Chapter Thirteen I WANT TO GO TO SHANGHAI It took almost daily trips to China Travel office, and endless arguments in English and charades, but I finally convinced the mysterious powers who were always higher up and had to be consulted no matter what ...
Beverley in front of the Chairman Mao statue on the Nanking Bridge
It took almost daily trips to China Travel office, and endless arguments in English and charades, but I finally convinced the mysterious powers who were always higher up and had to be consulted no matter what you wanted to allow Marge, Torrie and me to go to Shanghai. Our visa out of Peking and into Shanghai was finally granted.
More than I wanted to see Shanghai I wanted to ride the train that Marlene Dietrich had made famous in Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film “Shanghai Express”. Marge and Torrie weren’t easy to convince taking this train to Shanghai was a great idea. And the Chinese hierarchy, China Travel, hadn’t been easy to convince either. But I finally convinced the Levys that the antique pickings might be good for them in Shanghai so they decided to join me on the Shanghai adventure. And it turned out the antique buying opportunities in Shanghai were fabulous.
We booked a compartment meant to accommodate four and split the extra ticket. Sharing the small compartment with a stranger hadn’t appealed to us. And we definitely needed that extra upper berth for luggage. I maneuvered myself aboard with four bursting suitcases and hand parcels of every shape. I can’t even begin to explain what the decorator/antique dealer mother – daughter team carried on board. While visions of gorgeous Marlene Dietrich riding the legendary train in the middle of China’s civil war, with never a bird of paradise feather or hair in her well coiffed head out of place, the reality was we were an American version of all those peasants with their bundles of belongings and livestock boarding the back cars of the train.
The train left Peking Station at 6:30 in the evening and our Peking interpreter got us there extra early. He herded us and our luggage porters through the crowded station most skillfully. We were extremely excited about this 24 hour adventure we were taking on our own. This was our first time traveling without guide or spy. Our entourage filed past hardback cars like we’d ridden from Tientsin to Peking early in our China trip. Twenty-four hours in those uncomfortable quarters certainly didn’t appeal to us. But the military and peasants who filled them to over flowing were all laughing, talking, munching and spitting watermelon seeds, smoking endlessly, and apparently quite happy.
The car of private compartments we were led into was a delightful surprise. Our little nest, Compartment D, featured teal blue velvet seats backed with lovely handmade white filigree and lace covers. Great piles of pillows, encased in shams embroidered quite elegantly in blue flowers and white on white embroidery looked most inviting.
Between the two bed-seats, was a table draped with a white lace cloth. Four of the ever-present covered tea cups (these decorated with skillfully hand painted trees, flowers and pagodas) and a blue and white porcelain pot holding a live purple cineraria plant sat on the table.
The window was draped in blue velvet and curtained in white lace. Strains of Chinese opera played over the loud speaker — and it was loud! Air conditioning was working and just the right temperature. Lighting was better than the Peking Hotel. A table lamp of bright blue and clear cut glass, and two sidelights, shed more light than we’d had in any bedroom the entire trip.
Bathroom facilities were at either end of the railroad car. One was quite passable, the other an unusual standup affair used in China at the time that will never be popular with American women and hell to try to maneuver on a fast-moving train on a bad roadbed. The washroom area, like hotel rooms and western restrooms throughout China, offered little wrapped cakes of soap, a nail brush, clean comb, pink toilet paper, and spotless thin white Turkish towels. There were two clean sinks and a young girl was always mopping the floor or cleaning the sinks.
Our interpreter handed us our tickets and visas, as always, at the very last moment when the engine had a full head of steam up and was ready to roll. Now we were really on our own. No one else on the entire train spoke English. Well, if they did they were there to spy on us and we never had a clue they did speak English.
Other than an armed policeman stationed two compartments down from our car, and a few kitchen workers, the entire work crew of the Shanghai Express was young women. The engineer up in the steam locomotive and the conductors of each car were women. And it was young women who were up front shoveling coal to keep up the steam for our engine.
