Posts Tagged With: Chinese Culture

Exploring Kunming: Confucian Temple and Old Kunming

My friend Sam visited me from Japan for the week. On the first night we went to a Tibetan restaurant for a welcoming feast (yum!). The next day, I showed him around town: the Yuantong Buddhist Temple, dumpling restaurant (best in town!), and then we decided to go to Kunming’s Confucian Temple, which I had never been to and had no idea where it was. I asked random passerbys on the street, rode two buses, and walked close to the city center. A kind, old Chinese man, who we met on the second bus, showed us the way. We followed him as he hobbled through the busy bird and flower district alleyways. Birds chirped, bunnies rattled cages, maggots squirmed in large woven baskets, and the old man gruffly talked to me with a strong Kunming accent: “Ne suo han hua suo de hen hoe, hen hoe (you speak very well, very well.)” He was over 80, graduated from Yunnan University in the 1950s, and was a teacher at Kunming Xiamen University. We arrived at the front entrance to the district. He points us into the general direction and says farewell.

On the way to the temple, I played with puppies that were being sold on the street. We also stopped at a memorial that commemorated the forces who fought against Japan during World War II. We then passed the cross between Old Kunming and “New” Old Kunming.


Which side is the “real” Old Kunming?

The development of “Ancient Cities (gucheng)” has become quite widespread in China for tourism incentives. This “ancient city” (on the left) is an example. The architecture is traditional, or at least what most people think “traditional” Chinese architecture looks like. I would guess this is based off centuries old buildings. The side on the right is one of the few existing old parts of the city (the bird and flower district is basically Old Kunming). When I say old, maybe over 100-200 years old. This is because most architecture in the past was made out of wood, hence most of it wears and rots away within many centuries. The Great Wall survived with its thick layers of stone and bones. I found the dichotomy within this photo to be evident and interesting. The battle versus old and “Old.”

In front of “Old” Kunming was the Confucian temple.


The Confucian Temple: Now an Open Park and Garden

The door was open for the community. We entered to find crowds of retired men and women playing cards, chess, and music. Beneath the pictured pavilion (seen above) was a horde of older men playing mahjong. Table after table had men flicking their tiles into the middle and picking up a new tile, hoping for the lucky one. Sam and I found a bench overlooking this lively environment. I think I found a new reading spot.


Cannons Crossing the River: Playing Chinese Chess

When exiting the park, we found a crowd circling around something. I always get tricked into thinking there’s a fight. But every single time, it’s two men actually playing Chess. I’m hoping to learn how to play and join in one of these epic board game events.

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Exploring Kunming: Yuantong Buddhist Temple

I visited the Yuantong Buddhist Temple today. It’s placed smack-dab in the middle of urban Kunming, but when you enter it, you forget you’re in a city of 6 million people. It’s still active with Buddhist monks who I saw hanging outside of their dorms and using power machinery to renovate the run-down buildings.

Photo Tour


Large Gate Before Entering the Temple


Beautiful Shrine in the Middle of a Pond


Ryan, James and I


Look out from the South Eastern Style Dai Buddhist TempleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dai Temple

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Exploring Harbin: Confucian Temple and Ethnic Minority Museum

View from the Main Temple

A group of my classmates and I woke up early on Sunday morning to visit Harbin’s Confucian Temple. It is the largest Confucian temple in North Eastern China and pretty to boot! The temples are primarily made out of wood, which have been painted with a combination of reds, blues, greens, and yellows. The roof tiles range from a golden glaze (which are placed atop the most significant buildings) and brown-black normal coloring. The area was dotted with tall bristled trees, short bushy trees, and lawns of flat grass. It was a silent morning. A haze of pollution clouded the temple like mist.

Tree of Wishes and Ambitions

Doorway to Main Garden

I only have a fundamental understanding of Confucianism, so my explanation will be a mix of my knowledge and Wikipedia. Confucianism derives from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.). His teachings have a number of principles, but the three fundamental bases are: ren (仁-humanism),yi (义-righteous/justice), and li (礼-propriety/etiquette). Humanism is at the core of his teachings. His principles’ goal is to build a common person into a respectable, moral human being , or junzi- nobleman. His other teachings include filial piety to one’s family and to society. During the Mao Era, Confucius’ teachings were looked down upon because it advocated an “unequal” stratified society. After the Mao Era, his teachings have become popular once again and are now a part of every Chinese student’s curriculum.

As far as I know, the temples are no longer used for study, but as a remembrance of Confucius’ teachings and admiration for the temple’s architecture. While we visited, traditional Chinese music was playing from mysterious loud speakers, making the environment “soothing” and “Confucian-esque.” This is a common strategy for tourism sites–setting the mood by music. Does the music hurt or add to the atmosphere?

