (I’ve gained 4 kg!)! Chuan Si Te is not only famous for it’s Peking Duck. The restaurant is also renowned as the favorite banquet hall for foreign guests by the Chinese government. Along the corridor, one could see the pictures of presidents who came by and sample their famous dish. There is Richard Nixon, Carlos Menem of Argentina, Rajiv Gandhi of India just to name a few. There is also Henry Kissinger and several other top diplomats and generals. Among the “lesser” personalities who had the “honor” of being able to sign their name on the wall minus the picture are the ambassadors of the different embassies in Beijing. Oh, I’m so tempted to pull out my pen and sign my name beside them but I hesitated. Perhaps someday, I might have my chance (apparently, delusion is one of the side effects of eating too much of their Peking Duck). After that sumptuous meal, the tour guide took us to the famous Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace complex, home to 2 dynasties of sons of heaven. As we approach the “inner” city (not the Forbidden City), we came across the walls of the ancient city of Beijing (the present Beijing is thrice the size of the ancient city). The city walls, according to history, are guarded by 12 gates. The walls no longer stand although one could see certain sections of it but the majestic gates still stands and it quite imposing even by modern day standard. Too bad, like most scenic spots in Beijing, the gates are under heavy renovation. Not far away from the gates, is our destination, The Tienanmen Square and the Tienanmen gate, the first of the 5 entrance way to the fabled Forbidden City. If Beijing is the political center of China then Tienanmen is the political center of Beijing for one could find the Tienanmen gate itself with the ever watchful portrait of Chairman Mao hang on it’s face, the Great Hall of People’s Congress, China’s “main” government institution, the obelisk monument dedicated to the fallen heroes of the revolution; the Beijing Museum of Antiquities and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, where they kept the body of the Great Helmsman refrigerated in a glass coffin (it’s rarely open to the public). Not far away are the homes of the communist top brass in Chong Nan Hai. Tienanmen Square is quite huge and is actually populated at all times. This is also the place where the Chinese government holds their flag ceremonies everyday. There is also something else that one would notice in the square, something so “unthinkable”. In this heartland of communism, one could see that capitalism has indeed taken root in China for conspicuously within the square are the trailers peddling everything from snacks, to colas and bottled water to camera films to newspapers (BTW, a 500mL bottled water cost 2RMB). I wonder what Chairman Mao would say if his could see these from his “post” at the walls of the Tienanmen gate (where his portrait hangs)? Anyway, we took some pictures at the square culminating with a group picture with Chairman Mao’s portrait at the background. We crossed the street to where the gate is to begin our journey inside the Forbidden City but first, we all had to take a “washroom break” (A fundamental characteristics of Filipino tourists). I don’t know about the condition of the ladies’ room but the men’s room is clean but stinky. It’s adequate when you consider the huge volume of “visitors” that it had to “accept” but barely satisfactory. I had seen better. Later on, I found out that tourist’s washrooms are actually “graded”. So far, in my entire trip in Beijing, the best washroom I’ve actually been to is graded with 4 stars. Most of them are 3 stars. From these, one could “imagine” the state of the amenities of the tourist spots in Beijing. Another observation I had is that the bulk of the visitors (about 75%) here in Beijing are locals and not foreigners, specifically domestic travelers from outside Beijing. This is a testament to the rising standard of living among the provincial Chinese (they looked a lot like farmers and peasants) since they could now afford to visit scenic places within their country. As we enter Tienanmen gate, I was beholden to see another huge gate at a distance and a square as huge as Tienanmen Square itself in between the first and the second gate. It is the same architectural lay – out with the second and the third gate, The Wu Men, i.e., the giant imposing gate and the huge square. The Wu Men gate is considered as the first “inner” gate of the Forbidden City and if my memory serves me right, it is here where the emperors beheaded “erring” ministers and courtiers. The Wu Men from the top view has a U – Shape design with guard towers on both flanks and the center. The blast doors of the gates are huge like 3 stories high and are “studded” with lines of brass balls on its face. From what I had seen so far, I came to realize one thing and that is the Forbidden City is not just the Palace where the Emperor