Not unexpectedly, we saw very little of the people in the luxurious compartments in our car. But from what we saw they were all middle European with the exception of an attractive Chinese family from France with whom we could speak French. The father helped Torrie clean the train windows at every stop so that we could take pictures through them.
Dinner in the diner turned out to be just like every other dining experience outside our hotels for Westerners, it was cleared of Chinese before we could go in. The stewardess came to our compartment to lead us into the deserted dining car. Since our interpreter had preordered for us, everything that was placed before us on a table covered with starched damask napkins was a surprise. Cooking under the most limiting conditions, the crowded tiny train kitchen produced shrimps in spicy tomato sauce, pork-like baby veal with winter bamboo shoots (we all missed Steve when this appeared), and dinner ended with a most creative fruit soup, a large bowl of steaming sweetened broth with chunks of apple and tangerine sections swimming about in it.
One of the young women working in the dining car had her little girl traveling with her. As we were enjoying our hot fruit soup we could hear the tiny child singing quietly to herself at the far end of the car. With a bit of urging, charade style of course, she came and sang for us. And she even did a bit of dancing for encore. There were no guards watching, no cadres leering mysteriously. It was a lovely relaxed interlude filled with warm camaraderie. While we were still lingering over tea and cigarettes (yes, in those days we all smoked), our little entertainer was carried protesting past us to the nearest bathroom. Her mother was carrying her under one arm with a cup, toothbrush and tooth paste in the other. The child held out her arms to us, probably hoping we’d ask for one more song and thus prolong bedtime.
Following dinner we were escorted, past the armed guard, back to our compartment. We weren’t going anywhere on that train other than from our car to the dining car. There was no mingling with the Chinese passengers.
Our berths were made up for night when we returned. Crispy white sheets edged in floral embroidery covered them, and a cozy quilt was there for warmth. Torrie got the second upper berth, the one that wasn’t overflowing with luggage. She had long legs and youth in her favor. There were none of the ladders that were supplied for upper berths on the trains I’d traveled on in days past, the Super Chief, Broadway Limited, Sunset Limited — that transported us around America in style. Torrie had little chrome footholds about three inches by four inches, three feet off the floor, and agility to get her up to her bed. The ascent was complicated. It involved putting one foot on the lower berth, the other foot on the foothold, grabbing on to anything solid available and pulling yourself up.
We were completely comfortable in our snug little world. The roadbed our train traversed was as smooth as the one from Tientsin to Peking had been miserable. We all fell into deep sleep, Marge and I enjoying the nostalgic “Blues in the Night”(1) train whistles and the clattering wheels. But we did awaken when the sounds ceased at a station stop in the very late hours of the night. Peeking through the curtains we saw a platform solidly packed with young boys in thin cotton military uniforms. As we looked at them, hundreds of pairs of eyes stared back at the two strange white faces with hair in curlers looking out at them.
A harsh blast of martial music over the intercom brought us out of our deep sleep at 6:00 AM. Marge found the speaker control fast and cut off the music as well as the endless shouted propaganda that would follow. But with daylight allowing us to see China out there just through the curtains, there was no going back to sleep for any of us. We passed canals with sampans and junks under full red sail, small tugs pulling ten boats loaded with coal or grain in a row sailing parallel with us. There were straw and mud huts with children and big black pigs wandering in and out the small front doors. The mysterious wonder of China continued to unfold — graceful little rock bridges out of classical Chinese painting, occasional forbidden burial graves — half-hidden mounds of earth with small piles of rocks on top and an occasional stone slab. We’d been told the Mao regime was very firm in forbidding burials in the ground. They felt too much precious agricultural land was wasted by large gravesites. Cremation was expected.
Then we were in area where thatched roofs replaced the familiar blackened red tiles of our previous travels in China. Piles of orderly pine boughs banked the front of each little rock house. Small umbrella pine trees covered an area of barren rocky hills; later green stretches appeared where goats and sheep grazed.