Intricate Paintings Painted on Gate’s Walls (looking up at a bird)

Glazed Gate

The temple also had a Heilongjiang Ethnic Minority Museum within one of its temples. I thought the combination of the two (Confucian Temple and Minority Museum) was unexpected, but they do share the same purpose: cultural preservation. They just harness two aspects of culture–religion and local customs & identity. I will most likely go back to the museum to analyze the display’s design and language. I was not expecting to find research here! What a beautiful place…

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Exploring Harbin: Shopping in Hongbo Underground Market

Since I lost my mitten in Inner Mongolia, my roommate and I decided to venture to the gigantic underground market that is Hongbo Square. It is an intricate underground mall (3 levels) with endless halls of clothing and random knick-knacks. Though I do not like to go shopping, I enjoyed the atmosphere: thousands of locals bartering with vendors for deals and couples window shopping. So, this is what average “Harbiners” do on the weekend.

Shopping in Downtown Market

Mengnan (my roommate) wearing ear mitts

A Piece of Home in the Underground Market

I’m surprised the shirt was spelled correctly! Are there such things as Minnesota Wildcats? I bought new gloves and spandex with fleece on the inside. I’ll be warm this winter!

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On-Campus Activity: Painting Beijing Opera Masks

My roommate suggested that I attend an event where the Beijing Opera group on campus would perform and then the audience could paint their own masks. Dare, Ryan, and I decided to check it out. A male student sang a female character’s song. In the past, men played all roles–women, men, gods, etc–however, nowadays, women can act in Beijing Opera.

If you don’t know what Beijing Opera sounds like, take a look at this video:

After the performance, we painted our own masks. I’m pretty proud of mine! It was nice attending this event and getting to know fellow foreign and Chinese students. Sometimes I feel isolated in my program. This event made me feel more connected to my school’s community.

Our Own Masks

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Fall Break: Russian Border Towns, Grassfields, and Enhe Village

Our “Bread” Car: Setting off on our Third Day of Travel

We woke up early and set off to the Russian border towns that line northern Inner Mongolia. The hours of travel often consisted of us sleeping on each other in the morning. Then in the afternoon we would have lively conversation filled with stories, games, and riddles. Our conversations were in half Chinese, half English. I always seemed to be laughing endlessly from our conversations. I am really glad I road-tripped with my classmates!

Before hitting the border towns, we stopped in a small town and ate the most delicious 馅饼 (meat-filled pancakes) and then dropped by a forest. The branches were frozen with thin slices of ice that looked like small, white butterflies. That with the contrast of the freezing river and bright sun was a beautiful site.

Frozen River and Ice Butterflies on the Branches

After hours of telling stories and watching the tall of snowy hills gradually transform into plains of yellow grass, we finally hit the Russian border. We stopped by the river that divides the two countries and looked onto Russia. I imagined the map of the world and Russia’s gigantic mark on it. I always imagined the East part of Russia as a desolate, snowy place. As I looked at Russia from Inner Mongolia, I realized both sides are about the same: small villages, snowy winters, and pretty landscapes. However, I never thought about the mixing of cultures at the borderlands. While we visited the border towns, the people didn’t look Chinese or Russian, rather in between the two.

Looking into Eastern Russia

We stopped in a village outside of Shiwei district and walked around the area. Dare, Xuezi, and I took a long walk along the river. It was soothing to be in a tranquil place. The sound of the rushing river, the frozen top crunching against the icy shore…the wind brushing against the last remaining leaves…cows mooing…birds singing. We got back into the van and started our drive to that day’s final destination, Enhe, another China border town. While driving there, I looked out the window and took a picture of the scenery:

Horses Grazing on the Yellow Grass, Russia in the Background

The land changed dramatically from our previous days. Now it became flat fields of grass and dirt with cows, sheep, and horses grazing them. I wonder what it looks like in the summer? I will definitely have to come back during the summer season. After a couple of hours, we made it to Enhe. We found a quirky married couple who owned a small inn. The husband was a talker and the wife was a kind women that said: “You pay whatever you can afford.” The husband did not entirely like what his wife said, but reluctantly agreed. We really appreciated the thought.

While the husband stoked the oven that would heat our rooms that night, we walked around the Russian town, talked with locals, and watched the sun set over the village.

