Thursday, May 9, 2013

May 2, 2013, Final day in Beijing, China: the Forbidden City, Tienanman Square

Dylan really helped me pack it in my final day in China!  At his encouragement, I went, on my own, to the Forbidden City in the morning.  He had class until 12 and said he would meet me there afterwards so we could go to the Silk Market to pick up my handmade silk skirt afterwards!  Such fun!

I was slow getting out of bed and on my way, but still managed to get out of the subway by the Forbidden City by 10 or so.  (For those of you whose Chinese cultural info is as weak as mine, here's the brief info from Wikipedia about it:
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the centre of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum.

For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.
Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 720,000 m2 (7,800,000 sq ft).[1] The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture,[2] and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987,[2] and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artifacts were built upon the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It's one of those place one MUST go to when one is in China in order to feel one has been in China.  So I went.  As I came up out of the subway, I was greeted by a very friendly young Chinese woman, Linda, who spoke excellent English, rapidly.  She asked if I were going to the Forbidden City and if I knew where to go.  I told her I was, and I didn't.  She told me she'd be happy to show me.  She said there was a more pleasant way than waiting/wading through the hordes of people we could see streaming towards the entrance - here on the right I could go into a lovely garden and stroll through there for a while until I reached the gate where I could pay to go in.  It would cost 2 quai (another way of saying yuan) to go in, or about $.33.  Sounded great to me!  I am happy to avoid crowds wherever possible.  So I went with her as she took me to the garden.  Along the way, she asked if I'd like to see an art exhibit.  She is an art student and she and her classmates had an exhibit of artwork for the end of the year along with some of their professors which she'd love to show me.  I was very curious and interested so followed her in.  There were 2-3 rooms of artwork hung densely with work which was pretty good - traditional Chinese artwork - scrolls, watercolor paintings, etc. - but also some oil paintings on canvas and some images which weren't quite so typical.  Linda showed me her own paintings which were of the seasons, a typical subject matter.  They were fairly good, but I wasn't crazy about her use of color - too bright and gaudy for the subject matter the way it's typically handled.  It was very interesting talking to her about her classes, her prospects for work after graduation (similar to an art major's prospects here in the States), what sort of materials she uses, etc.  She showed me the work of some of her teachers which was, of course, more skillful than hers and the other students'.  Then she brought me around to an alcove where some very lovely pieces were.  Extraordinary, really.  They were scrolls, as is typical.  But the imagery was quite unusually exquisite.  I'm not normally all that drawn to Chinese art - I guess because the images are foreign to me, and I don't understand the artistry behind it.  It just isn't familiar to me.  But these pieces were so beautifully done, they transcended my lack of familiarity and knowledge.  There was one of a beautiful rock, like the one in this picture, but vertical and smaller (this one is part of a fountain in the park by the Forbidden City) with peonies growing over and around it.  It was so exquisitely done, with great detail, quite wonderful.  I couldn't stop looking at it and examining it and looking some more.  I couldn't imagine painting such fine detail myself on silk so beautifully.  I asked Linda to tell me the story of it.  She said that some of her teachers had made copies of very famous paintings for them to sell at the exhibit to help the students out.  Apparently it's quite common for people to make copies of paintings to sell.  The original of the one I liked so much is in a museum somewhere in Beijing.  I wish I could have read the calligraphy on the painting to know more.  I asked her to translate it for me.  She said it had the painter's name - no memory of what it was - along with stuff about peonies and their beauty and how they represent China, plus the name of the person who did the calligraphy.  Apparently artists will have calligraphers write on their paintings for them, poems or whatever, with the understanding that some people are good at painting, others are good at calligraphy, so they work together.  There are two red stamps on it, one belonging to the calligrapher, the other to the artist.  Another painting had many, many seals on it.  I asked about that.  She told me that when a person buys a painting, he or she puts his or her own seal on it to show he/she has owned it.  The painting with so many on it had apparently been owned by many people.  I asked about that - it was confusing to me that these were copies done by the teachers for this exhibit, yet this one particular painting had already been owned by many people.  She wasn't able to clarify that for me except to say that was the case.  She began her sales job.  She was very, very good.  We bargained. 