We were waiting now for 12:13 when our train would cross the legendary Nanking Bridge. The accurate time for this adventure had been garnered through the usual hand movements and drawing little pictures procedure during dinner the previous night. The Nanking Bridge was the first Chinese railway-highway bridge built over the Yangtze River designed by a Chinese architect and is the longest bridge of its kind in China. The Chinese were very proud of this bridge and with good reason. They built it in spite of western engineers proclaiming quicksand and Yangtze tides prohibited a bridging structure of any sort in this area. The Soviet engineers, who originally drew up blueprints, withdrew with their blueprints and modern machinery in 1960, leaving the Chinese completely on their own. However, by 1968 the Chinese had completed the two-tiered bridge using methods entirely primitive to western engineering. It was done the ancient way, hauling materials in baskets suspended from bamboo poles carried on peasant shoulders, of moving giant steel girders by men’s strength, not modern cranes. Tens of thousands of men and women participated in this miracle of construction.
The highway part of bridge is 15,056 feet long and 49 feet wide enabling four normal size cars to cross at same time. The 22,218 foot railway enables two trains going in opposite directions to run simultaneously. At 279 feet, the highest point of the main bridge span, vessels of up to 10,000 tons can pass underneath. Twin bridge towers are found on either river bank. Elevators in these give access to the railway bridge, highway bridge and top observation post. A most impressive accomplishment indeed!
At 12:13 precisely we crossed the amazing bridge. The excitement was more in the anticipation than in the reality since being on the lower level what we saw mainly was glimpses of the Yangtze River through all the criss-crossed steal girders. Had we crossed on the highway above us we would have seen groups of sculptures of peasant workers and soldiers and on the sides of the great towers quotes from Chairman Mao in huge red characters. One well known quote found there read: “The people are the only hope, are the driving force behind world history.” This could well be the quote for the incredible success of China in 2009!
Once over the bridge we continued to watch the spectacle of the mysterious world of China rolling past our window. Filtered dramatically by the endless steam blowing past we watched women bent in two working in the flooded rice fields; the gigantic canal being dug with shovels by hundreds of women and children; children near the tracks in the middle of nowhere waving at the train or just staring in wonderment. Sometimes the adults would wave too.
1. A popular 1941 song in the United States written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer that was recorded by all the leading singers of the day. Train whistles were incorporated with the background music in certain segments of the song.
Another day I returned with the group to see what was allowed to be viewed of the Imperial Palace. Restoration was going on which was surprising in view of the political thinking of the cultural revolution in which art, books, anything intellectual or part of the glamorous imperial past was being destroyed. Our guide gave us a general idea of the layout, and strict instructions of which gate to exit to find our taxi, then turned us loose.
The Forbidden City was and is an overwhelming place. Where to begin? Listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, it covers 7,800,000 square feet. Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 when the Yongle emperor Zhu di became emperor. More than one million workers labored for 15 years to complete the construction. At this point 980 original buildings survive. Peter and I covered only a small section of what we were allowed to see in 1975. And in my many subsequent visits the past 34 years I feel as though I haven’t really covered that much more. I still find it overwhelming.
Steve Allen is the center of attention in the Forbidden City
Needless to say, everyone had trouble finding that gate the guide had told us to use as our exit point at the end of our visit. After viewing fascinating buildings with lovely names — the Throne Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, and the Hall of Imperial Peace — Peter from Denmark and I who had toured the Forbidden City together somehow emerged through the right gate and found the taxi. We tried charades to find out if others had already been transported back to the hotel. It didn’t work. When he delivered us to the Peking Hotel we thought he understood he was to return for the others. At dinner that evening an annoyed group of our fellow travelers were complaining about having to walk back to the hotel on feet weary from hours of wandering in the vast Imperial Palace complex. They couldn’t figure out where the taxi was that was supposed to pick them up. Peter and I listened, saying nothing.
