US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.

 

To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

Economic-Development Zone Bike Tour

We have been living in Huadong, a suburb of Qingdao on the bay letting out to the sea –officially an “economic development zone.” I’ve been all over China and have never seen this many skyscraper apartments going up. Mile after mile, some super-fancy with the German-esque follies/details (red rooves, cottage brown stripes) that reference Qingdao’s German colonial past. It’s also home (slightly inland) to massive factory after factory campus, including Haier, which I think makes large appliances like air conditioners.

“Development” means factories, in my students’ argot. Development in my lingo means things like health, education, as well as infrastructure. Here it really doesn’t have that overtone of human development.

SO we took an economic development zone bike tour along the coast, where landscaping of flowering trees, promenades(including a “movie star walk of fame) and exercise machines stretch for miles. s the zone hasn’t finished developing — the buildings are mostly empty, my university only opened this campus a couple of years ago — it’s totally empty. On the horizon are ships and factory stacks. And along the coast,  clammers and fishermen with nets.

fisherman boatsclammers in the smog

God forbid eating shellfish here; sorry, Qingdao. It goes on and on; we’re not the fastest riders but not slow either and this is two hours’ riding  — it just doesn’t stop.

Here’s what it looks like.

Kenny on Huangdao Promenade

Kenny on Huangdao Promenade

mod swervy buildings

keny and buildings

Rent-a-tandem (we didn't)

Rent-a-tandem (we didn’t)

weird red landscaping

Hero Worship: Chiang Kai Shek

Sycamores of Nanjing

Sycamores of Nanjing

If you have a civil war and it is still raw enough that foreigners aren’t allowed (in public or with officials) to even mention Taiwan (one of the taboo Ts along with Tibet and Tiananmen), imagine my surprise that the father of Taiwan, the one who led the retreat there, who in my feeble mind at least embodies that split, is revered in China as father of the nation. On par, my student just said, with Mao.

But only in Nanjing, where he sat as leader of the Nationalist government after the death of Sun Yat-Sen, is Chiang, or Jiang Zhongzheng (蔣中正) in Mandarin, venerated on tshirts, on notepads, in airport souvenir shops.You can buy a pen with his head on it. A bobblehead, a paperweight.

Our young Chinese friend there said, first of all, they love all the sycamores that line every street — giant, shading green trees on every boulevard of Nanjing, which he planted because his wife loved them.

He was a nationalist leader, of course, in liberation and then against the Japanese. And as for the Taiwan split, she said, “It’s just politics.” Inotherwords, it’s fairly meaningless to her.

Second theory: a radical who will remain nameless said it’s because the folks venerating him wish he had (not the Communists) taken over mainland.

My personal thought is, it’s like a nostalgia after divorce– remembering when we were all together.

IMG_0592

The Rape of Nanking, Remembered

Massacre Musuem, Nanjing

Massacre Museum, Nanjing

China has its Yad Vashem. Nanjing’s Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre is experiential architecture. You are funneled through tight spaces, traped in black granite chutes. (Architect Qi Kang is one of the leading figures in Chinese architecture).

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

It’s an immersion in nationalism and grief. And most noticeably, in insistence — there hasn’t been widespread acceptance that the massacre here in 1937 occurred — particularly by the right-wing in Japan, which denies the massacre vehemently, including in court, and has attacked (even murdered) those who’d tell their stories. Such as remorseful Japanese veterans, whose testimony is moving here. And Chinese memoirists, sued for libel.

nanking rape 300000

This is the “wall of witnesses” — as if they need to be documented as much as the victims.

Wall of witnesses

Wall of witnesses

You ponder the monstrousness that overtook invading soldiers, who gang raped and then mutilated — the bestial madness, and the uniquely vicious victimization of women (estimated 20,000 rapes, from children to the elderly). And then one thinks of Japan. I’ve spent a few weeks there, and love so much about it. Not to dwell on cliches but there’s no denying the often exquisite aesthetic and manners and cleanliness and love for beauty and so many cultural heights. And then you struggle to comprehend what occurred in this dark time.