lives, works and performs his divine function, it is also a citadel by itself. It is a citadel to protect the Emperor from the “invasion” of a rival claimant. For from a military standpoint, the design of the door with its brass balls is meant to lessen the impact strength of rams. The huge square could easily hold hundreds of troops and this could also tire out the invaders since they had to transverse the great distance. The gates especially the Wu Men gate is designed to entrapped the besiegers at the gate and shower them with arrows as the latter tried to break in. The fourth gate (the second inner gate) has a moat and is only passable by three bridges. On top of that, the entire Forbidden City is surrounded also by a moat. There is also a back door leading to a hill where the Emperor could escape into if things went badly (it actually happened when the last Ming Emperor fled and hang himself on a tree at the hill). This is one tough nut to crack (but it did crack from time to time in the past). The Forbidden City is also a “boundary” that separates the Emperor from the outside “earthly” world. For the majesty of the architecture has imbibed the Emperor with an aura of divinity exciting the awes of any humble mortal who enters the sacred place and caused them to tremble and worship the inviolable sanctity of the imperial person. This is clearly shown with the palace complex within the 5th gate. The palaces are both magnificent and awesome. Too bad, it is under renovation! Even so, the magnificence of the buildings isn’t lost. Not only that, the design of the City itself has incorporated the ceremonial rituals that only enhance the majesty of the Imperial Power. The stone staircase leading to the great hall is separated into two columns and has an intricate stone carving of 9 dragons playing the sun in between the two staircases. On the emperor’s left (my right since I was facing inside), is the staircase for the Mandarin civil officials of the empire and on the emperor’s right (my left) is the staircase for the Military officers of the empire to enter the hall (I wasn’t able to see the hall because it is under renovation!). In ancient times, nobody can “face” the Emperor straight up but only to “humbly” walk by his side. Lastly, the Forbidden City is a wall jealously guarded to protect the “purity’ of the imperial blood line from being “contaminated” and therefore ensure the rightful succession of a divine family. The high walls and huge squares are not only meant for invaders but also to would be intruders. The location of the chambers of the palaces and the quarters of the imperial harem at the inner half of the complex are designed with this consideration. However, the Forbidden City could easily be also a prison for the occupants especially the Imperial women. To ensure that these women aren’t at least feel “bounded” by this “prison”, scenic landscapes and beautifully designed gardens abound the inner half of the Forbidden City making the occupants feel that they had forsaken their freedom to roam the earth in exchange for dwelling in paradise. Inside the garden is man – made mountain intricately carved with a mansion on top. And as Megan noticed, the walls beneath the balconies and walkways are lined with mini dragonheads (she asked what is it used for), which are actually water sprouts (according to National Geographic). Not only are those dragonheads located at the walls but they are also located on the roofs. When rain falls on the balcony, the water would be drained through the flooring and pass through to the pipes and out of the mouth of the “dragons”. With that, imagine the scenery when it rains in the Forbidden City (I did asked Megan to imagine that also). It would be a magnificent water show with hundreds of fountains coming out of the dragon’s mouth. And so, this is why the place is called the Forbidden City. Nobody could get in and those who are in couldn’t get out either granted that they do wanted to get out at all. Too bad, the place is under renovation. I couldn’t get to see the place in it’s entirety. Actually, I could understand why it is under renovation. Just look at the brick floorings of the square. It is already uneven and depressed and some are even seriously damaged. This is due to the sheer volume of visitors who trod through the complex. Then again, the renovation offered me an opportunity to get a glimpse of the basic architecture of palaces, an anatomy to the ancient Chinese architecture, a rare view I would say. One of the palaces had it’s roof removed and I could see the Chinese uses concentric logs arranged in squares and put one on top of the other with each succeeding ones smaller than at the bottom forming a pyramid (trusses aren’t invented yet back then). The result was to create an angle for the bamboo to be placed upon and on top of which are laid with tiles forming that signature glittering Chinese style trapezoidal roof. There is a scene spoiler