Sunset over Enhe Village

After watching the sunset, we walked back to the inn and prepared for dinner. The wife set up a hot pot night for us. We all fit in the spacious living room/dining room and ate Chongqing-style spicy hot pot, as well as conversed with them. At the end of the dinner, I sat next to Sun Aiyi (Aiyi means “aunt,” a polite address to a women much older than you) and talked about her family and life in Enhe. Her grandma was from Russia, traveled to China, and then lived in Enhe. Sun Aiyi’s family has lived in the same place since then. Her daughters are all married and moved across the country with their husbands (Sichuan, Guangdong, and another city). That night, I drew a card for her and made everyone sign it. She loved it.

Dinner with New Family

After dinner, we prepared to go to sleep. While the guys were sleeping, Dare and I stood outside in the brisk air and stared at the stars again. The Milk Way was especially bright, as well as the thousands of stars around it. We chatted and stared at the night sky for a long time. For me, the Milky Way is special. I rarely see it…so when I do, I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s similar to my relationship with the ocean. I don’t want to leave it…

That night I could not sleep. Dare and I were sharing a bed in the room with the oven, so it was a bit hot. I got up, wrote in my journal, and then walked to the outhouse in the back of the yard. At 4am, the stars were even more exceptional. I had never looked at the stars that late. The Little Dipper had moved to the middle of the sky, circling around the north star. Orion was halfway through his cart-wheel and Cassiopeia’s crown was balancing on its side. I wish I had seen such beautiful night-scapes when I was younger…but I guess it has led me to appreciate them more now.

I finally fell asleep at 4:45am.

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Fall Break: 百花森林 (Birch Forest) and Homestay in a Village

We woke up early the next morning, bought a bag of buns, and set off for our second day of traveling. I slept in the car for the majority of the morning, but we suddenly stopped. I opened my eyes and found myself (in a small van with 7 people and) in a forest of white bark–it was either a birch or poplar forest. The ground was covered with a thick 4-inch layer of snow. We got out and threw snowballs at each other. We then hiked up the steep hill to the top to see a splendid view of Inner Mongolian scenery.

Snowy Grasslands

My Fellow Travelers (James, Ryan, Dare, and Xuezi–missing Lucas) at the Peak

My travelers included:

Dare: A sophomore from a college in Kentucky. Her and I are roommates in the same suite. So we were already really close before the trip. She is really sweet and has become one of my closest friends in this program. We can talk for hours about anything.

James: A Fulbrighter who will be joining me to Kunming after this program ends. In short, he is hilarious. His mind always seems to be thinking about many things at once. He jokes around and makes funny faces. His experiences in China are really interesting: studying monkeys in Guizhou province and living in Kunming for a year. His life sounds like an adventure!

Xuezi: Is James’ Chinese roommate. He loves to eat new foods and also likes to joke around. He’s really flexible and helped us travel around Inner Mongolia.

Ryan: At first, he seemed quiet, but when I got to know him…he became one of the funniest people I know. He is really good at impressions (especially Minnesotan). He goes to Carleton College in MN. He loves to hike and look at rocks (Geology major).

Lucas: Lucas was the only person I did not know before traveling to Inner Mongolia. He always seemed to make our conversations go down a dirty route. Every group needs their 黄 (dirty) person. He’s a Californian from the Oakland Area. So he’s pretty laid back and enjoys a cold beer after a long day of traveling.

Zhang Qicai (our driver): A 65 year old man who grew up during the Mao Zedong era. During the Cultural Revolution, he joined the army and helped build the border wall between Russia and China. A picture of Mao dangles from the rear-view mirror. He is a kind, quiet man that turned into our father figure. He enjoyed driving a group of rambunctious  foreign youth across Inner Mongolia

We hiked back down and continued on our way to a local village. We stopped by a frozen river before driving into our final destination of the day–a small village off the Russian/Chinese border.

Village Side Street from the Family Inn we Stayed in

We took a night stroll around the small town and then got dinner at a country-style hot pot place. The table had a gigantic bowl of stew where the owners through in cut-up chicken, two fish, locally grown mushrooms, cabbage, and other ingredients. It stewed for about 10-15 minutes and then we devoured it. It was delicious.

Eating the Stew (Ryan and Lucas in the background)

We walked back to the family inn and then observed the stars. There were countless amount of stars and the Milky Way was shimmering in the middle of the sky. Dare and I looked up at the sky for a long, long time until we were coerced to go back inside so that boss could close up shop. It was a good day.

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Exploring Harbin: “Old Harbin”

This weekend, CET organized an outing to visit the old downtown of Harbin. It is a worthwhile site because of its old (almost withering) baroque-style architecture and slowly depleting alleyways. When we got off the bus, we first visited Harbin’s mosque. The architecture was a pretty site, compared to the concrete apartments surrounding it. There is a large Muslim population (Hui minority) that lives in this area.

