Happiness and long life


I took a fair number of photographs on my China trip, but I’ll spare you the majority. I’ll put a few below the fold to let you get a hint of where I went.

That one on the top right is a symbol that was all over the Summer Palace: it’s the Chinese character for a long life, with an image of a bat, a symbol of happiness.

We visited the Forbidden City, a huge area in the center of Beijing with concentric walls and courtyards. You pass through a gate to find a huge courtyard, with another gated building beyond, with another courtyard behind that, und so weiter. The emperor’s home was at the center. I figure that old courtiers and bureaucrats and soldiers must have gotten awfully tired of courtyards. But it was quite spectacular and imposing.


We were also told the emperor had 3,000 concubines. You’d think he’d get awfully tired of naked concubines getting wrapped up in quilts and deposited in his bedroom every night, too.

Of course we had to see the Great Wall. As Chairman Mao said, “If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men”.


I am now a true man. Maybe. The next part of the challenge was to climb the Great Wall, which in this section near Beijing rises up out of a valley and writhes across the hilltops.


I made it about halfway up. It’s irregular steps that just keep going and going and going, and I decided that discretion was the better part of major cardiac event, so I gave up. Dying on the Great Wall sounds like a magnificent way to go, but I wasn’t quite ready yet; maybe I’ll have to go back in a few years.

We also visited the Summer Palace, another fabulous imperial retreat just outside of Beijing. I enjoyed the Summer Palace more than the Forbidden City — it’s much prettier. Also, you get to meet a God, Shou Xing, as you go in.


That’s the God of Longevity contemplating a peach, if you couldn’t tell. The Palace is about four times larger than the Forbidden City, and contains a huge artificial lake that was dug out, and the dirt and stone from the excavation used to make an artificial mountain, on top of which is a Buddhist temple.


I managed to climb that mountain — I’m beginning to think of China as the Land of Many Stairs — and saw the Many-Handed Buddha at the top, as well as some spectacular views.



One last thing: we did the tourist act of visiting a shop…a huge silk factory. I was tempted. There were some spectacularly beautiful items for sale at extremely reasonable prices. I could have come home with a full silk quilt for only 2400 yuan (about $400), and they had some gorgeous patterns. I could have gotten this amazing black silk tunic? blouse? with a vivid red silk dragon? phoenix? across the front for a thousand yuan, but was afraid my wife and daughter might fight to the death over who would get to have it.


Just look at these patterns! All in the finest, smoothest, silkiest silk.


Oh, and there was a conference! I talked about evolution stuff. I guess it went OK, since the organizers talked afterwards about bringing me back next year for more.

I also didn’t mention the food. You don’t want to hear about it. It was too marvelous. This was real Chinese food, of which the American version is a pallid shadow.


Now I’m having cravings. Must stop thinking about it.

Here’s a lioness.



  1. dick says

    Glad you enjoyed the visit to China.

    On the subject of food, one of the best, possibly the best, meals I’ve ever eaten was genuine Cantonese food, in Montreal. It was in a restaurant that catered only to expat Chinese & their guests. (I don’t know how they kept unaccompanied occidentals out.)

    Why is it that Chinese food in North America & Europe is such a poor substitute? (I’ve eaten Chinese food in Hawaii & that was good.)

  2. wzrd1 says

    @dick, one reason for the pallid imitation in the US is that of ingredients not being available. That was as much by intentionally refusing to import them as anything else, as we had a very, very active Chinese exclusion policy in place for generations.
    Every once in a while, I’ll bump into an establishment that does manage to import real Chinese ingredients and I’ll more heavily purchase from there than any Americanized rubbish.

    China does have some amazing geological features, perhaps some day, we’ll get to vacation there.
    But, I’d end up bringing back a bolt or two of silk. Our sewing machine and I are very old friends. :)

  3. Rich Woods says

    If anyone is wondering, the Xibe inscription on that post PZ is leaning against reads, “The people called Mongols, they go to the house.”

  4. lasius says

    I remember standing at the same lioness in the forbidden city and asking my host why the lioness has a mane. My host then asked me if lionesses really had no manes and a funny conversation ensued. Did they already open up Empress Dowager Cixi’s rooms for visitors?

