China (IX): The Paradise on Earth

Born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou. -Chinese Proverb

Master of the NetsIts quite famous here among Chinese people that Suzhou and Hangzhou are the heavens on earth. I heard that first from one of our hosts, as she told us about the private gardens of Suzhou on a dinner. I must admit that I was little more than curious at that time and now I am nothing but ashamed for my naivety. Indeed, having been through the paradise can only give one the actual understanding of true nature of such a place.

If I had the freedom of describing Suzhou in one simple sentence, I would call it a unique and magnificent ensemble of lakes, gardens, pavilions and pagodas at the center of which lies the tradition of Wu culture. Even a week is not enough to enjoy the complete beauty of this historical city whose origins date back to 514 BC, i.e., about 2500 years ago.

As we had only one day, we decided to first visit the Master of Nets garden which was constructed in middle of 12th century during the reign of Southern Song dynasty. The garden is also called Fisherman’s Retreat and there is a famous story about fishermen saving the child of the one Shi Zhengzhi who was the original creator of the garden. That, however, seems a flimsy concoction by tour guides as a little research about the evolution of structure and design of garden suggests that the designer originally had the solitary life of Chinese fishermen in his mind. Its present shape has undergone many changes and expansions by poets, painters and government officials between 12th and 18th century. The garden finally became public property in 1958. Parts of the garden have been modeled for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The scenic ingenuity which impressed me most – and which can truly be understood as an essential characteristic of other private gardens – is the particular art in construction of windows with a specific scenic background. If you see it from far or through a camera lens, you would certainly doubt it as a framed picture. Another impressive thing is the use of natural marble with images inside and the placement of Taihu stones and Scholar rocks gathered from the Taihu lake. The place is truly mesmerizing as it forces you to interact with your self. One cannot escape falling in love with the solitude.

After going through the silk museum of Suzhou, we visited one of the oldest historical landmarks in China, i.e., Panmen gate – one of the two preserved water gates in the original ancient wall of 514 BC. The climb on the Tiger Hill pagoda was my first experience of the Buddhist temple. The temple is kind of abandoned and there are not many Buddha statues except the only two on the ground floor. The pagoda is famous because of its historical construction which dates back to almost 1000 years. I am still perplexed whether this is the one that is famously known as leaning tower of China. The 3 degree tilt is hard to pick if you are standing at the base. I asked the guide but she had no exact clue.

The greatest part, however, was the boat cruise through the Shantang canal which is actually a canal street along the famous Grand Canal. Because of this street, Suzhou is also called Venice of the east. All along the canal, there are houses of local people who were busy in their usual household chores reminding the cool old times of traditional river cities.

They say that if you have to visit only four cities in China, Suzhou is one of them.

China (VIII): Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon BoatToday was public holiday in China due to Dragon Boat Festival, traditionally known as Duanwu Festival which is celebrated on fifth day of the fifth month of Chinese lunisolar calendar (Xia calendar). There are many traditional stories associated with the history regarding the origins of the festival.

As narrated to me by a colleague at work, the most famous legend associates the day with the death of the Chinese poet Qu Yuan who worked as an official of Zhou dynasty in the ancient state of Chu before 300 BC. On some important issue he opposed the king and went into exile where he wrote a great deal of poetry. Continuing his opposition to the king for some years, he finally committed suicide by drowning himself in a river which is probably in Hunan province. The people dropped a particular kind of food into the river for the fish so that they don’t eat the body of Qu. I didn’t know it when she was narrating the story but later as I saw that food in the market, it struck me that I just had that in dinner last night in the hotel. Its called Zongzi. It is made of rice with some sweet or salty filling and wrapped up with reed leaves with five different colors of thread.

Besides this popular myth, there are many other theories explaining the origins of the festival. In the early years of Republic of China, the day was celebrated as the day of poets. There is another modern theory which states that the day was originally celebrated as a ritual to avoid diseases during midsummer days before being superimposed by the tradition of poet Qu Yuan. The theory gets strength from the fact that it has a history in dragon worship and it is a culture of many eastern agricultural societies to do some kind of ritual worship to gods before the harvest of wheat.

Whatever be the history, Chinese people love to enjoy it as a holiday and gather with family and friends to enjoy Zongzi.