It was strange having nothing to read. I’ve always been a two or more newspaper a day woman and still mourn the demise of afternoon papers and extras. How many readers remember coming out to the street midday, or leaving a night spot late in the evening and hearing a boy shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” while waving a paper in one hand and carrying a batch of them under his other arm. A natural disaster, a train derailment, a murder, the outbreak of war were all extra fodder.
But our orders were, take nothing into China to read. No newspapers, magazines, books, and certainly not a Bible!! This was one country where you didn’t find a Bible in the bedside table drawer. So we had nothing to read. Although the miniscule wattage of the hotel room lights was more suitable for lighting a child’s doll house than illuminating a book.
There were racks of political propaganda pamphlets in at least ten languages in the hotel lobbies. And it was possible to find Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in English everywhere.
I did stumble upon a small book store that had some English reading material one day in Peking. There were ten paperback volumes of Chinese Literature for 1975. The volumes were numbered one to ten and dated. They were quite comprehensive — comprehensive of art and literature during the Cultural Revolution. A featured story “A Sea of Happiness” in volume one concerns the adventures of Miao-miao whose dad and mum were building new boats and making fishing nets for the good friends in Vietnam. In the poetry section “Ah, Chungnanhai, Pride of My Heart” is political poetry about Chungnanhai. “From here (Chungnanhai) Chairman Mao directs our revolutionary course. Here Chairman Mao meets heroes from all our fronts. Storm centre of revolution where the red flag will always fly.” Not exactly Byron or Keats.
Color photos of paintings from the National Art Exhibition show included two smiling triumphant workers pulling tin buckets of water out of a hole in the ice, a snowy scene with oil wells in the background. “Where the oil is, there is my home” is what the title winning painter Chang Hung-tsan called this painting. A black and white woodcut, “The Slave System Must Never Return!” shows a very forceful group of young people surrounding a woman pulling a big metal chain between her hands.
Literary starvation proved to be comparable to food starvation. If you are hungry enough you eat roots and grass. So now as I see the wild modern painting and the traditional ink and watercolor scenes being produced in China today, I can appreciate how the world has opened up for Chinese artists since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. No one promised us China during the Cultural Revolution would be fun and indeed amusement was hard to find, even in the arts.
TROUBLE IN T’IEN AN MEN SQUARE
Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People. 12/26/2004. By Jacob Ehnmark, via Wikimedia Commons
While I’d been waiting for my box to be built earlier in this production, I’d been able to look outside through a window to the small back street below. There were rows of bicycle rickshaws waiting for Chinese customers. No way would we have been allowed to ride in one of them. The Communists would have considered this an example of westerners exploiting the poor Chinese, treating them like beasts of burden as they pedaled the westerners through the streets of Peking.
I’d also noticed a small side entrance through which people entered and left. So, when I finished, sure that my taxi/spy/driver was still lurking somewhere out front, I slipped out the side door.
I knew that I was somewhere in back of T’ien an men Square, the largest square in the world, and it wasn’t hard to find. This is one gigantic open area as the world now knows from the massacre films. Being totally on my own for once I was overcome with the feeling of exhilaration. The big Russian style buildings on three sides of the square weren’t of particular interest to me. The Monument to the People’s Heroes, a tall square granite obelisk on a raised platform right in the center of the square was more interesting. As with almost everything in China, there was a quote from Chairman Mao on the monument. I found out later that this quote, engraved into the marble in Chinese characters, translated in English to “The People’s Heroes Will be Remembered Eternally”. And carved into the base were relief depictions of historical events, starting only with the mid-nineteenth century Opium War. The highest section of that raised platform looked like a good place to take photographs so that’s where I headed.
As I found my spot and got the camera out, in the distance buses pulled up in front of the National People’s Congress Building and masses of young people piled out, unfurling big red flags as they went. They fell into formation and started going through elaborate routines with their red flags. This was a great photo op! Or so I thought as I snapped away, until I saw through my lens a frighteningly large group of young people wearing red neck scarves quickly and menacingly coming directly towards me.