  5. frog says

    According to a placard at a museum I visited recently, Chinese lion statues were based almost entirely on descriptions and sketches, as African lions were kind of in short supply so many thousands of miles away. (The historical range of lions went into present-day India, but I don’t know if that was in way back BCE or if they were there into the medieval period or what.)


    The availability of ingredients notwithstanding, you can get pretty darned authentic Chinese food in cities with a large Chinese population. The trick of course is to only go where Chinese people go, a strategy I take with any ethnic cuisine.

    (That said, I am appalled at the number of bad Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia, many of them in Chinatown. I don’t mean hole-in-the-wall takeout, I mean proper restaurants. The good ones are excellent, but I’m amazed how some really bad places survive!)

  6. davidporter says

    As a professional Chinese historian, I can assure you that the claim that the emperor had 3,000 concubines is at best grossly misleading. It’s possible that there were 3,000 women employed in the palace, any of whom the emperor could select to make a concubine if he chose, but the vast majority of these women were selected (in the Qing, from 1644-1911, they were chosen from among girls in the banner system, the military organization/social welfare system closely associated with Manchu rule) at around puberty, served in the palace (in a non-sexual capacity) for a few years and then were married off usually to a man outside the palace (though some would have married imperial princes). The largest number of consorts of any Qing emperor was 79. The smallest (for an emperor who reigned in adulthood) was 3. Stories about 3,000 concubines are a load of crap designed to appeal to people’s exotic fantasies about imperial China.

  7. davidporter says

    @Rich Woods
    Actually, in Xibo (or at least Classical Manchu, which is the written form of Xibo), “the people called Mongols, they go to the house” is written (in Romanized transcription, since Manchu script won’t display correctly) “Monggo be hulara niyalma boo de genembi.” The sign PZ is leaning against says (in Chinese) 不到長城非好漢 (though the calligraphy is tough enough that I can only read a couple of the characters because I already know what it should say), which means approximately what PZ gave as the Mao quote: “if you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you’re not a real man.” To the bottom left it says 毛泽东 (Mao Zedong).

    Anyway, not really sure I get the point of treating actual languages spoken by real people as a joke.

  8. wzrd1 says

    @frog, I can’t agree more about the lousy offerings in Philly, save for a sparse few.
    We’ve since moved to the Shreveport region, I’m actually concerned over attempting to explore options here.
    Fortunately, I’ve learned of an oriental market, which I’ll soon explore and learn of where to get a *proper* meal. :)

    @davidporter, I had actually considered that, when toying with the notion of “3000 concubines”, figured that they’d fit in best as civil service. Right along with the men in similar positions.
    Civil service did wonderful things for an empire, both employment wise and in service to an empire.*

    *As I recall, there were quite a few papers written on that very subject.

  9. lasius says

    @ Frog
    Lions still exist in India and only disappeared from most of their Asian range in the 19th century.

  10. bowd-boring old white dood says

    I see you went to the New Summer Palace- it is a gorgeous place and pretty well preserved. At some point in your life you might want to check out the Old Summer Palace. The western powers burned it down and it was further degraded by scavengers over the years but it is a huge park with some fascinating ruins and they do a good job in showing what the ruins looked like in their heyday. It was an interesting blend of western features (huge European style fountain) with a lot of treditional elements as well.

  11. jack16 says

    @ 9 Rich Wood
    The humor is in translator blunders. Your translation sounded pretty good to me (I’ve little knowledge of language).

  12. octopod says

    Hypothesis: the further you get from Africa the <a href="https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/93/45/87/934587d775b3354149e67deb99c0bb4f.jpg"doofier the lions look.

    The reason American Chinese food is nothing like any kind of actual Chinese food is because it’s effectively its own cuisine…different rules apply. Also, it hasn’t been around for nearly as long, and hasn’t had nearly so much collective effort put into its development, so it comparatively sucks. OTOH you can actually find some decent Chinese restaurants in the US, which is apparently a relatively new development. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality in Madison, in fact — several reasonably good hotpot and noodle soup places out here, mostly catering to students and other university-associated Chinese expats. I think the trick is that you just have to either know what you want, or not care what you get (or else have someone literate in your party).