No Common Denominator


This blog entry about the events of Monday, August 23, 2004 was originally posted on August 31, 2004.

DAY 310:  What does a dead body, a heavenly temple, a lama, an old wise man and a dozen girls on a bike have in common? I’ve asked myself the question over and over trying to find an angle for this Blog entry but have come up with a blank — my day was spent visiting a pretty random collection of sights within Beijing.

IT WAS A TUESDAY, my first day to experience Beijing’s weekday bustle.  Cars zoomed on the main thoroughfares along side buses and taxis.  Crowds of bicycles went every which way like herds of cattle.  My day began bright and early when I left the hostel in Workers Stadium and head out to Tian’anmen Square — a fairly peaceful public square despite it being the site of the violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters in 1989 — to line up with the hundreds of people to pay respects to Mao Zedong, the former Communist leader of China.

If I recall correctly from what my History of Modern China professor said in college, Westerners seem to summarize Mao down to merely China’s dictator who brought forth the restricted-thinking of Communism to the country.  However, the theories of Communism had already paralleled some traditional values of the Chinese culture — mainly the fact that family and fellow man came before the individual in terms of priorities — and it was Communism that elevated China into a modern world.  If it weren’t for the rise of Communism, China might never have become a world power that wins a lot of gold medals at the Olympics.

Since 1997, the year after his death, Mao’s body lies in a mausoleum in the center of Tian’anmen Square in a similar fashion to the body of former Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square.  Like with Lenin, people came in crowds, some with flowers for their former leader, to see the body embalmed so much to the point that it looked like a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s.  The line, as long as it was, went pretty fast and before I knew it, I was moved along like sheep passed the continual open-casket wake.  The actual body of Mao Zedong stood there in his casket, wrapped with a Soviet flag. 

FROM THE “MAOSOLEUM” (I didn’t make that up), I walked through a small commercial district and over to the 675-acre Tiantan Park, more commonly known as the Temple of Heaven, the emperor’s place of worship to pray to heaven for good harvests.  Originally built in 1420 under Emperor Yongle, it too had a balance of duality like The Forbidden City, one between heaven and earth.  In fact, if you look at an overhead map of the park grounds, you see its surrounding wall isn’t a perfect rectangle; the northern half is curved like an arch to represent heaven.

I entered through The North Celestial Gate in the heavenly half of the park to “descend” southbound to earth.  It was here in the northern half that ceremonies to the gods were performed in the spring for good fortune at the main temple structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (other picture above) on the Altar of Praying for Bumper Crops — what many believe is the best example of the ancient architectural style of Ming.  Inside the triple roof structure were four pillars to represent the four seasons, and other symbols to represent the twelve months and constellations.

The northern heavenly altar was connected to the southern earthly altar, the Circular Mound Altar, by means of the Danbi Bridge, a 360-meter long stone bridge, which subtlety represented the link between heaven and earth with a slight incline.  I walked “down to earth” to the southern Circular Mound Altar, which was simply an altar with no upright building structure, where the emperors prayed to the goods in the winter.  The lack of a structure wasn’t with a lack of architectural symbolic thought; the center stone of the altar (a popular posing place for Chinese tourists) was surrounded by nine stones forming a ring.  Surrounding that ring was another ring of 18 stones, the next 27 and so forth in multiples of nine, to the outer ring with 81 stones, representing the nine levels of heaven.  No wonder there’s a stereotype that the Chinese are good at math.

En route to the main Circular Mound Altar, was the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a complex of three buildings, where sacred tablets and props were kept.  Protecting the buildings was the surrounding circular Echo Wall, designed in a way where one could talk to a person on the other side of the plaza by bouncing his voice on the wall — although nowadays you probably couldn’t clearly hear the conversation with the static of tourists trying it out. 

The rest of the Temple of Heaven park was a fairly pleasant park with cedar trees and the other structures used in the harvest praying ceremonies, like the Fasting Palace, where emperors fasted for three days beforehand to purify themselves.  To the west of the temple grounds were the Seven Star Stones, representing the seven peaks of Taishan Mountains, and the Long Corridor, a covered walkway now frequented by musicians practicing the violin and Chinese operatic singing.

THE BEIJING SUBWAY TOOK ME to the Yonghe Gong Lama Temple, the former residence of Prince Yin Zhen, which was converted to a lamasery in 1744 to house Tibetan Buddhist monks from Tibet and Inner Mongolia to study and pray to be lamas.  A complex of several buildings, it holds its largest, the Wanfu Ge Hall where inside stands the Maitreya Buddha, a tremendous 18-meter-high statue carved out of a single trunk of sandalwood — there is even a plaque by the Guinness Book of World Records confirming this. 