Mosque in the Middle of “Old Harbin”

From the Mosque, we walked down the street and observed the baroque architecture and busy streets of locals buying ingredients for dinner and enjoying the autumn day.

Baroque Architecture in Old Harbin

My friend, Mengdi (Dare), and I lost the group and decided to explore the alleyways. Previously, Harbin was similar to Beijing, in that it had a intricate network of alleyways that hosted local residences. Now, the alleyways are nearly nonexistent except for the few that cut between the streets of Old Harbin. While Mengdi and I were walking through a newly developed outdoor shopping area, we exited onto a small street that lead to a dark, messy alleyway. We entered it.


We cut through and found hole-in-the-wall bars with tables of older men smoking cigarettes and drinking late-afternoon beers. There were some vendors selling tuan(r)–food on stick–and owners drying their laundry outside of their stores. It felt nice to walk through an old part of town that is still a part of today’s culture. It had a rustic feeling to it. We walked through and stumbled into a busy market lined with fruit, fish, spice, meat, vegetable sellers and crowds of people.

Buying Pig’s Cheek at a Local Vendor in the Busy Market

I bought a pomegranate and then joined one of my classmate’s roommates to what he said is Harbin’s best bun (baozi) shop. We had pork chop buns. We devoured them and then walked to the riverside. We walked along the shore and then joined our classmates for dinner at a Muslim restaurant. It was a nice outing for a cool Saturday night.

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Exploring Harbin: Jewish New Synagogue Museum

My One-on-One professor, Dr. Wang, switched our Friday class to Monday (National Day). He brought me to the Jewish New Synagogue, which was built in 1921 and used to be the largest synagogue in Northeast China. It has been converted to a museum in 2004 to remember the once flourishing Jewish population that resided in Harbin in the early 1900’s.

New Synagogue (Jingwei Street, Daoli District) Photo borrowed from here.

This post’s goal is to organize my thoughts about my experience at the museum and prepare me for my speech and paper that’s due next week.

Joseph Levikin designed the building so that it could hold up to 800 worshipers. A part of the synagogue also took the position as the Harbin Jewish Publish Library. The synagogue was used from when it was built to around the mid-1950’s. In the mid-20th century the majority of the Jewish population moved (to where, I don’t know…Israel and Europe?). The New Synagogue Museum has three levels:

First Level–Art and Photo Gallery: First half consists of traditional-style water and oil paintings of Old Harbin. Painting included St. Sophia Cathedral and other religious or European style buildings around the city in the early 1900s. Second half of the gallery consisted of modern-day photos of Harbin and modern art pieces that expressed Harbin culture. This gallery’s goal seems to compare the different time periods (early 1900s to today) and emphasize on the recent increase in economic development. Many of the modern photos showed tall skyscrapers, vast public parks, a tall television station radio pole, advanced bridges, and European-style buildings juxtaposed against Chinese city backdrop. The first level did not talk about Jewish history.

Second Level–History of Jewish Entrepreneurship: Entering the second level entryway, there was a 7-foot tall Menorah and a semi-circle hall that introduced the history of why 20,000 Jews escaped from persecution (xenophobia) and landed in Harbin. A quote introduced the second floor:

“Harbin is a city in China where some 20,000 Jews lived for many decades. Most importantly, they encountered no antisemitism among the Chinese, such as [was] prevalent in other lands. [F]rom the Chinese people they encountered no anti-Jewish bitterness or violence. As one result, former Jewish residents of Harbin called themselves ‘Harbintsi'” –Israel Epstein

The second floor (and the entire museum in general) emphasized the fact that the Jewish population in Harbin were never discriminated against. Discrimination is a sensitive topic in the CCP. Contemporary debates continue about whether the Chinese government is or is not discriminating against the populations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. With this in mind, I understand why the museum emphasized on this fact. This fact in history is a good model example for how China’s promotion towards societal harmony–和谐 harmony–and a peaceful nation. Whenever one can brag about one’s achievements, brag; however, always keep the bad parts hidden. I thought Peter Hessler made a good point in Oracle Bones: “One important fact about propaganda: the key information isn’t what you put in, but what you leave out” (Hessler 2006: 113). I’m not saying that the Chinese were actually cruel to the Jewish population. The frame that is being used to describe the non-discriminatory behavior towards the Jewish population in this modern museum can be analyzed to understand how the Chinese government (who put money into this project) wants us (the viewer) to perceive the Chinese nation. Is this museum’s goal to show Jewish history, to promote China, or both? What is the museum organizer purposely leaving out that rekindles modern day phenomenons?

