Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steiny Road to China: Step 9 GOING TO THE WATER WELL

What drove the Steiny Road Poet to start learning Mandarin and to become Li Changdi was the wish to communicate with people she would meet in China. In Beijing, she and her Gang of Eight (along with 16 other Grand Circle Tour travelers) were taken to one of the hútòng 胡同 neighborhoods that flank the Forbidden City. Hútòng comes from the Mongolian word hottog, which means water well. Typically tourists enter the alleyways of the hutong in bicycle rickshaws.

What does it mean to live in a hutong neighborhood?

Well, people share toilets, bathhouses, courtyards. While you might have kitchen appliances, you don’t necessarily have running water. Actually the typical hutong quarters are most likely one room and there is no central heat or air conditioning. In the winter, it is cold in these honeycomb residences. The fact is, there is no privacy and everyone knows your business.

By these standards, the residence we visited was on the high end. The lady of the house who was a snuff bottle artist had two rooms. Her niece, who is learning her aunt’s art, assisted with our visit for tea.

We were surprised to see the aunt had a French poodle and the dog was decked out with a hairdo of orange ears and lime green tale. Apparently people living in the hutong are now more economically able to afford pets.

However, hutongs in Beijing are being demolished and replaced by modern buildings. The people are being bought out by the government and moved to high-rise buildings.

To see what it is like living in a hutong, check out Michael Myer’s YouTube film and read his book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He said the hutong streets could be compared to Venice canals. Changdi thinks only a former Peace Corps worker like Mr. Myer’s could stand to be so close up and personal with his neighbors for the two years he lived in the hutong. One thing he did have was broadband Internet, but Changdi experienced the People’s Republic of China’s stranglehold on social networking websites like blogs, Facebook and Twitter and so even broadband couldn’t necessarily help a Westerner escape the eyes of the hutong.

More photos from Changdi's visit to the snuff bottle artist.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Steiny Road to China: Step 8 – POWER TO THE PEOPLE

In the month of November, Li Changdi, a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet, got on a plane at Dulles International with her husband and six good friends for a flight through Tokyo to Beijing. The Gang of Eight traveled for 22 days through China partaking of such cities Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuhan, Yichang, San Dou Ping, Chongqing, Xi’an, Gui Lin, and Hong Kong. We were part of a Grand Circle Tour.

What we liked about the GCT was that we met ordinary people in their homes and communities. We went to visit people living in a hutong community in Beijing. We saw a performance of students and teachers at a kung fu school and after we talked to them. We met relocated farming families. We went to an elementary school where 5th graders were learning English.

Because there is so much to tell, Changdi is going to parse the trip into small pieces. Meet her trip manager Song Peng (Nick) and in this photo he is painting her Chinese name as souvenir to take home.


In Beijing, we did what all families do, and that was, we went to Tian'anmen Square and had our photo taken with Mao Zedong. Yes, the Chinese people still hold Chairman in high regard despite the devastation of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre in Tian'anmen Square. In this photo, you see Changdi with her husband Jim. Does he have a Chinese name? No, but sometimes he responds to Jimbeau.

Mao’s photo hangs on The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'anmen). Tian'anmen is the entrance to the Imperial City. It is across the street from the Forbidden City. The scale of Tian'anmen Square is huge. While Changdi and her Gang of Eight were in Beijing, they traveled through this square twice. Some of them actually considered coming back a third time when President Obama was there. However, the Gang froze the first two times and they had no real desire to get squeezed by a mob (no matter how warm that would be) when these friends all live close enough to the White House where Barack Obama lives with his family.


On the left side of the Gate, the characters read: 中华人民共和国万岁 or “Long Live the People’s Republic of China. In pinyin, one pronounces the Chinese characters as zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó wànsuì.

Here’s how the characters form their meaning.

中华.................... 人民...................... 共和国 ...................... 万岁
zhōnghuá ............. rénmín ............... gònghéguó ................ wànsuì
Nation of China..... The People.......... Republic .................... long live

As a beginning student of the Chinese language, Changdi knew the words and characters for zhōngguó meaning “the country of China” 中国, gòngrén meaning “worker” 共人, and suì 岁 meaning “years of age” as in “How old are you? 18 years old.” and in pinyin” “Nǐ jīnnián duō dà? Shíbā suì.” So while Changdi didn’t know on the spot what the characters said, she recognized elemental parts.


The right side of the Gate reads: 世界人民大团结万岁 or "Long Live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples." In pinyin, the characters read “Shìjiè rénmín dà tuánjié wànsuì.” You might notice the Chinese language doesn’t bother with plural case as in People versus Peoples. Certain aspects of Chinese is a lot easier than English.

世界 ...................... 人民....................................... 团结............... 万岁
shìjiè...................... rénmín ................................. tuánjié ........ wànsuì
world...................... the people............. great............. unity .......... long live

Because the words “rénmín” and “wànsuì” are used in both sentences, there is a musical repetition to the message as well as psychological emphasis on “long live” and “the People.” Another detail of interest is that the character 万 wàn (meaning “10,000”) has built into its construction 力 lì meaning “power” and this character is one of the basic elements (or radicals) making up many other characters in the Chinese language.

If one understands how important the written Chinese language is to the people of China, one can get a glimmer of what these two sentences mean to the Chinese people. Mao was a master of language and he was able to bring power to the powerless and this has a couple of meanings. He declared everyone in China equal so that each person became powerful and he made China equal to the other nations of the world after China suffered centuries of domination by foreign nations. Perhaps this is still a game of smoke and mirrors, but to see China today, one cannot doubt that China is a world leader and that every Chinese person, in some way, has power unparalleled to counterparts under the governments or dynasties that ruled before Mao Zedong.


While Changdi has never embraced the tenets of Communism, she has come to this insight about her own relationship with Mao. Changdi realized that the image of Mao seeped into her subconscious in the early 1970s and this most likely happened with Andy Warhol’s series of silk-screen portraits of the Chairman. In 1980, Changdi bought a black-and-white print entitled “Manhattan Moonlight” from the cityscape artist Armin Landeck who was a good friend of her close friend poet Robert Sargent. After the print was signed by Mr. Landeck, framed, and hung, Changdi wrote this poem.


Let Manhattan Moon raynnn down on me
Fingertips clicking, nails tapping on the iron door
Mao Tse-tung’s bald face deflecting the bright moonlight
Chairman’s bar silhouette without a Warhol grin
Street sliding off the checkered Earth
Buildings challenge-dancing to the artist’s gait
Tap, tap, click, click, pop
Let Manhattan Moon razze night

--Karren L. Alenier
in The Dancer’s Muse

Jimbeau was surprised to know that the image of Mao, however subtle, hangs in their living room.