Friday morning, Danny, the father of Kevin Zhou ’15, met us, and we walked from our hotel to the north end of the Forbidden City. There we took our first bus of the entire journey to the entrance at the south end, just across from Tian’an Men Square. As with so many places that we have visited, it was hard to anticipate what we would see. I had been able to look down on the Forbidden City the day before from the Wanchun Pavillon in Jing Shan Park, but the day was misty, and I could not see much more than the golden roofs. From a distance, it is hard to get a sense of the immensity of this place and the feeling of solidity that it conveys because the height of the buildings harmonizes so well with the length and width of the walls, which are very long.Up close the buildings seem almost overwhelming. One visits the Forbidden City by walking from the south to the north gate, a distance of perhaps a mile. One enters, along with a mass of other visitors, quite a few wearing army hats with red stars, under a huge image of Mao. In various places outside and inside the City, one sees tall soldiers standing ramrod straight at attention. Inside, one is most aware of the immensity of the space because there are no trees or grass in the first courtyards leading to a series of reception halls once used for various governmental and diplomatic purposes. These halls are colorful, simple in form and structure from a distance, but often ornate with intricate details up close. As one moves from one reception area to the next, one can look back and observe the sea of humanity converging on the narrow passageways that lead visitors from one area in this imposing City to the next. In the final section of the Forbidden City is the area where the emperor lived with his many concubines. Here, finally, there are gardens and apparently attractive places to live. Still, who would want to reside within these oppressive walls? The Chinese emperors governed for centuries from inside them, but the world never saw these powerful rulers except in the reception areas inside the City, and the emperors never went outside into the world. They perhaps had immense power, but they lived in a gilded cage.
From here, we took a taxi south to a restaurant specializing in wheat noodles, a Beijing specialty, and something new to us. Eaters traditionally slurp up these long noodles noisily to attest to their savor, although this custom is apparently dying out. Along with them, we ate a variety of other dishes. All were fresh and tasty, especially the eggplant, which has been excellent in every restaurant throughout our journey. Conversation was a pleasure as we discussed many things about Peddie, China, and Chinese food. Danny explained why the Chinese prize the parts of animals they do, often the opposite of what Americans value. He said that the Chinese like those parts that move the most and, in a sense, are the most alive. For this reason, they like to eat meat off the bone and especially value internal organs. Thus, with fowl, they prefer the dark meat to the light. With fish, they prefer the head to fillets from the middle of the fish. It’s hard to argue with this approach. When I look at the pictures and labels in Chinese menus, I find myself going: not this one … nope … I’ll let somebody else order… and then when the food comes, it’s always savory (and it’s good that I don’t always know what I’m eating). After lunch, we walked further south to the Temple of Heaven, which is on the same south-north axis as Tian’an Men Square and the Forbidden City. We thus walked through a good part of the center of the city over the course of the day. The Temple of Heaven, like the Forbidden City, has beautiful roofs but this time a deep lapis lazuli blue. The various temples are very colorful from a distance and contain beautiful work underneath the eaves and on the walls. The large central area devoted to the temples and ritual spaces is bare, as in the Forbidden City, and the alleyways are very wide so, again, these spaces seem immense, almost crushingly so. However, the gardens around the temple have many trees. On this chilly day, they were mostly empty, but apparently many people use these areas in the summer, especially in the late afternoon. Still, I found it hard to respond emotionally to these two places: it is fascinating to see them, but there is also something forbidding about both of them, even though they are now open to the public. Kafka wrote a story called “The Great Wall of China” without ever seeing the Forbidden City. In it, as I remember, he describes how a messenger receives a message from the Emperor and leaves to deliver this missive to the next messenger, who then carries it to the next … and despite the passage of endless time, the message never gets beyond the walls that enclose the emperor. He remains eternally cut off from his subjects. Fantasy, or too much truth? Danny then took us back to the Hyatt and left us there. He taught us a lot about Beijing – and many other things as well. After coffee with Jessica Ji, we then dined in a different restaurant from Wednesday. Once again, we had a wonderful meal with many fine delicacies, and with touches from a mixture of different cuisines. I especially enjoyed the wasabi scampi. Once again, the best part of the meal was our long conversation.
We lived much of our last day, Saturday, in a strange kind of warp because we were still in China, but we knew that in the evening we would be back in the States and heading toward Hightstown. We would go from a Tibetan Temple to the Peddie campus. The Lama Temple was magnificent because it is alive and a genuine place of worship, whereas the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are simply monumental museums. Also, in the Lama Temple there are many trees, so it seems connected to the world, unlike the Forbidden City which consciously holds the world outside. Within the temple complex, there are a variety of temples with many Buddhas and other religious figures. What is striking is the sense of devotion of many of the visitors as they burn their incense and pray. As at Hangchou, this temple had a deeply meditative and spiritual quality. We enjoyed the prayer wheels and a lovely mandala, but the highlight was a gigantic Buddha, 60’ tall and carved from a single sandalwood tree, with another 25’ feet of this huge trunk underground to serve as a foundation. From here, we went to a restaurant at, I believe, Qian Hai Lake, a charming place in the center of Beijing. We ate on the second floor overlooking the lake, our last meal in China, another excellent one with many new dishes, some with touches of Japan and India. We ate with Jessica and the parents of Kevin Zou ’16. Once again, we had a long, thoughtful, and engaging discussion. We feel privileged to have had the opportunity to meet the parents of so many of our Chinese students because they have been so charming and have treated us so well. We understand that in treating us with such hospitality they are thanking the entire Peddie community and all its members who work with their children. For us, this treatment has been humbling – and we have enjoyed every minute of it. We want to give special thanks to Jessica Ji, who organized our stay in Beijing masterfully, and to Gao who has been so attentive and helpful in every way before, during, and after the trip. Finally, Anne-Marie and I would like to thank Andrew Harrison for being such a wonderful companion. His willingness to try everything has helped us, especially me, be adventuresome in trying things, and we have enjoyed seeing him make so many good connections to people everywhere he goes in Shanghai and Beijing. As I write somewhere over the Arctic, I am glad to be heading home, but I also feel some sadness that this wonderful trip is ending.
I will add a short note as I revise this document simply to say that it has been fun to see the students from EFZ as they visit Peddie. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and it makes me happy to see the Peddie community serve as such good hosts, especially because we experienced such wonderful hospitality in China. I hope that many more Peddie students and faculty will have the opportunity to learn from the rich exchange we have with EFZ.