Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Perspective of Chinese Traffic

Without a doubt the first thing an American will notice upon arrival in Beijing is the massive amount of people, and consequently the massive amount of cars composing Beijing’s traffic. However, unlike in any comparable city in the United States, Beijing’s car and pedestrian traffic does not appear to obey any traffic laws. Cars drive down the wrong side of the street, swerve around each other, narrowly avoiding running into each other, honking wildly, or running down passersby. Pedestrians regularly defy traffic laws, walking through busy intersections while lights are red and jaywalk across multi-lane roads. Meanwhile a variety of scooters and bicycles make their way through the throng.
                The question of how Beijing and China’s traffic as a whole developed so chaotically relates directly to the rising economic factors of the country. As Chinese citizens of Beijing earn more money, a car becomes more affordable and desirable. Many couples are gifted a car when they get married, and the upwardly-mobile population of China has determined cars are the new statement of prosperity. Of immediate note is the fact that Beijing traffic does not follow the rule of Right of Way for pedestrians or other vehicles. Initially there were so few cars in Beijing that the few which did drive around the city were given right of way over pedestrians or bicyclers who rarely saw automobiles. However, as the car gained its popularity in China, the rule remained the same and pedestrians still regularly yield to cars. This means that crosswalks are particularly dangerous around the times the crosswalk sign is changing, because if a pedestrian is not off the street or at least out of the way of traffic they are likely to be run over in the flood of oncoming traffic.
                Honking a car horn also has changed its meaning entirely in China. American drivers typically only honk their horns when they are angry, frustrated, or upset with other drivers on the road, typically those not following the rules of the road. In Beijing, honking of car horns is used to notify people that a car is nearby and coming through a street; it is less a sign of frustration and anger and more a warning signal to pedestrians and other cars to watch out and pay attention. This usage is quite outside the normal American point of view and can lead the casual observer to believe that Beijing car drivers are chronically angry at each other.
                Pedestrian foot traffic also shares its part of the blame in this picture of road-bound chaos. Pedestrians will regularly step off of sidewalks, walk through the middle of side streets, and cross at crosswalks that are not signaling that it is safe to pass. Many times at busy intersections pedestrians will form crowds at both sides of a street they know is about to change to a green light, walking across before the light changes. These mass movements of people serve to dramatically change the flow of Beijing traffic almost entirely without planning, defying the timing of traffic signals and leaving cars with a mob of people crossing in front of them. In this way, running a yellow light as a car can end up killing people.
               Regardless of the described situation, I have yet to see a serious car accident in Beijing involving cars or pedestrians. Official reports from 2010 have only recorded 450,000 car accidents yearly in Beijing, which seems large but is close to the official figures reported for New York annual car accidents. Whatever the future brings for Beijing, the traffic probably won’t improve.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

In which we delve into the Ming Tombs

I promised a more frequent update schedule, so here are some more pictures!

After our visit to the Great Wall we moved on to the 13 Ming dynasty Tombs (míngshísānlíng 明十三陵).

The Ming Tombs had their location and design designated by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and to date they hold the remains of 13 of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty as well as their wives and concubines. The tomb we visited was Dingling, the first tomb to be excavated using archeological documentation and methodology in China. As a result, the tomb is in excellent shape and many of the artifacts recovered are in good shape.

The interior of the tomb itself is amazing, and it was where I first really felt the weight of history during my trip to China. The outer vestibule had a large memorial to the Emperor buried in the tomb, the Wanli Emperor. Many of the Chinese tourists who had come to see the tomb had thrown money onto the memorial slab, similar to how Americans throw coins into fountains.

The burial chamber itself was filled with replicas of the large lacquered red boxes that served as the coffins for the Wanli Emperor and his two wives as well as their burial possessions. While not the most impressive sight Beijing has to offer, this was quite moving for me. To be able to stand in the burial chamber of a man who once ruled over one of the largest countries in the world at the time is humbling beyond words.

Outside, we were greeted by the Soul Tower, a pavilion housing a large stone stele. The pavilion itself is entirely constructed of stone painted to look like wood, which is quite fascinating considering the building itself has stood for over 300 years.

Next up: Pictures from the Beijing Zoo, including the ubiquitous Giant Panda.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In which we walk the Great Wall

As before, I apologize for the update delay. China is so interesting that it is sometimes hard to find time to sit down and write a blog entry instead of getting outside and seeing the country. Look for updates from the Ming Tombs soon, as well as the Summer Palace coming up, the latter location featuring pictures from my newly purchased Sony camera.

The Great Wall (长城 Chángchéng) is perhaps China's most famous ancient construction. Visible from space, it was built in 221 AD after China was unified under its first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇). The Qin emperor used the northern faces of the walls built by his former rivals to create a single long fortification to keep out raiders from the north, such as the Xiongnu and Mongolian peoples.

The Great Wall is stunning, and for good reason. This construction took the lives of many of China's working men at the time of Qin Shi Huang's rule, and was one of the many reasons for the overthrow of his rule and the institution of the Han Dynasty, one of China's most beloved imperial dynasties. As a testament to the ingenuity, skill, and determination of the ancient Chinese people, as well as the overwhelming authority of the Chinese Emperors of old, the Great Wall is truly a monument unlike any other.

These pictures were taken from the Badaling (八达岭) section of the Great Wall, the closest to Beijing. As you can see from the pictures, this section is quite crowded and can be kind of nerve-wracking to walk. Many parts of the wall are smooth slopes, making it quite difficult to walk down without feeling like you're going to slip. The steps of the wall are also rather uneven in height and width, and when the steepness of the mountainside combines with these uneven stairs and crowds of people, you begin to feel quite intimidated by the task of traversing the Great Wall safely.

