MHC in Beijing

Mount Holyoke's intensive, eight-week course in Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University

July 22, 2006

So Much to Do, So Much to See

We students have been attending class now for about three weeks. Our time here in Beijing is going by so quickly. A regular week day consists of a four hour morning session of classes, two hour tutoring sessions, and cultural classes bi-weekly. Each week we are covering an extensive amount of material, but luckily have just enough time to get off campus and use it. One third year student recently discovered a little tea shop not far from campus. She frequents the spot regularly and I have been fortunate enough to join her. The middle age couple that owns the shops invites us in for tea and chat. We not only got to try some really delicious teas, but also practice our Chinese with some very nice locals.

Each and every day my Chinese is improving. Apart from speaking the language both in class and at tutoring sessions, getting out into the city really tests my skills. My first weekend here, a few students and I took a taxi to Hong Qiao Shi Chang, a market traditionally known for its pearls. Most markets were, at one time, outdoors and filled numerous streets. Today, Hong Qiao occupies a four story building with everything from fake Coach Purses to roller blades. I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed with the whole bargaining situation. In most places like these, vendors will throw out a price far too high for the particular good. As such, one must be firm. We mastered the essential phrases like “Bu yao!” (Don’t want) as shop owners grappled for our business and perfected looks of utter disgust at some of the prices shop owners offered. Since this first visit to Hong Qiao, I have frequented other markets such as the Silk Market and clothes market. I look forward to another visit each time I leave.

The program itself has offered us some wonderful opportunities. So far, the entire group has ventured to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Beijing Opera; each place rich with wonderful sights and soaked in history. My amazement at the Forbidden City (known here as Gu Gong) has yet to dissipate. Gu Gong covers an area of 720,000 square meters. It is one of the last remaining locations with the traditional wood structures of ancient China as many similar structures were torn down during the Cultural Revolution. Here, I viewed everything from diamonds the size of rocks and clocks the size of my kitchen pantry. One palace was filled with over one hundred magnificent clocks given by British and Swiss clockmakers to emperors. These clocks, sometimes up to 10 feet high with unending detail, were used to improve relations between the countries. One clock we saw, built in 1740, had a medium sized gentleman in it, who, when you pressed a certain button, actually wrote characters (of which praised the emperor of the time). The feature was so well designed that to this day it continues to work.

My favorite part of the Forbidden City was learning about the history, particularly the Empress CiXi. For a long time, this woman held position as one of the most influential people in the empire. I saw both CiXi’s palace and the well in which she had murdered a very famous concubine. The story goes that when her husband began initiating reform in China, CiXi didn’t like it. As such, she put her husband under house arrest and had the arms cut off of his most loyal and supportive concubine so this girl might be stuffed in a well to drown.

On our venture to the Summer Palace, my friends and I witnessed another example of CiXi’s rather backwards thinking compared to other world leaders at the time. Rather than building a navy for China, she decided to not only construct the summer palace, but likewise a marble boat for her own use. And, believe it or not, this boat coincidentally doesn’t float. Although the investment in the summer palace may not have been the best move for China at the time, the construction of it has left a treasure to the city of Beijing. The whole scene is breathtaking. My classmates and I spent two hours on paddle boat on the lake that occupies more than 1/3 of the whole area. The thousands of willow trees that line the water only add to the beauty.

The Beijing Opera was the group’s most recent excursion. We got to view the performers putting on their make-up and enjoy some tasty treats before the show. We listened as both men and women sang in a high soprano and watched as acrobatics flipped this way and that. It was so entertaining that and hour and forty-five minutes later, we felt as if only five minutes had passed.

Thus far, the sights have been wonderful, the food tasty, and the academics rigorous. Now it is time for me to get some lunch!