I have to say right now I don't really like bargaining in China.  I don't have any idea whatsoever what things are worth on the local economy, and, given my experiences with Dylan, I'm pretty sure I'm getting taken advantage of if he's not with me.  The reason I say that is that people consistently told me, "Oh, I'll give you a fair price - I won't cheat you - because your son speaks such good Chinese.  I give you fair price."  That begs the question of what they're giving me without him.  So I just had to know what my bottom line was.  I decided that the picture was beautiful, truly gorgeous, exquisitely done.  I deeply appreciate artistic talent.  I believe in supporting artists in the work they do.  I do NOT need another piece of artwork.  I am not in a high-earning phase of my life.  So I figured I could maybe pay $200, tops.  Max.  She quoted me 3000 yuan or about $500.  I laughed like Dylan did.  She asked how much I would pay.  I told her 300 yuan.  Dylan generally goes for 1/10 of what they ask.  From there we bargained until we got it to about $180.  Then she asked if I wanted to get another one while I was at it - the one of peonies I'd also liked so much.  I asked how much.  We began again.  We got to 1200 yuan for both, or close to $200.  I felt like that was a pretty good price, especially with the second one included.  Then she took me to the visa machine and said they had to add 5% to it because that's what Visa charges them.  It probably isn't quite that much, but I understand.  Like sales tax.  Whatever.  By that time I was wanting to get going so I could actually see the Forbidden City before Dylan got there to whisk me away elsewhere. 

Linda packaged up the scrolls, including some calligraphy she'd done for me with my name and "success" and the date written on it.  I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with her, learning about Chinese art school, seeing her and others' work, and I felt happy about the beauty I'd be bringing in to my home.

Linda showed me to the cashier's box to get my ticket into the gardens then took me through the gate and pointed me towards the entrance to the Forbidden City.  It ended up being a great choice to go that way.  I felt happy about my purchase.  Happy to have had the exchange with her.  Oh, I forgot to mention - I told her I am an artist too.  She asked what kind of work I do.  Of course I had to show her!  I took out my iPad mini and showed her the images of my female nudes.  She was a bit taken aback, said they couldn't show them in that setting, but she liked them and was intrigued by them.  It made me feel good to share my work with her and to, finally, share myself with someone.  It is SO darn isolating to not speak the language and to only be in communication with people around purchases or basics like directions or other basics.  I was glad she spoke such good English and that we could converse.  It was gratifying.

The walk through the park was lovely.  People talk consistently about how crowded Beijing is, how oppressive the crowds are.  I was concerned about that before I went there.  Being there, though, I was surprised to find that they weren't any worse than Paris, for example.  The subway was certainly crowded at rush hour - people pressed in together tightly.  But I'd experienced it so badly in Paris at one point, I couldn't even get into the subway the first time I tried!  It was that crowded!  And once I did get on, the mass of humanity was as tightly packed as sardines.  Truly.  I didn't have it that bad in Beijing.  And I also found that there are a lot of places people can go that are beautiful and peaceful.  Traffic isn't all that loud because the motorized bikes people use are all electric, so there are no motorcycle noises to speak of.  There are lots of cars, but, though people honk, they don't do so loudly, repeatedly, obnoxiously.  I don't know - I just didn't find the crowds to be that bad.  This park was an example of it not being bad at all - it was wonderful walking through there with only a handful of other people.  Folks were strolling quietly alone or in pairs at most.  The plantings there were fabulous - waist-high peony bushes in full bloom, for example. There were also trees labeled as being 800 years old.  One of them is a Deer-shaped cypress.  There's a picture here of the tree and the label for it.  I find it amazing that they keep track of the trees so carefully.  I guess the Emperors could afford to keep track of things so carefully.  There is a lot of history in China! 
The deer-shaped cypress

a pretty pond with part of the Forbidden City beyond the wall
I really enjoyed walking through the tranquil park, taking pictures, being in the relative silence.  It was very calming and serene. 

There were several buildings in this part of the part which looked, to me, the uneducated observer, very much like the ones we'd seen at the Temple of Heaven - same roof line, similar tiles, same patterns paintings on the eaves, etc.  I walked over to them to explore what was there.  There were signs outside of each one telling what the building had been used for.  I wish I had a more solid grounding  in the mythology of China's emperors so I could understand them more fully.  But alas!  I don't!

