I can’t believe I haven’t written anything on my blog for over a year. I suppose because I didn’t do as much traveling this year as I did last year. At the end of the spring semester I changed schools and had to move from one Beijing university to another.
My first semester at Capital Medical University (首都医科大学) is nearly finished. I taught four courses: English Speaking and Writing to PhD students, Advanced Oral English to master’s degree students, English Audio-Video Training to undergraduates, and Bilingual Training to doctors from various Beijing hospitals. The last class is my favorite: less than ten students, working adults with families and interesting experiences to share, not shy about speaking English. I hardly have to prepare for the class; just bring a topic or two, sit back and let them talk, giving pronunciation and grammar feedback now and then. We talk a lot about current events: Libya, Occupy Wall Street, Greece, being a doctor in China, etc. I asked them why there is no Occupy Beijing and everyone laughed.
I have class only Wednesday through Friday, so on my free days I often go to one of Beijing’s many parks, museums, or temples. This semester I’ve been frequenting a place called Taoranting Park (陶然亭公园，Joyous Pavilion Park), located in Beijing’s Xuanwu District, south of Tiananmen. The campus here at CMU is small, and there are no gardens or bamboo groves where one can sit, listen to the birds and watch the yellow ginkgo leaves fall. So I’m lucky the park is nearby.
From CMU it’s about ten minutes by bike to Taoranting Park. I go there once or twice a month to sit in one of the many pavilions, admire the pine trees, and watch the hanging willow branches sway in the breeze. The renowned Taoran Pavilion and the Nunnery of Benevolence are both situated in the park. Taoran Pavilion, situated on the island within the park’s lake, was built by chief engineer Jiang Zao in 1695, but the modern park was built in 1952. The park gained its name from a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi:
“Wait until the chrysanthemums are yellow and home-made wine is ripe, (I'll) drink with you and be carefree.” 更待菊黄家酿熟，与君一醉一陶然
The last two characters form the word taoran, which means joyous or carefree. Ting (亭) means pavilion. I like the scenery of the place, and also its interesting history. Unlike other Beijing parks and gardens which were reserved for the emperor and his family, Taoranting Park was accessible to all. This is why the park was a popular meeting place for poets and literary men during the Qing dynasty. The location became an attraction for tourists from far away and for scholars who came to the capital to take the imperial civil examinations. The park and the Taoran pavilion in particular have a colorful history:
“In the early years of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, (the Republic’s first president), attended political meetings in the pavilion, and on several occasions Li Dazhao, (co-founder of the Communist Party of China), organized secret revolutionary activities in the Zhunti Hall. On the afternoon of August 6, 1920, five progressive societies from Beijing and Tianjin held a joint meeting in the pavilion which was attended by Zhou Enlai and Li Dazhao.” Link
“On the northern side of the Central Island is the grave of Gao Junyu, a labor movement agitator during the period of the Northern Warlords, who died at the age of 30. The grave stone is inscribed with a poem by his girlfriend Shi Pingmei:
I'm the sword,
I'm the fire,
I will live like a lightning,
Die like a fleeting star.
The couple was buried in the grave when Shi Pingmei died.” Link
“Although Taoranting has a long history and has numerous sites of historical interest, up until the eve of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, it was little more than a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes. After dark, the area became a haven for criminals and the island’s pines were frequently used for suicides by hanging. In 1952, the People’s Government transformed the stagnant pond into a lake, with a gourd-shaped island in the center. The earth dredged out was heaped up to form seven small hills on the lake's perimeter, which have been planted with flowers, trees and shrubs.” Link
One of the most interesting sections of the park is a small part called the Park of the Famed Pavilions of China. Built in 1985, this park-within-the-park contains several replicas of well-known Chinese pavilions, including Shaoling Caotang Tablet Pavilion in (Sichuan Province), in honor of Du Fu (a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty), and Zhexian Pavilion (the Pavilion of the Descending Fairy), built in honor of China’s most famous poet, Li Bai.