Many thanks to Navin for the use of some of his pictures. Here he is in one of the windows on the sides of a guard tower.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In which the Forbidden City is further explored

Apologies for the update delay, I'm getting into the swing of school now and last weekend was very busy. We visited the Great Wall and the Beijing Zoo, so expect some exciting pictures of those locations to go up soon!

As for right now, more pictures about the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City, known in Chinese as Gùgōng (故宫 lit. "Former Palace") was the seat of the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. Constructed almost entirely of wood over fifteen years starting in 1406 BC, the Forbidden City has been rebuilt many times due to fires and other assorted disasters. Regardless of its rebuilt nature, the city remains an impressive testament to the power of the Chinese emperors, with the courtyards, walls, and edifices of the Forbidden City sketching a rectangle 3,153 feet from North to South and 2470 feet from East to West, or a grand total of 183 acres of land.

Within the first courtyard are two lions guarding the entrance to the deeper sections of the city. On the left as one enters is the female lion, playing with a cub beneath her paw. On the right side is the male lion, playing with a ball underneath his paw. These statues are wildly imitated, but rarely do people bother to place the lions on the proper sides.

One quickly notices the intricate detail that went into the Forbidden City during its construction. On each corner of the hipped roofs are a procession of small carved animals led by a man riding a dragon. Each of these small figures is of a different type of animal, and not a single one of the roof eaves is missing them.

As the Forbidden City was a largely wooden construction, moisture would comprise the majority of damage to the building. The ancient Chinese architects considered this, sealing the wood with lacquer and paint where appropriate and providing excellent drainage along the ground. Each of the hand-carved dragon heads surrounding the central courtyards is also a drainage spout.

We ended our tour in the garden behind the Forbidden City, formerly the Emperor's private garden. Filled with China's national flower, the Peony or mǔdān (牡丹), the garden was a pleasant end to a wonderful adventure through the Forbidden City.

 I have many more pictures that I was unable to find room for, and I want to think Hnin and Poe Lwin for their excellent pictures of the Forbidden City after my camera failed me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In which we arrive belatedly and explore the Forbidden City

After a day-long delay, we've finally arrived in China. Delta Airlines' flight out of Detroit Metro Airport was delayed for more than three hours, meaning we failed to get to Tokyo Narita Airport in time to make our connecting flight to Beijing. However, thanks to a transfer of our flight the next day by Air China (Which, by the way, has fantastic planes) we arrived in Beijing at noon on the 11th.

Yesterday, as our first full free day in Beijing began, we ate a quick breakfast featuring a variety of interesting breakfast dishes. The featured picture is youtiao (油条), a strip of fried bread often referred to as the Chinese donut. They look like churros to me. Common practice is to tear up the youtiao into small pieces and then dip it in soymilk. The bun-looking things next to it are baozi (包子), steamed buns filled with a variety of fillings like beef or pork.

Following breakfast we began our tour of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen (天安门)translates loosely as "Gate of Heavenly Peace" and is the first of nine gates going deeper and deeper into the Forbidden City. The square itself is massive, featuring several beautifully arranged gardens:

The square also contains the memorial and tomb of Mao Zedong (毛泽东), and the Monument to the People's Heroes (人民英雄纪念碑), which celebrates the soldiers who died during China's revolution struggles during the last two centuries. Behind the monument you can see the Great Hall of the People, the building housing all the official legislative bodies of the People's Republic of China.

Across the street from the Great Hall of the People is the National Museum of China, bordering Tiananmen Square across a road.

Tiananmen itself, the gate into the Forbidden City, is quite large and festooned with a picture of Mao Zedong himself.

Join me next time as I update with pictures from inside the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, my camera died and I had to borrow a classmate's to continue taking pictures.

Monday, May 7, 2012

In which Adam makes an introduction

They say there's a first time for everything, so here I go stepping into the world of blogging. This blog will cover the many interesting and thought-provoking aspects of my time participating in the Oakland University Beijing Study Abroad program this summer, which starts tomorrow, May 9th. For the purposes of entertaining and educating readers, I will be using both simplified Mandarin Chinese characters and Pinyin. Readers should remember that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and the marks above words indicate the tone: a downward comma indicates a falling tone, an upward one indicates a rising tone, the "v"-shaped one indicates a lowering and then raising tone, and a solid flat line "-" indicates a neutral tone.

Some quick background information about the trip: the study abroad group will be studying and staying at the China Foreign Affairs University ( 外交学院 Wàijiāo xuéyuàn). Founded in 1955, CFAU is the premier school for Chinese diplomats and ambassadors, working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China.

This study abroad program features a month of classes, one in Chinese Language and the other in a broad variety of topics relating to modern-day China, including politics, history, culture, economics, and foreign policy taught by CFAU professors.

During this time, we will be taking mini-tours throughout the city to explore the many famous landmarks and historical sites that Beijing has to offer, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Temple of Heaven, and much more.

Finally, as the month of classes comes to a close, we will embark on a week-long tour of China itself, visiting Xi'an in the west, Guilin in the south, and finally coming back to the east with a visit to Shanghai.

Please be warned that while this blog is meant to highlight my experiences and display the rich culture of China, I will also be making commentary on controversial issues and Sino-US relations. I do not intend to offend people who feel strongly about controversial topics surrounding the People's Republic of China, but I do want to challenge those readers to adopt a broader viewpoint of the world and see both sides of the argument in these often difficult cases.

Next update will likely come once I arrive in Beijing. See you all then!