Traveling to Qing Dynasty China in Style

NOTE: This post follows from the previous post: Beijing to Shanxi by Car. But you can also read it as a stand-alone article.

‘We have to leave by eight’ Mr Tang said sternly. For all his talk about anarchy the man has a deep respect for schedules. Everything has to go according to a detailed timetable.

We had baozi (meat-filled steamed buns) for breakfast, washing them down with hot soy milk. Mr Tang chews his food like a cow chews the cud. ‘Food is just fuel,’ he once told me. ‘We are just eating machines’.

Mr Tang’s friend, Zheng Jin, had used his military connections to get us an exclusive tour of Pingyao, a remarkably well preserved 2,700 year-old city in the middle of Shanxi Province. He had arranged for our group to meet up with a high-ranking army officer at a nearby military academy.

The army guy showed up in uniform and took us out for lunch at a hotel reserved for military personnel. He welcomed us exuberantly as if we were old friends, even though we were all strangers to him except for Zheng Jin. He ordered all the most expensive delicacies on the menu. He had even brought wrapped gifts for us all. And not just cheap tat. He’d bought us bottled wine and – oddly enough – ornamental mirrors that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Marie Antionette’s dressing table.

To someone unfamiliar with Chinese culture this behaviour might seem odd. Why would someone spend so much money on people who he’s meeting for the first time and is not likely to ever see again? What you have to bear in mind is that reputation is extremely important in Chinese society, and being a good host is fundamental to one’s reputation.

After we’d eaten our fill from an assortment of exotic dishes (which Mr Tang swallowed with all the enthusiasm of a man eating cornflakes) we followed the army man’s car to the ancient city-gates of Pingyao.

Pingyao was the financial center of China during the Qing Dynasty and was the birthplace of the country’s banking industry. It is now a tourist hotspot, although it’s more popular with Chinese tourists than foreigners. Normally visitors have to buy a ticket to get into the city, but our uniformed friend took us right to the front of the long queue and got one of the staff to open the turnstiles for us. Not only did he get us in for free but he hooked us up with our own tour guide at no cost. After this he shook us all by the hand and went off to do whatever it is that Chinese military officers do when they’re not using the perks of their office to entertain strangers.

This is how things work in China. If you have the right contacts you can do anything. The Chinese have a word for this: guanxi. It’s all about the guanxi. And as far as powerful connections go you can’t do much better than a military officer. The military and police pretty much control everything in China. Although Mr Tang despises this system he is willing to take advantage of it when opportunities arise.

So we entered into the city and climbed onto the wall to get a view of the rooftops.

The city walls of Pingyao date back to the 14th century and they are still in incredibly good condition. The streets contained within the imposing walls are laid out in a symmetrical grid and the shops on the main streets have stood there since the 17th-19th centuries. The roofs of the buildings bear the wavy style typical of ancient Chinese architecture. And there are several temples, including a Buddhist one, a Confucian one and a Daoist one.

Having taken in the view we got down into the streets, which were teeming with tourists. Mr Tang weaved through the crowds snapping photos of everything like an excited schoolboy. He is fascinated with his country’s history. And he loves talking to locals. He engaged the sweet-sellers in conversation. He’s great that way – always interested in people and their stories. He can connect with people of all social strata. He talks to beggars and waiters and car-park attendants like brothers.

Mr Tang’s wife went off to buy some earrings from one of the numerous street stalls. They sell everything there: leopard skins, Chairman Mao statuettes, porcelain, walnuts (which Chinese traditionally rotate in their palms to improve blood circulation), swords, calligraphy brushes, tea sets, severed tiger paws, jade coins, charms to hang from your car’s rear-view mirror, a traditional Chinese flute called hulusi made of a gourd and bamboo pipes, pocket watches. Everything.

And everywhere there are portraits of a certain gentleman called Hua Guofeng. This man succeeded Mao as Chairman of the Communist Party. He is popular in Pingyao because he was born in Shanxi Province. He was also the head of the party in Hunan Province, Mr Tang’s home province, during the Cultural Revolution. It amused Mr Tang to see all these portraits of Hua. He photographed one of them.

Another attraction of Pingyao is the Qiao family courtyard house. The Qiao family were influential in the Qing Dynasty and they built this house in the 1700s. To get into the house area tourists have to buy another ticket. But besides money the ticket sellers also accept guanxi as a valid currency, so we all went in without paying a thing.