The majority of the second floor’s display showed the entrepreneurship of many Jewish “Harbintsi,” including the opening of many pharmacies, schools, mills, and other industries. There was also a section that showed the “average” life of a Harbin Jew, but the life they showed was extremely extravagant: long, intricate wooden tables and desks, sculptures, paintings, figures…there was a Menorah made out of jade (syncretism).

Third Level: Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the wall leading to the main hallway was covered with dozens of picture frames of “Famous Jews:” Einstein, Spielberg, Gershwin, Salk…We then enter the main hall, the displays continue with the entrepreneurship theme and then moves on to the daily lives and culture of the Jewish population. It emphasized on the arts (violinists, pianists, etc), education, and outdoor activities (sledding, ice skating). My favorite part of the exhibit was the individual stories of the well-known Jewish members of the community. There was an entire wall of their stories. It gave the “Harbintsi” a face, than just a name.

Everyday Live of “Harbintsi”

The final part of the exhibit was the current state of the Jewish population–which is non-existent. However, descendants of the Harbintsi still come to Harbin to see their childhood homes and/or visit their parent’s graves (in the Jewish cemetery outside of the city). Also, the end was the collaboration the government and Jewish population in creating the museum. Unfortunately, I had to skim this portion of the exhibit.

My classmate, Emily, joined my professor and me to the exhibit. She is Jewish and was able to give us more information about her religion past the displays and exhibits. I really appreciated her company. After the walking through the museum, we walked to Zhongyang street and had a delicious lunch at East Dumpling King. We ate all sorts of dumplings (vegetable, beef fried, and pork soup dumplings), slices of pork, pickles, spinach, and other scrumptious foods.

Happy Birthday CCP!

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Chinese Culture: Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day

Zhongyang Street Shop Nationalistic Poster

While my friends and I were walking down Zhongyang Street to a restaurant to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, we noticed the street was draped with hundreds of Chinese flags. They hung above the thousands of pedestrians who were also celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. We walked by this clothing store that had this sign. It reads: “China’s heart, China’s trade…Fishing Island  is our country’s! I love China.” The National Holiday (the day after the Mid-Autumn festival) has come during a tumultuous time this year. Recently, there has been controversy over the ownership of small, uninhabited islands northeast of Taiwan and Southwest of the Ryuku Islands. The Japanese call the islands Senkaku and the Chinese call it diaoyu (fishing). They supposedly hold natural resources (oil) that both countries desire.

From what I have read, Japan has official ownership of the islands through the Okinawa Reversion Treaty between the United States and Japan (after WWII surrender). However, Taiwan and China claimed the islands centuries before. Recently, the Japanese government announced that they bought the islands from a private Japanese owner, which has sparked protests all around China, including Harbin. Harbin Institute of Technology has even been affected. There were pamphlets around campus saying not to buy Japanese items and red banners that mocked Japan and idealized China.

What a time to celebrate the CCP’s birthday! Anger and nationalism put into one cake.

Emily and Me at Bingfengtang

We finally made it to the restaurant Bingfengtang, a southern-style Chinese restaurant. It was delicious! We ate peanuts, chicken buns, fried fish, tofu in brown sauce, and caixin (vegetable hearts). After the meal, I looked out the window and saw a stream of red lights floating toward the stars. I realized that they were setting off red lanterns from the river. We quickly walked over to find hundreds of locals writing their wishes on the lanterns and then preparing them to take off. I had never seen something so beautiful in Harbin. There are not many stars here, but the lanterns looked like a brilliant red Milky Way in the sky.

Eating a Yuebeing with the Full Moon and Lanterns

Emily and I decided to send off our own wishes. We purchased a lantern for 10kuai ($2~) and wrote our wishes onto the red paper. We then lit a white cube (made of flammable material) and waited as the lantern filled with air. We then set it off. It joined the rest of the lanterns into the sky. I wonder where they go? Sending off red lanterns is a tradition for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many families wish for good health and peace, others may wish for their deceased to be happy.

Lantern Lifting Off with Full Moon in the Background

I felt so alive participating with the other hundreds of people in the tradition. Though I may have seen 100+ lanterns take off, each one was mesmerizing. When the lantern slowly lifted into the sky, it made me smile. And seeing it turn into a red star with the hundreds of others in the distance was awe-inspiring. I had a lot of fun hanging with my friends along the river. We set off lanterns, played with sparklers, laughed about almost anything, and strolled along the river. It was a great night. I am not going to forget it…I was so happy. I am so fortunate to be in China and to be given this opportunity to study and do research.

Celebrating with Friends: Elise, Bryan, Brian, Emily, and Su-Yee

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