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

And one thinks: The day will come when China honors the victims of its own (domestically perpetrated) atrocities.

And the day will come when the U.S. does.

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Many Japanese figures — authors, industrialists, and trade unions (and presumably the Communist Party, on the plaque pictured above) have expressed solidarity, memorialized and honored the victims. A manufacturing family gathers flower seeds from Nanjing and has planted them all over Japan in an act of honoring the victims.

One last haunting aspect: I read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, a breakthrough book that for perhaps the first time really told the story, as late as 1997 (compare that to Holocaust commemoration.). Her book recapitulates (and enlarges) the museum’s messages, reproducing many of its photos and testimonies. Chang, a Chinese-American journalist from the midwest, committed suicide a few years ago at the age of 36. And another heroine of this place– known as the Living Buddha of Nanking, American missionary Minnie Vautrin, a girls’ school director in wartime Naning who protected and hid tens of thousands of innocent civilians, also (after returning home to Illinois after the war) took her own life.

Some things are too great to bear.

(The Vautrin link above is to the extensive Yale Univ archives on the massacre, the most important repository of its kind.

Peace.

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

Making Fierce Mongolians into Babies

Xilinguole grasslands, Chinese Mongolia

Without refrigeration, Mongolian herders eat like their ancestors: meat, air-dried milk hardened into twists & flakes, yogurt that seems rancid to our fussy American palettes. Fruits and veg are too pricey, the growing season too dry and short. During our visit this summer, we were served onion grass (pickled, to last), what grows in the lawns of NJ.


It’s minus-50F in winter so there’s no problem then.
But we visited this hot summer. All night, wonderful lamb dinner leftovers sat on the table, mid-yurt. In the morning, we declined as hosts, guide, and the herders–tough cowboys–cut the old meat into salted butter tea.

We were near this hill, a pilgrimage spot, which Genghis Khan declared sacred, helping him to victory when he prayed there. Its image symbolizes proud heritage–nationalism, wounded ethnic pride today–as Chinese coal mining encroaches and settlers buy up the grasslands. We climbed it in a few minutes. A carpet shows its beloved image.

Traditional saddle, pride of herders

Life we saw was rugged, simple. One family where we stayed had this small windmill generator, enough for light but not refrigeration.

Our guide said he descends from the “Golden Family,” in English the Golden Horde (from orde, Turkish for ‘people’). “A Mongol brought Tibetan Buddhism out of Tibet and across China,” he said.

“We have a culture, and belief.” (Tibetan Buddhism, he meant–also called Lamaism). “Our Chinese friends have no culture, no belief–they pursue power.” He told this to my son. “I’m sorry, but if you know this,” he said, “it’s better for your future.”

Corrupted local Mongolian local officials had become millionaires, he said. Meanwhile, “We have no rights.” He compared his people to Native Americans. I was thinking that, too, of the Plains Indians, whom we visited in 2008. And as the AIM (American Indian Movement) was born on Pine Ridge, our daring guide was willing to mention the Inner Mongolian Democratic Party of the 1960s, an independence party. He alleged that China killed 150,000 to eradicate it (1960-1980), purging separatists. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Many perished during the Cultural Revolution years. He said the remnants left for America, Germany, Finland.

He is a horsehead fiddler and we talked to its sad lovely strains on an iPod, playing a song called ’60 Trees.’ “When my grandpa sings this song, tears come out. It describes the feeling, how they love those trees.”

I mention the anger, bitterness, nationalism, as lead-in to how Mongolians are packaged, souvenir-ized, at the airport and gift shops. You don’t have to be a semiotician to see what’s going on with the depiction of this fiercely proud, historically mighty people:

Infantalizing images

No threat from these cutie pie babies

PS Thanks for reading! Click “Sign me up” to receive notices by email when we post.