My favorite is the Duxing Pavilion (the I-Alone-Sober Pavilion), modeled after the original in Hunan Province built in honor of Qu Yuan, a famous poet in the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE). On the plaque beside the pavilion you can read lines from one of Qu Yuan’s poems:
The world is all muddy,
leaving me clean alone,
all are drunk,
leaving me sober alone.
Qu Yuan (332-296 BCE) descended from the imperial family and an air of suffering nobility and fantasy can be sensed in his works. In his youth, he had a brilliant career as a statesman, a diplomat, court minister, and at one time the envoy to Qi (in Shandong), a neighboring state. Qu Yuan's comet-like success incurred the jealousy of his fellow ministers, who slandered and plotted against him.
Qu Yuan lived at a time of wars when King Huai of Chu (present day Hebei) was busily attempting to extend the frontiers of his kingdom. As Prime Minister, Qu Yuan objected to the use of force, but without effect; and in 303 BCE he was accused of treason and banished. Thereafter he wandered through the countryside, principally in the region of the vast inland Dongting Lake in northern Hunan, collecting legends, rearranging folk odes while traveling the countryside, producing some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature, and expressing fervent love for his state and his concerns for its future. During this time he wrote the tragic poem, “Li Sao” (The Sorrow of Parting), a complaint against the Emperor.
According to legend, Qu Yuan’s anxiety brought him to an increasingly troubled state of health; during his depression, he would often take walks near a certain well, where he would look upon his gaunt reflection in the water. The well became known as the “Face Reflection Well.” In 278 BCE, learning of the capture of Ying, his country's capital, Qu Yuan is said to have written the lengthy poem of lamentation called “Lament for Ying”, and later to have waded into the Miluo River holding a large rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era.” Link
“Legend has it that when the villagers learned what Qu Yuan had done they went out in their boats and desperately tried to save him, but were too late to do so. However, in order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles, and they also threw rice into the water both as a food offering to Qu Yuan's spirit, and also to distract the fish away from his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he died because he had taken himself under the river. Then, he asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon.
Qu Yuan’s death is commemorated each year on Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie), on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2011 this fell on June 6. The packages of rice have become a traditional food known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are now wrapped in reed leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat racing, which is held on the anniversary of his death every year. Today on Duanwu people still eat zongzi and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate Qu Yuan's sacrifice.
It’s ironic that Qu Yuan, despite his reputation as an outspoken critic of the government, was appropriated as an example of patriotism. “His social idealism and unbending patriotism have served as the model for Chinese intellectuals to this day, particularly following the establishment of new China in 1949. In the 1950s China issued a postage stamp bearing the likeness of Qu Yuan.” Perhaps it’s not so strange: outspoken critics of America’s former government, the King of England, are now considered patriots. Who knows who the patriots of tomorrow will be – Occupy Wall Street protesters? Link
In my classes my students talk freely about China: society, government, economics, the education system, mining accidents, high speed train crashes, callous bystanders in Guangzhou, and whatever else is on their minds. I let them. I give them English lessons, but I also try to give them something they probably don’t get very often: a Taoran pavilion, a safe place that doesn’t belong to the Emperor, where they can gather and speak their minds. Some relish the opportunity, some are hesitant. Chinese students don’t want to be ostracized by their classmates or their country because of their opinions. A few, at the start of the semester, don’t even know what the word “opinion” means and what it is to have one. But by the end of the semester they all do. It’s really the one lesson I hope they all get.
I didn’t this year, but next year on Duanwu Jie I might take some zongzi into the Park of the Famed Pavilions and sit for awhile in Duxing Pavilion. Maybe I’ll take along a collection of Qu Yuan’s poetry, and try to imagine what life in his time was like. Maybe I’ll stay after dark and, if I’m lucky, see Qu Yuan’s ghost. Not likely that he would wander so far from Hunan, where he’s resting carefree at the bottom of the Miluo River. But if he does appear, sitting across from me in the pavilion, I’ll offer him some zongzi, ask him to recite one of his poems for me, and ask him what he thinks of modern China.