inside the Forbidden City and that is the “omnipresence” of Starbucks (actually there is only one Starbucks inside the complex). Like in the Cheng Huang district in Shanghai, it is somewhat incompatible with the romantic nostalgia of the past. Anyway, we were able to finish the tour under 2 hours not because there was nothing to see (due to renovations) but largely because our tour guide, Kitty kept on walking rather mindlessly with her head bow. She didn’t give us much picture taking time like what Sally gave us during our tour of Shanghai (though we manage to take pictures here and there). We actually had to run to catch up with her. I told the doctor to give her a grade of 2 in the evaluation at the end of the trip, which unfortunately never happened. After the visit, our next destination is to visit Beijing’s Hutong or ancient alleys. We rode on bike carriages (the Chinese version of the Filipino pedicab) in our tour of the Hutong. Nothing much to see though. The houses maybe old but they’re not the Ching era houses but rather the early Republican era houses (built sometime in the 1920s). We end up at the Drum Tower. The Drum Tower along with the Bell Tower is ancient Beijing’s equivalent of the London’s Big Ben or the Clock Tower for the purpose of the two towers is to inform the residents of the time of the day and the season. In ancient times, there is no clock or watch and people don’t have calendars also. The only way they could tell time is when the bells and drum strike. The Towers are like 10 – 15 stories tall (or was it 20?) made of stone and in ancient Beijing where every houses are one to two stories high. The Towers along with the City Gates, the Temple, and the Forbidden City stands out as the most imposing structures in ancient Beijing (it still is because most of the houses beside the tower are “low”). There are nine steps from the ground to the portico at the feet of the tower. The “9” signifies the place as an imperial architecture (9 is the highest number and it came to represent the Emperor). There is only one way to the top chamber of Tower and that is through the staircase. Now, the staircase is one of the main attractions of the Tower for it is VERY steep. The angle of the staircase is like 60 – 75o and according to Megan, has 70 steps (I told her to count her steps, which she really did!). Each of the steps are only 6 inches in width (only half of your foot can land on it) and the distance between the steps is like 2 feet apart or even more (imagine how 70 steps would enable one to climb 10 – 15 stories high?). The staircase is also dark (there are no lights) and if not for the handrails (probably a modern day addition), one might slip and fall. Now that would really, really hurt! At the top chamber, there on display are various drums of different sizes and material of the sheath (that’s why it’s called the Drum Tower). The biggest is something like 6 feet in diameters (it’s actually bigger than me and I’m 5’8”!). There is also a “clock”, more precisely, a water clock. The clock is made of a series of three water tanks, each elevated on top of the other and under the third tank are two more tanks on the same level and lay side by side to each other. The water is filled on the topmost tank and is drained through an orifice to the second tank, which now drains water to one of the “ground” level (a.k.a. the fourth tanks). That tank has a mini statue holding a gong. The water coming out of the second tank would fill a cup attached to the back of that statue and as it fills, the weight of the water would push the cup down and through some strings would pull the gongs apart until the cup is full and spilled empty causing the entire cup assembly to “jump” and return to it’s previous position. The action releases the tension and causes the gongs to clap and thus signal that a minute has passed already. There is another hole in the second tank and it empties to the third tank and the third tank accumulates the water and empties it to another ground level tank. This tank is half covered and has a ruler “floating” on it through a slit in the cover. The ruler has a marking indicating the time of the day (Chinese divide the day into 12 or 2 hours apiece). As the tank is filled with water, the buoyant force would “push” the ruler upwards and reveal the “exact time of the day”. Ingenious! The ancient Chinese has actually expertly manipulate the gravity through the position of the tanks, the flow rate of water through the manipulation of the size of the orifice of each tank, the smart string set – up of the cup assembly, and the effects buoyancy of water as well as density to calculate the time! Ingenious indeed! An observer is probably needed to “watch” over the time. Once the time “came”, this observer would tell the drummer to start beating! A record keeper (probably residing at the Bell Tower) would keep records as to how many times the drum has sounded already. After so many