I was frightened! No one knew where I was and there were so many of them coming at me. I had no idea what I had done to prompt this action. But I obviously was their target. Then just as suddenly as they started towards me, they reversed their direction and quickly returned to their training area. I had no idea what had intervened, but I was deeply grateful for their change of plan.
To be safe I moved down slowly and started taking lots of photos of some very cute colorfully dressed children near the monument. I wanted to appear innocent. I was innocent! And children were always an accepted photo choice.
I worked my way casually across the gigantic square, shooting pictures of children all along my route (all the while knowing I’d run out of film some photos before) heading towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace which is across from the square on the other side of An Chieh highway.
Having had enough independence for the day I walked on past the entrance to the old Imperial City and the site from which Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China back to our hotel. The taxi driver wasn’t there waiting for me as I’d thought he might be. No one was looking for me. In fact, it wasn’t until several weeks later that I figured out why no one was searching and why the angry Red Guards had had done such a quick retreat.
I found the answer while sitting in my Santa Barbara living room viewing the colored slides of my China trip that I’d just picked up from the photo shop several weeks after my return from China. In several of the photos I noticed a plain looking man in blue Mao suit and cap was walking across the square, directly towards where I had been standing. He had his hands behind his back and appeared to be out for a casual stroll. But in one photo he was turned towards the advancing Red Guard gang and one hand was raised. Obviously the taxi driver had returned to the hotel and reported me out on my own and party cadres had taken off quickly to find me. The older cadres were well aware of the violence towards westerners the young Red Guard were capable of, which was one major reason we were watched constantly while we were in China. The Communist Party government was most concerned that no negative incidents involving the visiting westerners take place. Belatedly I was most jubilant this time they had infringed upon my independence.
My alarming encounter with the Red Guard in T’ien an men Square in 1975 came particularly alive to me years later when on June 4th, 1989 I watched on TV as a lone young patriot faced down a gigantic military tank, one of many the Communist Party leadership had ordered into T’ien an men square to crush an unprecedented democratic peaceful protest. I watched the brave young women and men falling like toy soldiers in their battle with the well trained heavily armed army troops in what has come to be known as the Massacre of T’ien an men Square. The old men in power were tremendously frightened by the young students who yearned for democracy in China and gave orders to stop them at any cost.
TROUBLE IN T’IEN AN MEN SQUARE
Across the street from the Forbidden City were giant portraits of Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao
It was Theodore White who called T’ien an men Square the Place de la Concorde of Chinese history. That was in the 1950’s. Little did he know how prophetic his words would prove to be!
T’ien an men Square and the Forbidden City face each other straight on — the old and the new. In 1975 it was Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Fredrick Engles and Chairman Mao who faced the Forbidden City. King-size portraits of them on stone lined the entrance to the colossal square facing the Gate of Heavenly Peace from which Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. You never for a moment forgot who was in charge of China in 1975, although in later years we learned Mme. Mao should really have had her picture up there too since she assumed so much power as Mao aged and his health failed.
My own T’ien an men near-catastrophe started out so innocently. But so did the massacre of the students in the same place in June 4, 1989. Torrie Levy had glowing tales of the interesting process of mailing a package home from the big main post office. The post office in our hotel could only handle small mail. And since the big post office was in the picture book for taxi trips I decided to go there with a bundle of souveniers from the Baihuo Dalou (Main Department Store) I wanted to send home. It was only a short distance from our hotel so I pantomimed instructions for the taxi driver not to wait for me once we arrived at the post office. It was my only opportunity to spend some time there with real Peking citizens, not the rehearsed people our guides continually led us to. The driver kept nodding his head “no”. I kept nodding “yes” and finally disappeared inside.
There was no one in the entire big busy building who spoke English so this became a test of my pantomime skills. I stood in the entrance looking quite bewildered, my arms loaded with things and not knowing where to start. Almost immediately a man came up and pointed me in the direction of a worker sitting on the floor hammering wooden boxes into shape. This was the first step in the mailing project. The box man accessed my bundle and produced a lidless wooden box he’d just made.