There was also a prison in the city containing windowless cells and various ancient instruments of torture. The torture devices were specialised for different purposes. Some were for interrogation, some for execution and some merely for punishment. Mr Tang was thrilled with all this. He has a rather morbid fascination with death – especially violent death. He once told me that he wished he was an undertaker or a grave digger. ‘Death is real life,’ he said, somewhat paradoxically.

Before leaving Pingyao Mr Tang and I sampled some of the local street food. I don’t know exactly what it is we ate but it supposedly involved minced donkey meat wrapped in something like a pancake. Mr Tang grimaced comically when he tasted it. ‘So bad,’ he complained. ‘I think they put rat flesh in this’. He turned the thing over in his hands, inspecting it with disgust. ‘I thought food is just fuel’, I said, ‘taste doesn’t matter, right?’ But he wasn’t listening. He spat the stuff out in front of the guy who had sold it to us and told him his product was substandard. ‘Ten yuan for that garbage! Aiya!’ he said, before walking away.

On the way out of the city we stopped to look at a stall selling handguns and sniper scopes and various other instruments of warfare. I don’t know if the items were real or not but the two guys manning the stall had an edginess about them as if they were keeping an eye out for cops.

Twilight was falling. A live performance of Chinese opera was taking place right outside the front gate of the city. We had had a full day but Mr Tang was all up for the five hour drive back to Beijing. We would have set out that very evening but Mr Tang’s sensible wife urged him to stay one more night in Taiyuan. So that night we dined on seafood hot pot and roamed the streets of Taiyuan. Back at the hotel Mr Tang stood in front of the TV like Buddha, flipping through the channels until he found an old war movie about the Chinese Army defeating Japanese invaders in World War Two. He went to sleep to the sound of gunfire and started snoring about three minutes after his head hit the pillow.

He snored his mighty snore all through the night, like a harbinger of the apocalypse.

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5 comments

  1. John Michael Sheehan · · Reply

    Hello! I just would like to give a huge thumbs up for the great info you have here on this post. I will be coming back to your blog for more soon.

  2. Laughs. I like your boss. I am also delighted by your prose, your narration, your perception, your British English, and mostly your faith in the Lord. You are a wonderful raconteur I’m happy to learn from.

    1. thanks so much Olee. your words are encouraging. I have been to your blog and enjoyed some of your writings. I can’t believe English is not your first language, you use it just as well as most native English speakers!
      By the way I went to primary school in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia for a few years. To this day Malaysia is one of my favourite countries 🙂 I hope I can visit Borneo one day because I haven’t been there yet.

      1. Hehe. You’re welcome, Sam. And thanks. Reading your narration revives my writer’s voice which was dying from being idle myself, in reference to your recent blog post. I need to get out of the house. 😀
        I’m flattered. If you like Cameron Highlands, which I think is one of the best places to visit in West Malaysia, you’d love East Malaysia as well. Culturally, Sabahans and Sarawakians are more diverse and relatively better integrated. Currently we are in the situation of wresting political control to be recognized as equal to West Malaysia, not as states but as independent blocks, like Scotland in Great Britain (Apologies for this politics talks. Lol). If you’re up to for a bit of exploration, you can go here – http://sabahwarriors.blogspot.com/ and here http://cedeprudente.blogspot.com/ I’m presently reading them for the first time myself. Restored pride in Sabah, I guess. Laughs.

      2. Hehe. You’re welcome, Sam. And thanks. Reading your narration revives my writer’s voice which was dying from being idle myself, in reference to your recent blog post. I need to get out of the house. 😀 I’m flattered. If you like Cameron Highlands, which I think is one of the best places to visit in West Malaysia, you’d love East Malaysia as well. Culturally, Sabahans and Sarawakians are more diverse and relatively better integrated. Currently we are in the situation of wresting political control to be recognized as equal to West Malaysia, not as states but as independent blocks, like Scotland in Great Britain (Apologies for this politics talks. Lol). If you’re up for a exploration, you can go here – http://sabahwarriors.blogspot.com/ and here http://cedeprudente.blogspot.com/ I’m presently reading them for the first time myself. Restored pride in Sabah, I guess. Laughs.

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