Yesterday was Qing Ming, the Grave-Sweeping Festival. This year – for the first time since 1949? – it was a public holiday. Hooray! I also got the day off, and did a bit of sightseeing and general slacking (which I’ll pay for – it’s not as if I don’t have a pile of things that need doing…). It’s also a good opportunity to braindump a few ideas that have been knocking around for a long time…
First: spring is here, the trees are budding, lots of flowers are out, and Beijing is starting to look beautiful. Hurray! The humidity is rising as well, though it’s still pretty dry. When we’re practising bagua, taiji, etc, we’ll be told to keep the tip of the tongue pressed against the palate. I’ve heard various reasons for this, including “it completes the circuit, allowing the qi to flow freely around the body”, and “it generates saliva which, when we swallow it, helps generate qi“. Well, maybe so; knowing the truth or not of this is beyond my level of ability. However, practising martial arts in the ultra-dry air of the north China winter has taught me that keeping your mouth closed, and generating saliva by pressing the tongue against the palate, is absolutely essential if your whole nose, mouth and lungs are not going to dry out as soon as you start moving.
Second: what’s going on with this Qing Ming holiday, anyway? I was familiar with it from Singapore, but I’d always, lazily assumed that this was the kind of “feudal” practice that would have died out in the mainland during the Communist Period. Not so! It’s still common for people to actually go and clean their ancestors’ graves. Last night in the hutongs, I saw many local residents burning piles of paper in the street. I’m not sure what the paper actually was, but I don’t think it was Hell Money of the kind burned in Singapore etc during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Reuters suggests that elements within the government may seek to re-establish Confucianism as a state ideology; well, we’ll see, but stranger things have happened.
Third: the hutongs. Most of Beijing’s old hutongs are gone. We Westerners regret their disappearance, as so much that makes Beijing unique goes with them. Those that remain are increasingly becoming tourist traps, and/or are being gentrified. It’s still possible to move into an adjacent alleyway, though, and be back in the unreformed, working class areas, where almost nothing seems to have changed since imperial times. The pictures below were taken in the vicinity of the Drum Tower, north of the Forbidden City. They were taken with my phone, so they’re dark, but that’s actually what I want to emphasize – these alleyways are very dark. Usually, they are illuminated by harsh, powerful lights mounted on high poles, widely spaced. This creates pools of bright light separated by stretches of near-darkness.
The hutong residences are all built around courtyards, looking inwards. From the winding streets, there are only strong doors and small, barred windows to be seen. Once the family is home for the night, and the courtyard door is closed and barred, they’ve turned their back on the outside world; no-one is looking out to what happens on the street outside. Even now, once you’re off the main beat, you can easily find yourself almost alone. This is what it was like in the bad old days, when imperial power was weak and there were no police. If you found yourself in trouble, say against a gang of thieves, you were in trouble – there’s nowhere to run in these alleyways, and for sure, nobody’s going to be looking out of their window, or opening their door. This is the environment that bagua was designed for!
This crossed my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was on my own in these alleys late at night, after eating a fine meal at an old-school, no-frills place run by a Hui family. I was heading back to the main road when I saw a couple of guys dragging a woman into a side alleyway and start hitting her in the face. What do you do? Apparently it’s not so unusual, but still… Anyway, I intervened, and let’s just say it was resolved without any incident, but in retrospect it could have been nasty. It’s kind of focussed my mind on working more on applications,..