drums, the bell caretaker would then ring the Bell. I surmised that the different types and sizes of drums are used not only to signify the time of the day (whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening) but to also inform of the season itself for the introduction posted showed different drums are used on different seasons. It is possible that the ancient Chinese understood the effects of temperature on the speed and quality of the sound and that is why they use different drums. Very clever! This makes me realize how science and technology has evolved since then. Used to be, our forefathers required a platoon of “experts” who dedicated their lives to their profession to tell us what time is it. Now, all we had to do to tell time is to look up at our wrist! Now that’s advancement! Well, Megan, the doc, the geneticist, and I went to the balcony after viewing the drums to see the surroundings. And boy! It scared the sh*t out of me! The balcony is sloped downwards by about 5 – 10 degrees and the balcony rails are below my waist! In fact, they have a second railing a few inches away from the railings to prevent people from getting near at it in the first place. One could actually felt that he/she might fell off the balcony! Pretty scary! Given the steep staircase and the “dangerous” balcony, it takes a lot of guts to be a drummer or a bell ringer back then, I think. After the visit to the Drum Tower, we next went to see an acrobatic show. We got caught in a traffic and actually got to the show late. The show was in a old dilapidated theater and was actually half way through when we got in. Megan and I sat at the topmost balcony seat in the middle aisle. The show was more like a ballet show rather than an acrobatic show for it has choreography complete with graceful dance numbers and a story line but make no mistake about it. It is an acrobatic show. The acts performed involve “participants” bending their bodies 180 degrees and forming designs like flowers and circles. They even have a bicycle show where there are 10 bikers on a single bike! Amazing! My favorite part of the show is actually a romantic number. Here, the participants are tied to a silk drape and are lifted from the ground. In one scene, the guy pulls the lady up literally like “sweeping” her off from her feet. Quite romantic (the storyline included). The show was nice and the ladies are young and pretty (too bad, they’re quite young or else I would have courted one of them). After that, we had the first of the series of those uninspiring meals during our stay in Beijing. Afterwards, we were bought to our hotel at Beijing Century Nikko Hotel (a 5 star hotel). My room is nice. Smaller than the one I have in Shanghai but still spacious. My bed is good for two people (the bed at Shanghai is good for three) but that doesn’t matter for I’m living alone. The bathroom amenities on the other hand are superior than those of Huating and there I had my second hot bubble bath in three days!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Conversations With Ol’ Pal Anthony

After dinner on the second day of my vacation trip, the entire group retire for the night at the Huating hotel to get packed and get to bed early since we are to leave the hotel by 0600 the following morning and check in the airport in time for our 0800 flight to Beijing. However, I had other plans for the evening. I was going to meet up with a “long lost” friend and classmate of mine, Anthony Wee. A few years back, Anthony got assigned to Shanghai to oversee operations for an IT company and has stayed in Shanghai since then. We (as a class) came to miss him at our annual class reunion during the mid – Autumn festival. It is for this reason that I called him up once I got to Shanghai and arrange a get together. Well, Anthony if I remember well is quite “skinny”. Actually, we both were the “skinniest” students during our high school days (I weigh something like 88 – 90 lbs). Imagine to my surprise when he entered the door of the hotel, he didn’t changed at all (Dang!)! He is still thin while I had since “ballooned’ from “stick like” figure in high school into a mammoth that I am now. It made me quite envious of him. How did he maintain such a figure after all this years? He even looked taller than I remembered and thin (did I already mentioned that?). Anyway, it was always a good thing to see an old pal after so long (I think it was more or less 10 years now). We went out to a local restaurant/bar nearby to get a cup of tea. We exchange pleasantries as well as exchange updates on our friends and classmates back home. Anthony has quit his job (the one that assigns him here at Shanghai) and has since landed presumably a “better” job as an IT project manager of a multi – national company. He is living in Shanghai for 5 years now and I would say, he has actually settled in and felt quite “homey” to his new environs. To prove that point, he felt “safe” here in Shanghai