Spread all around the grounds, near each of the beautiful buildings, was a beautiful bride with her patient groom and extensive retinue of photographer and assistants.  I must have seen 10 groups of people working on wedding photographs.  There were so many I think they might have been for a bridal magazine!  Dylan insists they were just regular brides, but there were SOOOO many!  It was hard to believe!  I told him he's going to have to pick me up a bridal magazine with all the pictures in it so I can see how they turned out.  I'm so curious!  This was a cultural phenomenon that fascinated me for some reason - the intense make up, hair, dress, photographers, etc!

one of the buildings in the park where all the wedding pictures were being taken

Finally I got to the gate to go to the entrance to the Forbidden City.  I was shocked by the hordes of people there!  It was like entering into a nightmare (for me).  There were merchants everywhere trying to sell their wares, mostly hats of one kind or another to keep the sun out.  I thought I'd taken some pictures of the crowds, but I guess not.  You'll just have to imagine!  The video I uploaded is of one of the hat salespeople showing the multitude of ways you could wear that certain type of hat.  He was very entertaining.  Sorry the picture is sideways.  I didn't realize the iPad could only film video one way.  Oops!

I spent a few minutes looking at the crowds of people, checking out the vendors, seeing where I had to go to buy a ticket.  I looked at the Forbidden City itself.  It looked to me like the buildings I'd just seen in the park.  Dylan had told me that you can't go into the buildings.  Hordes of people line up at each building, waiting for the moment where they can look into the building to see the lush furniture and rooms.  They take a photograph then get pushed on to the next building where the same process is repeated.

I called Dylan to see where he was and when he wanted to meet me, given that I was a bit behind schedule because I'd gotten off to a late start and had also spent so much time at the art exhibit.  We decided to meet at 1:45, about an hour hence.  I told him about Linda and how she'd met me at the subway entrance.  He said, "Oh, MOM!  No!  You didn't go with her, did you?" 

"Uh, yes, I did!  I had a great time!  It was so interesting looking at the art."

"Don't tell me you bought anything?!"

"Why's that?"

"Mom, I forgot to warn you - I didn't think I'd have to!  Those people are scam artists.  That's one of the most common scams in China!  People taking you to look at art then selling you cheap stuff."

My joy was immediately deflated.  I felt like I'd been had.  I felt so confused.  I'd had a lovely conversation with Linda. Yes, her English was rapid-fire and somewhat canned, but when we'd gotten off script, she'd stayed right with me.  We'd talked about personal stuff.  We had connected a little bit personally.  I really liked the pieces I bought.

I told Dylan all that.

He tried to backtrack, seeming to not want to ruin my experience and make me feel wretched.  He said, "Oh, well maybe this was different.  It does sound like it was a student show.  Maybe this was more legitimate than those I've heard about.  I don't want to mess it up for you.  I'm glad you like what you got."

I didn't want to tell him I'd bought two pieces, been had two times,  not just one!  I felt so foolish - and confused!  The pieces are beautiful.  They are special.  So what could be the scam?  Then I realized that perhaps they are prints, not originals painted by her teachers.  The price was too high for prints, even if they're very good quality prints.  It would make sense that they were prints given all the seals on that one picture that I'd questioned her about.  I don't know what original watercolors would look like on silk so examining it didn't really help me tell if they were real or not.  I have a feeling they are good quality prints and that I paid way too much for them.  I felt kind of sick. 