Unlike the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, the Yonghe Gong Lama Temple was not merely a cultural historical building but an active Buddhist temple of worship — people coming to pray and burn incense outnumbered the tourists.  This was the opposite of the Confucius Temple and Imperial College across the street, which was practically deserted except for a handful of tourists including myself.  The temple was built in a quiet hutong and served as a learning center to those learning the Confucius philosophy from the emperor in order to pass the civil service exam — graduates names were etched in steles in the front courtyard.  Passed the gate props and into the main courtyard, the Confucius Temple remains a quiet place to meditate away from Beijing’s cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Confucius was born in the 6th century B.C.E. and rose to popularity as a thinker and a teacher — more so after his death as most great thinkers are.  In an attempt to bring peace to a chaotic society, Confucius combined his thoughts and proverbs into the Confucius Theory System, which sought to bring harmony between Man and his place in society and the world.  Confucius served as a minor politician in the Lu state court, traveling from region to region to spread his philosophy — a philosophy that was never intended to be a religion — however, politicians got the best of him and he eventually left the political arena to wander with his students in the woods.  Confucius’ legacy lives on today, not only with modern day life in China but in fortune cookies around the world. 

THE TWELVE GIRLS ON A BIKE come into the picture when I went that night to see Reverie, a Chinese acrobat show which was sort of like a Cirque du Soleil show without the French.  Double-jointed — neigh, quadruple-jointed — Chinese contortionists twisted and bent their bodies in ways almost inconceivable to imagine by the average person.  The Beijing Gongti Hostel couldn’t have made it easier and cheaper to get good seats, and I ended up going with two Brits John and Adam and our driver who brought his wife and kid. 

The show as absolutely mind-boggling; whenever an acrobat would do something you’d think could not be topped, it was.  It was amazing enough when they got six girls to balance on a moving bicycle pedaled by one girl going around and around in a circle — until six more girls climbed up.  It was incredible when a group of tumblers jumped hoops five feet in the air in a synchronized, fluid pattern — until they started jumping hoops eight feet in the air.  Spinning plate tricks, guys in big wheels, extreme juggling of yo-yos — and people — and even the double pole stunts as seen in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven entertained the audience of jaw-gaping people.

Ed and Will (The Great Wall) came late and paid their own entrance in the center orchestra section, and our driver encouraged the rest of us to join them after intermission.  For the second half of the show I sat dead center in the 150 yuan seats, laughing with Ed — he too couldn’t believe his eyes.  We practically sat the entire show thinking “Nooo… they won’t do tha—Holy shit!  He did!”  Nothing prepared us for when a guy sliding down a pole really fast just by holding on with his legs stopped short in the nick of time before smashing his head down into the floor. 

AND SO ENDED MY LONG DAY of random things in Beijing.  If there was any common denominator in what I had seen that day, collectively they all got me exhausted and put me to sleep.

Next entry: No Summer Coincidence

Previous entry: The Fantastic Wall

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Comments for “No Common Denominator”

  • Erik - How long are you planning on staying in China?  Is it a 30day visa?

    Posted by Dan  on  08/30  at  05:27 PM

  • DAN:  Yeah, I only have 30 days…  but I met some Americans with 90-day ones… I will probably only use 21 of my 30 though…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  05:32 PM

  • SHEA:  Any Asian LG books laying around?  E-mail me…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  06:41 PM

  • I’ve always wanted to see one of thoes shows! Only 150 yuan?! And to think want $12 for a J-Lo movie!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  07:04 PM

  • nice pics…

    the morning rush hour on bikes is looking like the heard of bike cops over here on 8th ave for the repub convention…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  07:10 PM

  • Temples, temples & temples everywhere!  Amazing that they built one for a single use. 
    Great pic’s.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  01:21 AM

  • I’m in architecture heaven smile

    Posted by Liz  on  08/31  at  03:35 AM

  • Amazing sights again! Wish I had taken an Chinese Art History class in college. I’m going to the Met in 2 weeks, now I’ll HAVE to see their Chinese collection. Very inspirational!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/01  at  12:44 AM

  • I know I’m late, but I saw those SAME violin players in the NYC subway.

    Well, maybe not the same, but…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/07  at  03:55 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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No Summer Coincidence

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The Fantastic Wall


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