This man pointed me towards a man who had baskets of wood shavings to be used as filler. Together we packed the box. He then directed me to a counter where the inspector would take the box all apart looking for whatever sabotage devilment I might have concealed. It was quite fascinating standing in line watching what people were sending off. Freshly dried seaweed was being shipped to relatives by one elderly woman. Young girls were sending a hand knitted red scarf. The old man in front of me was mailing a photograph of children to an address in San Francisco. The inspector took the photograph out of the plastic “frame” and went over every inch of it with his finger tip — the top, the bottom, the paper thin edges, the entire frame. He was looking for hidden micro-film I was later told. Finding nothing but smiling little faces a proud grandfather wanted to share with fortunate relatives far away in America, it finally passed inspection. A man sending tobacco to Thailand really got a thorough check.
In the line next to me a woman was sending off packages of rice and dried mushrooms. They were each opened and spilled into a big enamel basin, the kind used for everything from washing clothes and brushing teeth to cooking. And the inspector ran his hands through every grain of rice and every mushroom. When he had finished he left the poor woman to get it all back into cloth bags that seemed to have shrunk since the inspection began. Once she had it all in the original cloth bags she sewed them up, having come prepared with needle and thread.
The inspector really wasn’t too hard on me. My purchases looked innocent enough, which they definitely were. It really puzzled him that I needed so many hand painted bone tooth brushes and six pairs of brightly colored plastic sandals in ridiculously large sizes. But I passed inspection and ultimately was directed to the table across the vast marble lobby where for a few pennies a man with a hammer and nails put a wooden lid on my box.
Next I “rented” a big paint brush and pot of black paint. It took me at least 20 minutes to paint on my daughter’s name and our home address, with my Peking hotel address in the proper spot. When I returned the brush and paint pot, they handed me an enamel basin filled with hot water and a clean but threadbare towel to wash the paint off my hands. I paid what I considered a very small sum for over two hours of entertainment — plus a big box that had to travel many thousand miles. …to be continued
Jayne Meadows by the frozen lake at the Summer Palace
There had been snow flurries the day we visited the Summer Palace. Our visit was at a time when the royal family would have been in residence in the Forbidden City in Peking, not the Summer Palace. During the imperial era this was a summer escape spot for the royal entourage from Peking heat that could soar to 104 degrees Fahrenheit with very high humidity. The small umbrella pines lining the road to the palace were dusted with snow. Bicyclists were generally dressed in the same cotton padded Mao suits that appeared to be inadequate for the extreme cold but somehow worked. Men from the north heading into the city wearing Mongolian fur hats with ear flaps and sheepskin clothing, driving large horse drawn wagons filled with loose hay or great balls of rope were more suitably dressed.
We passed what our contrary cadre guide called a gymnasium. A more adequate explanation was not forthcoming however we assumed it might be a prison. Outside in the snow more than 100 men standing in precise rows did exercises waving red flags. Since this waving of red flags was a common practice in China during the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t a clue to what the gymnasium actually was. However, a few days later in Tien en mien square I was to remember this flag waving performance.
In that legendary world long gone the royal court could actually reach their summer palace refuge by canals that led from the Forbidden City northeast to the Summer Palace. The lovely lake at the palace has always been fed from streams which in turn feed into the canals. The lake was partially frozen over the day we visited, presenting a gray and white mystical scene, accented by the bright red tile roofs of the Palace of Orderly Clouds on the shore and far away scarlet bridges faintly visible through the mist.
Looking far out across K’un-ming Lake, Steve and I wondered about dark spots on the ice that appeared to very large birds. Our tour guide for the day, a particularly unpleasant man, was determined to impress us with Maoism and the Cultural Revolution unceasingly. Any minor question was answered with a party speech. But I plunged right in and asked him if the birds far out on the ice were some form of penguin.
“Those are not birds,” he practically screamed at me. “Those are markers put there by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to keep the children from falling through the thin ice.”
“I don’t care what that guy says,” Steve whispered. “I just saw one of his markers lay an egg!”