Dylan and I hung up, agreeing to meet in an hour or so.  I got ready to buy my ticket.  $15.  I felt bad about the artwork.  Unable to march back in and demand my money back, not wanting to believe I'd been scammed, perplexed by the connection I'd felt with Linda, surprised because the art really is beautiful.  I tried to rationalize the price - well, it'll help the art students.  I can get it checked out when I get back to the States.  I bought it through Visa - maybe I can lodge a complaint with them and get my money back that way - at least some of it - they're worth something, just not what I paid.  Probably.  But what if they are real?  Then they're a great deal.  And they are beautiful.  But now the story is ruined.  And I don't know how to find out if they're real or prints.  My mind couldn't quite settle down.
 Side note:  Yesterday (I've been home in the US for a few days now) I finally shared this story with Chris, but not until after I showed him the paintings.  He finds them quite beautiful too.  He was taken with the detailed petals, the beautiful composition, the delicacy of each of them.  I thought about not telling him the story about Linda and the possible scam, but I think I am constitutionally incapable of holding anything back from Chris - besides, one of our wedding vows is "No holding back!" - so I went ahead and told him the whole story, including my chagrin and frustration.  He had the best response possible.  He didn't say a word about the money.  He just talked about how interesting the whole thing is - before Dylan said anything, I felt good about the interaction, fine about the price, proud of my purchase, excited about it even.  I felt fine about the price. Then Dylan threw doubt into the equation.  Suddenly I wasn't sure anymore - didn't know if I'd gotten a good deal or had been scammed.  Suddenly I was wondering about the whole thing - it was sullied.  I didn't know if I could enjoy the paintings anymore.  The only thing that had changed was that doubt had been thrown in.  How did that change the value of the items in my mind?  It was only a shift in perception, nothing more. Satisfied to feeling scammed, all in one brief moment.  Nothing about the paintings changed in the least.  It is a fascinating psychological issue, I think.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to take a look at it.  It reminds me of the saying by Tony Robbins, "Trade your expectation for appreciation and the world changes instantly."  I went in reverse, and the world did, in fact, change instantly.  Now I want to switch it back around so I can hang those paintings up and enjoy them and the artistry behind them thoroughly.  Perhaps these will become just the reminders I need to focus on the positive and to remember how powerful perception is!  That's certainly worth $200!

One of the people collecting recyclable materials to sell.
I looked around, felt kinda lost, and decided not to go into the Forbidden City - nothing about it had sounded all that compelling.  I figured I could watch The Last Emperor again and see the insides of the rooms much better than I could by standing at the doorway with crowds of people pressed against me wanting me to move so they could see.  I called Dylan back to say I was ready when he was.  He said he couldn't come any sooner because he had to see a teacher.   I wandered out to the front gate I'd avoided by going through the park, checking out the people as I went, lost in my thoughts about the damn prints/paintings.

When I got out front, I recognized that I was on Tienaman Square. There were dozens of armed guards lining the walkway out of the Forbidden City complex in front of Tienaman Square.  No loitering was allowed.  There were huge billboards advertising perfume and showing Western actors in the middle off the square.  Traffic zoomed by.  There was a significant military presence.  One had to go under the street through the maze of tunnels holding the subway to get to the square itself.  I chose not to go there, just to look from where I was.  There were not all that many people on the square, certainly no groups.  I think the government is careful to keep groups from congregating there.  They don't want another confrontation like happened in 1989. 

Again, Wikipedia offers info:

Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the center of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its North, separating it from the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is the third largest city square in the world (440,000 m² - 880m by 500m or 109 acres - 960 by 550 yd). It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history.
Outside China, the square is best known in recent memory as the focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended on 4 June 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the death of several hundred or possibly thousands of civilians.[1][2]

 So what I was seeing was the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the guards in front of it.  There was a huge picture of Mao mounted on the wall there.  I  noticed there were many, many people in front of the barrier there being photographed by their loved ones.  I got interested in that.  I started to pay attention to the process of people being photographed.  Watching it from a detached point of view was very interesting.  Usually I'm an integral part of the process- being photographed or doing the photographing, and I'm oblivious to what else is going on.  Now I was an outsider, watching the process, seeing people oblivious to everyone else.  I decided it would be interesting to photograph them being photographed. 

I saw older couples standing stiffly together, straight-faced, being photographed in front of this cultural icon.  Younger people, teens and younger, tended to smile or strike a pose I am more used to - peace sign or pointing or laughing.  The difference was quite noticeable.

I found myself wondering how they felt about Mao.  I wish I could have asked.  He is the father of modern China, but he, like Stalin and Hitler, caused so many, many, many deaths and so much destruction and horror - between 40 and 70 million people are estimated to have died because of his policies.  How could they want their picture taken with him?  How could they wear Mao hats?  How could they buy memorabilia from that period?  What an interesting quandary!

Here are some of the pictures I took of the people being photographed in front of Mao's picture:

This guy is apparently a worker for the state.  He was using a hand drill with a steel wool-type drill bit on it along with water to sand down rough spots in the pavement.  I can not begin to imagine someone doing that job in the US.  It simply seems too trivial.

 After about 45 minutes of photographing people, Dylan called to see if I wanted to meet him at the Silk Market rather than him meeting me at the Square since I'd seen enough.  I figured I could take on the subway again with his excellent directions on how to get there, so off I went!

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