人逢喜事精神爽 (rén féng xǐshì jīngshén shuǎng)
– A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance.
I’ve recently gotten to know a lovely Chinese family, and last Sunday they invited me to go to the Beijing Botanical Gardens with them in order to “explore the spring” and see the cherry trees in bloom. Jack is 8 and I thought that “exploring the spring” was the best homework ever. I later found out that he would have to write 250 characters about his experience after the event. A typical example of intense Chinese tuition…
The afternoon started when Joan (Jack’s very talented mother who has completed a BA, an MA and her PhD at Peking University) picked me up from the famous Peking University West Gate to have some delicious Shaanxi food. The original plan was to go to their family friend’s house to eat, but I later found out that they live on a military base, and foreigners are not allowed to enter without a letter from their ambassador. Therefore, Joan and I had a delicious lunch together at a Shaanxi style restaurant, and then went to pick up the rest of the gang at the military base near the Botanical Gardens and Fragrant Hills. It must have looked quite comical as the lone waiguoren (me) loitered outside the base, waiting for my Chinese family to reappear and collect me. (No pictures of this – the spikes on the gates looked terrifying and I was already getting suspicious looks.)
After Joan was reunited with Jack and their friends, we took the unconventional route through hutongs to get to a side entrance of the park. I couldn’t help but notice how much easier it is to be a native in China, and this theme continued throughout the afternoon. On the walk to the park, I met Joanna, a lovely 11 year old as well as Jack and his grandparents, who generously complimented me on my Chinese. Upon arrival at the park, our first stop was the preserved village home and memorial of Cao Xueqin, author of one of China’s four classics – The Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone. The kids took great pleasure in explaining the interesting parts to me, and there was an important photo opportunity beside a bronze statue of the author. When I get some free time (term is very busy at the minute) I’d love to read Cao Xueqin’s most famous work, but it might have to wait until summer, or at least after exams!
Our next destination was a beautiful path lined with cherry blossom trees, with a river trickling alongside. As it was a Sunday, the park was packed, but even the throngs of tourists couldn’t spoil the beauty of the trees and the cherry blossoms, perfectly offset by a remarkably blue sky. At this point, Jack had been accompanied by another friend (Thomas), so they dashed around, fairly oblivious to the scenery but having fun nonetheless. Joanna was shy, but we had a few tentative conversations in English as we admired the colours and had a little photo-shoot by the trees.
Cherry blossoms seem to be a big thing in Asia – people pay hundreds of pounds to visit Japan in cherry blossom season, and as I’ve already said, the park was packed as the blossoms had come into bloom. Prior to this trip, four university friends and I had climbed Xiangshan (the Fragrant Hills – very close to the Botanical Gardens) and been greeted by what looked like vibrantly pink cherry blossoms. Upon closer inspection, we realized that they were in fact plastic, and had been secured by copious amounts of brown cable ties. I’ve been pleasantly surprised upon seeing the real deal ever since.
The excitement continued as we made our way past the lake, over some traditional bridges, and up towards the primary gate of the Temple of the Recumbent Buddha (Wofo Temple). Fuelled by some delicious freshly pressed sugar cane, we started the incline up to the temple. It was resplendent in its colours and traditional architecture, and greeted its visitors with a pond full of gold fish and terrapins.
I found out that the Temple was built in the Tang Dynasty (618AD – 907AD) and has a history of more than 1300 years, receiving repairs during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Joan explained the significance of the various gods and warrior kings as we made our way through the temple halls, and pointed out various examples of notable architecture. The most important hall held the lying statue of Sakyamuni, which is five meters long and weighs 54 tons and was built in 1321A.D. during the Yuan Dynasty. Although China’s Communist Party is officially atheist, it recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism and Joan explained that the Temple is fairly popular.
Apparently it receives a lot of visits in particular from students, especially during exam term. I’m studying in the advanced class at PKU this term, which is interesting, but also a large step up, so I’m hoping my visit will stand me in good stead for the months to come!
More on class another time but if you’d like to keep up with my China story, please follow me on Instagram (pekingfinch) for frequent photos!