The rigid Stalinesque geometric architectural designs of the new Russian built buildings in Peking were in direct contrast to the lovely rambling scheme of the Summer Palace. The Garden of Pleasant Harmony flows into the Palace of Virtue and Harmony where theatre was performed for the joy of the all-powerful last dowager empress Tz’u-hsi who ruled China from 1861 until her death November 15, 1908. She delighted in anything of dramatic, theatrical nature.
The stage several stories high had the capability of bringing fantastic sets up from below or having a great deal going on in heaven overhead. And on many occasions the dowager empress herself had appeared in performances for the enjoyment of the royal family. Her favored role was that of the beloved Goddess of Mercy Kuan-yin. On these days it was presumed she wasn’t having princesses thrown down wells to die, or poisoning relatives, which she was known to do on off days. A favorite story that emerged from her court detailing one such bad day concerned a new eunuch who was called in to dress the empress’s hair. The eunuch hairdresser who always attended to the elaborate imperial coiffeur was ill. In a state of nervous terror at this task trust upon him unexpectedly the stand-in hairdresser accidentally pulled a couple of hairs out while combing the long black hair. The enraged dowager empress ordered him to put them back in immediately or he would be beheaded. The problem with this story, repeated for decades, is that no one knows the outcome.
We nestled into our fur coats and dug our mitten covered fingers deep into pockets for extra warmth as we strolled the famous open Long Corridor beside the lake. This elaborately painted meandering walk is a treasury of more than 8,000 paintings. It was originally built in 1750 by the Qing dynasty’s Qianlong emperor (1736-1795) so that his mother could enjoy the gardens of the Summer Palace without concern for the elements. Following the destruction of the fascinating structure by Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 it was rebuilt in 1886. The Chinese say that the Long Corridor on K’un-ming Lake is long enough (2,366 feet long) to speak the first words of love at one end, and be engaged to marry by the other end. I lingered extra chilling minutes examining an overhead beam painting of a mother panda carrying her baby through a bamboo forest with classical Chinese mountains beyond.
An adjoining covered gallery looks upon the aquatic garden in the lake. Imaginative windows shaped like bats, stars, fans, medallions, all outlined in strips of red and black lacquer, break through the stark white walls of this enclosed walkway. These are double windows, with paintings on the inside glass. Enjoying the unique windows Jayne was reminded of a window treatment Marge had used on an interior decorating job in Beverly Hills.
“Marge, do you remember what you did in Danny Melnick’s bedroom?” Jayne called innocently to Marge who was at the other end of the long gallery. The Chinese missed the hidden humor of this question and didn’t laugh. The sexual innuendo was totally lost on them. But our group of Americans found it most amusing.
Steve Allen at the Temple of Heaven
The snow had stopped by the time we reached the Temple of Heaven, one of the most frequently visited sights in China. It is the three-tiered Altar of Heaven whose bright blue tiled roof shone strangely in the unusual light that followed the disappearing clouds dispensing snow. There are actually three tiled roofs pile on top of each other looking quite like a three-tired blue Chinese summer hat.
While we quietly admired it in the context of a Ming creation utilized by the theatrically clad emperor (who wore special blue robes, not imperial yellow for his performances at the Altar of Heaven), our guide droned on about this great example of chairman Mao’s directive to “Let the Old Serve the New”. Now the people of China walk the marble paths where only the emperor and his entourage trod in the era past. However, this is the one place where this living god, the emperor, was humble. He came here once a year in his role as the Son of Heaven, taking upon himself the sins of all his people, prostrating and humiliating himself for the redemption of mankind.
This humble attitude only struck once a year. Escorted by soldiers, officials and princes of royal blood, he went from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven in an anything but humble procession. Every window along the route had to be covered, from the gate of Ch’ien Men to the entrance of the sacred temple area. This was due to the very strict laws that no one was allowed to look upon the face of this man who was about to be humble. Even foreign diplomats were strongly advised to stay indoors on the day of this journey from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven.