Beijing (7)

Saturday 09/09


Wake up at 7:30am to go to our appointment of this morning. Isabelle booked a guided walk (with a French girl) to discover the hutongs near the Lama Temple.


We start by the visit of the Confucius temple. The alley leading to the temple has a fine pailou (decorative gateway structure), few of which survive in Beijing. The temple is a haven of peace and quiet. There are centenary cypresses (some of which are over 700 years old). We attend a quick performance, featuring dancing girl in costume.


We visit the room with the Qianlong Stone Scriptures, a stone ‘forest’ (Hall of Steles) of 190 stelae recording the 13 Confucian classics comprising some 630,000 (Chinese) characters.

Next to the Confucius Temple stands the Imperial College (Guozi Jian), where China’s brightest students were educated in Confucianism for centuries.

The side halls feature an exhibition on China’s examination system, based on the Confucian Classics, whereby government officials were chosen at the local, provincial and national level. Scholars would spend years studying to gain official position. Passing these imperial exams, which were essential to reach public service, required a perfect knowledge of all Confucian texts. It is interesting to notice that this meritocracy system, first advocated by Confucius, was later on adopted by several countries, including Japan and France.


Concepts of Confucius make sense in our today’s world (mainly for our political class). Confucius believed that a leader needed to exercise self-discipline in order to remain humble and treat his followers with compassion. In doing so, he would lead by positive example. According to Confucius, leaders could motivate their subjects to follow the law by teaching them virtue and the unifying force of ritual propriety. He had high ethical values.

It made me want to read more about this great philosopher. I could try ‘The Sayings of Confucius’ or ‘The Analects’, a collection of Confucius’ teaching focusing on morality and the state (see below).

A few words about Confucius:

Confucius was born in 552 BC. He was an itinerant scholar; he observed that life would be much improved if people behaved decently, and he wandered from court to court, teaching adherence to a set of moral and social values designed to bring the citizens and the government together in harmony. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. An arch-traditionalist, he believed that society required strict hierarchies and total obedience. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives. He espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, the Golden Rule.

Confucius’s teachings were later turned into an elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers, who organized his teachings into ‘The Analects’ many years after his death.

Nobody paid Confucius much attention during his lifetime, and he died in obscurity. But during the Hang dynasty, 600 years later, Confucianism became institutionalized, underscoring a hierarchical system of administration that prevailed for the next 2,000 years. Seeing that its precepts sat well with a feudal society, rulers turned Confucianism into the state philosophy, and from the Tang dynasty onwards, official were appointed on the basis of their knowledge of the Confucian texts.

The great sage fell from official favour in the 20th century with the rise of the egalitarian communists, and today there are no functioning Confucian temples left in China.


The guide gave us also much insight about the (very competitive) current educational system in China. High-school students only have one chance to pass their final exam (no second chance!) and if they fail, they can’t go to university (and consequently will have a manual job). Pressure is huge. The generation of the one-child policy (which has now been abolished and replaced by a two-child policy) has been much criticized for being a spoilt generation but on the other hand it must be recognized that the pressure on their shoulders was big (and their free time very limited, if not totally inexistent, with all the private lessons, their music classes, their sports…).


We learn also that during the elementary school, Chinese kids basically only study maths, Chinese and English. Writing Chinese language is indeed so difficult that it takes many years to learn. The verbal language itself is much easier than the writing: there’s no tense, singular/plural…