for he could walk around in the wee hours of the morning without fear of being mug. It is actually difficult for me to imagine such “freedom” being a tourist. Locals on the other hand could feel that way because of familiarity. Actually, this could also be a testament of the Shanghai government’s relentless effort to maintain public order in the megapolis. Another thing about Anthony and that is he seems to be quite “pragmatic” nowadays than say when we were in high school. Actually, at our age, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise. However, his cheerfulness, his optimism, and his “sunny” face are very much the same like in high school. We chat for like 2 – 3 hours over a pot of Chamomile tea (and his over mango sundae, I think). Inevitably, our topic touched on Shanghai. I inquired about what he thinks about the view of comparing Shanghai to New York. And he answered by saying that like New York, Shanghai has also a culture of “no culture”. Pretty interesting comparison, because for the past day and a half, I noticed that there are several large banners and posters put up by the city government around the city extolling it’s citizen to jointly build a “civilized/cultured” megapolis. Honestly, I couldn’t understand the statement for the very few people that I’d met in Shanghai and they are pretty handful aren’t as “uncultured” as what was implied. Of course, I couldn’t make a general conclusion since I’ve been in Shanghai for roughly 36 hours more or less. Another thing about Shanghai according to Anthony was that Shanghai women are quite independent and “strong”. Shanghai women has a reputation of being “neng kan” (capable and talented). The women in general received higher pay than the men and it is common to see men “staying home” and taking care of the children, as a “houseband”. There are instances where the men actually moved in with the women (the custom here in the Philippines is actually the other way around). Could it be this is what Sally, our tour guide was saying about Shanghai men being “tee tieh” (caring and understanding)? Most likely, if Anthony’s observations are to be taken into account! Sally actually went further to offer an advice that “men should marry Japanese brides and women should marry Shanghai men”. (It is a very dangerous proposition actually as it may trigger an exodus of women from the Philippines to Shanghai looking for a “tee tieh” husband. If that unfortunately happens, I better move to Japan!). In conjunction to that point about the status of Shanghai women, Sally pointed out that most Shanghai people here adhere to the one child policy even if they had a daughter (Chinese policy allows them to have a second child if the first one was a daughter) and for that reason, Shanghai has already entered the ageing population phase wherein the number of old people outnumbers the working young ones. Anthony indirectly confirmed that observation also. Years ago, I had a lady friend from Shanghai who happens to be my group mate in MBA. She also put forward the same explanation to me when I inquire her as to why she is the only child. It seems to me that Shanghai people are very modern in their thinking just like their buildings. Could this be the reason why they don’t have a culture? If culture is defined as a behavioral pattern collectively exhibit by a group of people, then no culture doesn’t mean that people are “uncultured” but rather that there is no discernable collective behavioral pattern. Instead, there are a variety of behavioral patterns that coexist and some of which might even be contradictory to each other. This is probably true given the fast paced nature of life in Shanghai. It was so fast that no “permanent” behavioral pattern could take hold. Everything would seem fluid. Then there is also the fact of an ageing population, which would invariably draw provincials into the city and thus give rise to a character of “no” culture or the absence of any coherent behavior. Anyway, I was just thinking out loud. Well, after sometime, it dawned to me and Anthony that it’s getting late and so we head back to my hotel, which we got there almost midnight. Instead of parting, we actually continue where we left off. Only this time, our topic centered on the local Filipino community. Sad to hear though that the Filipinos here are not in solidarity with each other due mainly to social differences and the unruly behavior of some of its members (apparently, even in the Filipino community, the culture of “no” culture prevails, i.e., absence of a discernable collective behavioral pattern). Well, we could chat even more if not for the fact that it is already 0100 in the morning and I had to be up by 0400. We took a photo together, shook hands, and said our good byes. I wish I had more time to learn more about Shanghai and probably party with Anthony but I don’t. Too bad! Anyway, Anthony is coming back home this Christmas and I’m looking forward to a party.