China (VII): Yangtze River

Nanjing Yangtze BridgeHad a long memorable walk over Nanjing Yangtze River bridge this evening with our friend, colleague and guide ‘C’. C is a unique character in his own way. Unlike most of the Chinese, he is a born critic and history lover. A self-taught expert on everything Chinese, he introduced us to the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world. As we dragged ourselves over the slow and gradual ascent, C kept on narrating the history of the bridge as well as the symbolization regarding the beautiful statues at the entrance. Finished in 1968, it is the first proof of Chinese indigenous mega-structure industry; being the first double track bridge designed without any outside assistance. Besides industrial expertise, it is also a proof of Chinese resilience and determination.

Finally, we moved under the bridge in a beautiful park through the old stairway where we were caught by the most unexpected thing; i.e., ladies and children doing workout on the rhythm of an Indian dance number sung by some Chinese singer.

A memorable day, indeed.

China (VI): Ta Hou Za

My flowing beard is a real source of amusement here in China for the kids and elders alike. The other day I saw some kids in the KFC who were staring at me in wonder like they usually do on their first visit to zoo. I smiled and called them closer to have a better look. As they came near, I told my Chinese friend to tell them that the beard is not real. I even showed them by pointing with hand that I can remove it as its just glued with my face. A cute little girl who was really inquisitive came closer and tried to remove it by hand. Thank god she didn’t pull it too hard.

Yesterday when I was coming up to my room, I saw a stout elderly man with a bag in the lobby. He was finished checking-in at that time and entered into the lift with me. I pressed the button for my floor and gave him way to choose his floor. He didn’t come forward and kept smiling at me. At first I smiled back, considering that he is probably going on the same floor. It was true that his room was on the same floor but his smile was actually due to my beard. He asked whether he can touch my beard by the movement of his hand. As I nodded, he came forward and started having the feel of my beard with both his hands as if enjoying the feel of fluff. Than he hugged my in the same state of joy and I could just manage to smile back at him in awe.

At the work place, many Chinese friends have nicknamed me Marx. Some of them call me Ta Hou Za which is an equivalent of long beard. K has put forth an interesting idea. He thinks that big beards can be exported to China as unlike Pakistan, these are a source of constant pleasure here.

China (IV): Dr Sun Yat Sen

Sun Yat SenThe visit of Dr Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum at the foot of Zijin mountain (purple mountain) was my first introduction to this great Chinese leader. He is perhaps the only leader who is profoundly honored in both mainland China and Taiwan. Sun is credited for ending the 2000 years imperial rule in China by replacing the Qing dynasty with Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China), a party he created and presided in 1912.

The mausoleum is located in Zhongshan scenic area named after Sun’s Japanese name. As our guide kept on narrating bits and pieces of Dr Sun’s life and the architecture of the mausoleum, I realized how the young generation of Chinese people is glued to the San-min doctrine of Dr Sun Yat Sen; commonly understood as Three Principles of People. The generation who was grown up holding Mao’s little red book is quickly fading in the background of history. The three principles Minzu, Minquan and Minsheng are engraved on the front wall of the sepulture. The first principle Minzu refers to people’s connection. Sun believed in the kind of a modern civic nationalism (Zhonghua Minzu) as opposed to the traditional Chinese nationalism which is based on unification of five major ethnic groups. Minquan refers to people’s power, i.e., a democracy based on the dual principles of modern politics and governance. Lastly, Minsheng refers to people’s welfare by creating an industrial economy and equality in land holding by farmers.

The architecture of the mausoleum is designed in a bell’s shape when seen from the height. The gradual ascending of 392 stairs metaphorically represents the gradual achievement of a revolution. After the first 100 stairs, a tablet has been kept empty in the tradition of the only women emperor of China who bequeathed that her memorial tablet should remain empty as the time must ultimately judge her legacy.

Looking forward to read some good book about Dr Sun and his life and times.

China (III): Forbidden Fruit

K was right. Two of them finally fell for the love of forbidden fruit. Reminds me of the famous part of Al-Baqarah (2:173):

…but he who is driven by necessity, neither craving nor transgressing, it is no sin for him. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (2:173)

I do not consider myself a better Muslim by virtue of being able to follow a religious dietary law. For me, the issue is clear enough to leave no room for suspending my judgement. And Allah indeed knows best.

In any case a cursory look, I think, at modern factory farm slaughter methods will do. The key is to decide whether the slaughtered animal falls into the category of mayta’h (dead) or not as mentioned in first part of ayah 2:173. Probably more on this later.