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October 20, 2004

An historical vaction in Henan Province

Terry and I had a delightful time in Henan Province during China's National Holiday, the first week of October. Besides seeing an old and dear friend, we got an eye-opening introduction to Chinese history going back 1000 years and more.

Henan was the cultural and political center of China during the Song Dynasty, roughly 1000 years ago, but it was also the site of important developments long before that. We went to the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, primarily to visit Jianxia Zhao, with whom we became good friends when she was studying at the University of Kansas several years ago. It was great seeing her. I especially enjoyed a chance for a relaxed card game and just "catching up" on everyone's lives.

Jianxia sister has a good job (apparently quite good) with a Singapore company and lives in a modern three-story townhouse that had enough room for us, Jianxia, her husband, her daughter and her daughter's visiting college roommate. Further, our hosts commissioned a van and a tour guide for the three full days we were there. So, our touring was highly efficient!

The first day, we went to Luoyang. There, we visited a world-famous Shaolin martial arts school and saw a performance by a group of the students. Next, we went to a special cemetary for Buddhist monks. The place is know as a "forest of pagodas," because there are dozens of these monuments -- one for each of the most highly esteemed monks and two where the more ordinary monks' ashes are mingled for burial. We also learned a Chinese "yanyu" (saying) -- to the effect that it is better to do good deeds than to have a big pagoda -- that resonated pretty well with our Jewish teachings. We started the afternoon with an all-vegetarian lunch at one of China's wonderful Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, then went on to see the thousands of Buddhist statues in the Longmen (Dragon Gate) caves. I think they are over 2000 years old.

The second day, we went to Kaifeng, the Chinese capital during the Song Dynasty. It is also the city to which several dozen Jews immigrated during that time, in a much-studied event, considering its small scale. The prevailing story is that the last of the descendents of these immigrants had fully assimmilated by some time within the last century, but a handful of people who claim to be descendents are apparently try to reclaim their Jewish ancestry. We were hoping to see a small Jewish exhibit in the Kaifeng city museum, but the museum's entire contents were in storage because of vandalism a couple of years ago.

Instead of making any connection to the Kaifeng Jews, we saw a beautifully scenic city on a lake and got to view some lively street entertainment. A troupe of local actors were putting on an outdoor play about Song-era young scholar who was being fought over by the fathers of two would-be brides. We also saw several impressive memorials to Bao Zheng (a.k.a. Bao Gong), who (as we learned) was a thoroughly honest judge during the Song Dynasty. I was impressed and wanted to buy a Bao Zheng poster, but couldn't find one for sale. Our guide informed us that most of these exhibits were built within the last 5 years. I wouldn't be surprised to see a national campaign to "emulate Bao Zheng" as a way of eliciting support for the current government policy of honest-but-authoritarian governance. (My allusion is to periodic mass campaings in years past to "emulate Lei Feng," a selfless revolutionary.)

The third day, we stayed closer to home, driving less than an hour to the Yellow River, historically the geographic cradle of Chinese civilization. We took a cable car ride to a hilltop where we saw a statue of Da Ye, the heroic figure who first tamed the Yellow River about 3000 years ago. We also enjoyed an elevated view of the river itself and took a hovercraft ride on it and some of its sandbars. Several photos of our trip (including this day) are posted on our Photo Gallery, but apparently one didn't turn out that depicted (on a hilltop behind us) the two characters that denote the board-dividing river in xiangqi (Chinese chess). The last day, we drove around Zhengzhou and saw the new campus of Zhengzhou University, where Jianxia is a teacher and an administrator. The campus is part of a pervasive trend of modern campus on city outskits replacing or supplementing older city-center campuses. Terry's school is doing the same thing. On the one hand, there is a need to do something to accommodate the burgeoning population of college students. On the other hand, some foreigners as well as locals as put off by being physically displaced from the commericial, historical, and cultural centers of China's cities.

All in all, we had a great time. If possible, we'll go back again before we leave China. Next time, we'll see the Zhengzhou Museum (the third biggest in China), but otherwise probably just relax among friends. -- Norty

Posted by now at 04:10 PM

October 10, 2004

"Precaution Before Salvation"

When Norty and I were in Suzhou in August, I saw this slogan on a sign warning about fire hazards. I guess it's the Chinese equivalent of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", but somehow it sounds so much more profound, doesn't it?

I've frequently said that you only need 2 rules for a pleasant life: 1) Thou Shalt Not Annoy Others, and 2) Thou Shalt Not Be Too Easily Annoyed, but maybe I should add a third: Precaution Before Salvation.

We went to Suzhou at the end of August for a few days. We stayed at a hotel that was kind of like a Chinese Motel 6 - very basic, but clean and cheap. The location was also terrific - right in the middle of Suzhou and next to the main shopping area. Suzhou is noted for it's silk, so I took advantage of that to buy some gorgeous silk fabric and have a tailor make me a "qi pao" to wear to Paul's wedding. "Qi pao" is another name for a "cheongsam". It's that Chinese dress with the slits up the side. The one I had made is ankle-length and has long sleeves. It's totally gorgeous!

The other things Suzhou is known for are its canals and gardens. In the old days, the canals were the roads of Suzhou. Even today, the houses along the canals all have stairs going down to the water where boats are docked. We spent one day during our trip touring the old part of Suzhou. Our tour guide was a really nice expatriate Pakistani engineer who has lived in China since the early 1980s and has married a Chinese woman. Norty got to know him via email, but we had never actually met him. He was a terrific guide, and Suzhou is really beautiful. There is a saying in Chinese: "Heaven has Paradise; Earth has Suzhou and Hangzhou." (Hangzhou is another garden city not far from Suzhou.)

We spent the High Holidays in Shanghai with the Lubavitchers. We ran into one of those weird hassles with finding a place to stay for Yom Kippur. There was a big Formula 1 automobile race going on that weekend, and there were absolutely no hotel rooms available. A lot of people wound up sleeping on the floor at the synagogue. We were lucky to be able to stay with Norty's Chinese teacher, Chunhua.

I'm still amazed at the number of Jews in China. (There were so many people at the first Rosh Hashanah dinner that they had to have it in a hotel!) Everyone seems to be aware of the positive influence we can have as Jews in China. In fact, the Rabbi's High Holiday sermons mostly focused on our obligation to do just that.

I'm going to leave it to Norty to describe our trip to Zhengzhou, but I'll just say that it was amazing! I have to get back to grading papers and preparing my next lesson. Later, guys.

Posted by now at 09:58 AM