Sunday, March 30, 2014

Beijing, China - Our Cultural Experience

Having cultural experiences and learning about Chinese history played a huge role in our trip to Shangahi, Beijing, and Yangshou, China.  It was extremely important that we, as a family, embrace ourselves in as much culture as possible during our time there.  A culture is a way of life for a group of people and includes the behaviours, values, beliefs, and symbols that are accepted without thinking about them.  They are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.  As much as I feared stepping into the unknown, part of me craved jumping in with both feet.  To experience this cultural adventure with my children, Ben and Liv, was equally important as it was exciting.

Me and my sidekicks heading to the train that will take us from Shanghai to Beijing

Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, is the cultural heart of the country.  It’s history dates back 3 millennia, which is incredible considering Canada has only been inhabited for 1 millennia.  It's no surprise then, that Beijing is where we experienced the greatest amount of historical and political culture.  It was also where we experienced how friendly and inviting the Chinese people are.  Everyday in Beijing we were treated with respect, welcomed to China, and posed for group photos with total strangers who were so excited to meet someone from Canada.  We did not need to speak the same language to understand this warm hospitality and the pride Chinese people have for their country. It was also in Beijing where we explored Chinese culture through art, music, and everyday life.  

Chinese Guardian Lions at Forbidden City

Forbidden City - Built between 1406 - 1420, it was home to 2 dynasties of imperial rule, 24 Emperors between 1420-1911, is the world’s largest palace complex with 9,999 buildings surrounded by a 10 foot wall and 52 m wide moat.  The sheer size of the palace was remarkable.  Once inside the Winter Palace, we learned how the Emperor exercised his power through tradition.  The palace had certain gates that only certain people could pass through.  The numerous halls, each used for a specific purpose, were grand, beautiful, and maintained the symbols of imperial power.  Surprisingly, the buildings were made of wood and bricks lined the ground seven layers thick! Emperors feared being killed even under heavy guard.

View of Forbidden City (Winter Palace) from the pavilion on top of the peak of Jingshan Park

Tiananmen Square - 3rd largest city square in the world and has great cultural significance as it was the site of many important events in China.  In 1989, pro democracy movements that were student led took place here and several hundred or possibly thousands of people lost their lives in a call for greater freedom of speech and democracy.  Not sure what it was I expected to see but was blown away with its size and spirit.  It is pretty much a huge concrete square with monuments, a ton of people milling about and a heavy police presence.  

Tiananmen Square
Given the amount of people that were around it was surprisingly quiet and I felt a wave of emotions come over me.  Flashes of soldiers, tanks and students clashing on the very ground we were standing sent goosebumps down my spine.  Ben and Liv had many questions and Joel, as always, explained the event to them so they too could understand the importance of why so many people come here.  Standing where the story took place definitely made it more real for Ben and Liv.  Ben wanted to pay his respect to the Chinese students who lost their lives and together we said a prayer. I do not wish to express any opinions on the event itself but will say the experience enriched my perspective on life, freedom, and am proud to be a Canadian.  

Saying a prayer for those who lost their lives.

Bell and Drum Towers -These two impressive towers, located across a small square from each other, was where we explored time thousands of years ago.  Telling the time with bells and drums played an important role in helping the Chinese people live and work regularly when there was no other means to keep track of the time. Over time (haha) they became public architectures and were widely constructed in almost every city throughout the country since the Han Dynasty.  The original bell was a gigantic copper bell that weighed almost 4,000 pounds and was hung inside the tower and rung every morning for 400 years.  It is displayed at a museum and a smaller replica hangs in its place.  

The drum tower has 24 ancient drums which represent the Twenty-four Solar Terms. The Twenty-four Solar Terms is a special Chinese calendar of twenty four periods, used to predict the position of the sun and, in turn, guide crop production. Both towers are now tourist attractions complete with a live drum performances.  From atop the towers was an amazing view of downtown and the famous Hutong district, which is what we called home during our time in Beijing.

The Great Wall - The facts: one of the greatest wonders of the world, stretches approximately 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles) from east to west of China, has a history of more than 2000 years, and is a must see if ever in Beijing! An incredible amount of manpower went into the construction of the wall which speaks to the wisdom and tenacity of the Chinese people. Today still, Chinese mythology and symbolism includes the Great Wall and is shared through storytelling.  

We had grand plans for our time spent at the Great Wall, but one cannot expect to travel without a few bumps along the way.  Our bump was being taken to the wrong part of the wall.  In fact, it was the one part of the wall we did not want to visit! Disappointing yes, but we were still at the Great Wall and great it was.  We arrived early, 9am, and the morning light gave the hills and wall a golden glow.  It was brisk but beautiful.  Once on the wall we did what comes natural - took some cool photos jumping off the wall and had multiple wall races.


Music - The National Centre for the Performing Arts building is art itself.  Taking 5 years to construct, it resembles a giant egg with little ancient traditional Chinese architecture.  Three halls are housed in the giant egg; The Opera House, The Concert Hall, and the Theatre.  The large public space includes an exhibition gallery, a lounge, and souvenir shops and cafes.  The building alone is amazing as was the symphony performance we attended.  Ben and Liv marveled at all the different instruments.  The harps and variety of drums were a hit with them.

Chinese refer to the National Centre for Performing Arts as the Alien Egg

Art - A must for us on any trip is to bring back art of some sort.  The alley in the Hutong District showcased a wide variety of art and it was here we came across Chinese paper-cut art.  Today, paper cut art is buried with the dead and burned at funerals for religious and ceremonial purposes or displayed as artwork. Tucked away in a back alley, we stumbled upon the home of paper cut artist Master Zhang Yong Hong. Mr. Zhang has brittle bone disease and is wheel chair bound. He supports himself, his 5-year old daughter, who also has brittle bone disease, and his parents on his artwork sales.  What an amazing experience it was, standing in his home and browsing through the hundreds of paper cuts.  He and his wife spoke no English, we spoke no Mandarin but still we could communicate with each other.  Similar experience in another artists home.  This time he did speak English and treated us like friends who came over for a visit.  He told us stories of travelling to Canada, offered Ben and Liv oranges while we browsed, and painted a calligraphy poster for us with all our names and Merry Christmas!  

Paper cut artist Master Zhang Yong Hong's amazing work

Everyday Life - Our hostel in Beijing was located in the heart of downtown and in close proximity to all the attractions I have already mentioned.  This meant we could walk everywhere.  By doing so, we were able to see what everyday life is like in Beijing.  Not all that different from life in Canada.  Work, school, family, and free time.  Forms of travel, bikes and scooters, may be different but it is still travel.  The music may be different but it is still music to dance to.  Services like fire and cable (something we know very well) are still provided, albeit in a different form. 

Sure hope this was just a storage area for fire extinguishers and not the actual fire department

What was not at all different was the use of smartphones.  Everyone had one!  The best though, was how friendly the Chinese people were to us.  They loved the kids.  Always, people were respectful of them, asked Joel or I if they could take pictures of them, and were quick to express their happiness for us in having such beautiful children.  

The cultural experiences we had in Beijing is only a fraction of what is available but it was our experience and was worth every minute.  That what make travel so great - it is your experience! Check out the complete Beijing photo gallery.


  1. Thanks for sharing experience of your Beijing tour
    Excellent post. Really useful stuff .Never had an idea about this, will look for more of such informative posts from your side.. Good job...Keep it up

  2. Great article and photos ....China's culture is realy great...Sharing an article about the Face Changing Sichuan Opera in https://stenote.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-face-changing-of-sichuan-opera.html
    Watch also in youtube https://youtu.be/JTdn8XaPp-I