After the visit of the temple, we walk in the Hutongs nearby. Although at first glance, Beijing seems a thoroughly modern city, a stroll through the city’s alleyways (hutongs) reveals the charm of old Beijing. These hutongs are where many Beijing residents still live. They are created by the walls of courtyard hourses (siheyuan), which were formerly the homes of the officials and the wealthy ones. Since the mid-20th century, these siheyuan houses became state-owned. A large number of the hutongs were demolished to make way for new wide roads and buildings. Under Mao, siheyuans previously owned and occupied by single families were subdivided and shared by many households, with additions tacked on as needed, built with whatever materials were available (which resulted in having 12 people per house on average, with approx. 20m² per family…). This, combined with the fact that there was no central heating and no toilet (hence the public toilets that we see everywhere in these districts), led many residents to leave the lanes where their families lived for generations for apartment buildings with modern amenities. But now we can observe a reverse move. More recently, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Moreover, people tend to be willing to come back in the centre of town because the traffic jams become more and more unbearable (more than 3 hours per day on average). Furthermore, municipality recently started to (physically) wall small shops in the hutongs to force them to leave, in order to reduce the number of people living in these hutongs. We are hence witnessing the transformation of the hutongs into ‘bobo’ districts, with the associated rocketing prices of the land. We indeed saw a lot of renovation works in all the hutongs we’ve visited. According to our guide (living in Beijing for 10 years), we are living the last years of hutongs as popular districts.


Another interesting fact that we learn today is regarding the banding feet for women in China. We’ve all heard about this practice but I didn’t know that it was abolished only in the middle of the 20th century, by Mao. Foot binding was the custom of applying tight binding to the feet of young girls to modify the shape of the foot. The practice became popular (during the Song dynasty) as a means of displaying status (women from wealthy families, who did not need their feet to work, could afford to have them bound) and was correspondingly adopted as a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture. Foot binding limited the mobility of women, resulting in them walking in swaying unstable steps. By the 19thcentury, 40–50% of all Chinese women may have had bound feet, and up to almost 100% among upper class Han Chinese women. It is not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out as a result of anti-foot-binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that it is the fact that Marco Polo didn’t mention this very specific point about Chinese women that make historians doubt about Marco Polo’s visit to China.


This 3-hour visit was very interesting (hence the length of today’s post!); we enjoyed listening to the guide’s explanations, not only about the history but also the daily life in the hutongs. We highly recommend Beijing by Heart:


We then visit the Lama’s temple. In most guidebooks, it’s mentioned that “if you only visit one temple in Beijing it must be the Lama’s temple”. It’s Beijing’s most beautiful temple complex. The temple still functions as an active Tibetan Buddhist centre; there are a lot of pilgrims. The highlight is the vast 17m high of Maitreya (the future Buddha) carved from a single piece of sandalwood. I find the place disappointing (the numbers of tourists and the white light of Beijing today probably didn’t help).


We try some food street: a jianbing, a savoury crepe (with egg) and a few stuffed buns. Quite good actually. It’s nice to watch the making of the jianbing. Sold from mobile carts or streetside windows, a scoop of batter is cooked until firm on a circular hotplate, then an egg is cracked over the top to make a tasty, omelet-like layer; it’s all seasoned with chilli bean paste and sliced spring onions, folded around a rectangular, crispy biscuit, chopped into quarters and finally handed over to us.

We go and take healthy juices (+ hummus and tapenade) at The Veggie Table. Nice and relaxing place.

Then we walk a bit in the nice Wudaoying street, near Andigmen. The entire area of hutongs here is now dotted with small cafes, cute restaurants and boutique shops, making it an ideal place to browse in low gear.

We find an hairdresser for Jules, who wants to be bald. But this (lady) hairdresser apparently doesn’t want to shave him completely.

We walk to the Dutong theatre where our Belgian ‘world tourers’ friends bought tickets for the 5:30pm show of the acrobats. I’ve done some research on internet about all these different acrobatics shows. I was afraid that the show at the Chaoyang Theatre would be too touristy and I thus chose this one, performed by younger artists. Although the performance was nice, I’m a bit disappointed. But the kids and Isabelle enjoyed.

We walk to the nearby street where there are plenty of restaurants but it’s Saturday night and most of them are full with waiting time of 45’. Too much for the kids. We ended up in a hot pot restaurant. Kids were happy since they like the experience but I’m not a great fan of this kind of meal.

We go back in metro. I haven’t mentioned yet that each metro station is equipped with x-ray machine and each bag is systematically checked at the entrance!




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