Shenhou: a smashing time!

Shenhou is a town in the Henan Province famous I am told, for making high quality porcelain or china (which gave the country its modern name) It is also our Shifu’s home town.

It is a beautifully restored old regional town built in a soft warm honey shaded stone. Somewhat off the beaten tourist track we were away from the crazy crowds of other places. To be honest, we foreigners attracted quite a lot of attention from the locals.

The Old Street
Porcelain is everywhere even the lamp posts
I love the shapes that these old tiles make
And there were quirky architectural features around every corner

The porcelain produced in this town is very special because of the local clay. Unlike the clay in other areas; when it is fired that is when the natural colour and patterns show. In essence you don’t actually know what the item will look like until it comes out of the kiln. Because of this the motto of the town is ‘By chance and By nature’

Some pieces are perfect and in the olden days were used only by the Royal Family. Nowadays the top pieces are given by the government as state gifts. On the pieces below you can see the natural patterns and perfect colours.

Starry night pattern
Shouxing: The god of longevity symbolized by his long beard.

Only the most perfect items are accepted. Any pieces with even a small imperfection are destroyed. The picture below is the ornate door into the office where high officials decided the quality of pieces. Only 36 would be chosen each year from all the craftsman.

My favorite photo of us all keeping perfect balance.
Our hotel

We stayed at the Gepu Hotel on Old Street which has to be one of the nicest and most tranquil places that we have ever stayed in.

We all wished that we could stay there for longer just to rest and luxuriate.

The food was local and tasty if probably a little too plentiful. This is breakfast. It was the very first time that I had been given pepper soup

It had a gorgeous private courtyard that was perfect for early morning Taiji and meditation.

This is Shifu in front of his childhood home. There was a new family there now but the children let us in. It was fascinating for us to see inside a home rather than just the tourist spots and hotels.

We got chance to have a go at a bit of pottery throwing ourselves. It was very tricky and not as easy as the pro guy made it look. What did I make? A mess!

Kevin made a dinosaur (every home should have one)
Peter turned out to be a dab hand at it. Look at that skill!

The next morning we attended a special ceremony. This is not something open to the public but Shifu’s friend has the workshop next door to this factory so he wangled us an entrance.

Basically after 3 days in the wood fired kiln, the China was ready to be opened and examined by the artist.

The items were arranged in lots. Notice that there is no #4. This is because the mandarin for ‘four’ sounds very similar to the word for ‘death’ so it is considered to be unlucky. You don’t every see a 4th floor in buildings!

The gong was sounded and this event which was being live streamed on the internet began. People began to call in to buy an unseen piece. All cost 2000 rmb (£260). When a bid was received it was opened and the artist gave the piece a thorough examination. If it was perfect then the person had purchased an item which could be valued at many times more than the price.

If an imperfection was found by the artist then the item is smashed. It’s an all or nothing game. The standards are so high that there are to be no seconds on the market.

Although it looked beautiful to me this piece was not perfectly round!
So here is where it ended up. So sad.

On average 90% of the pieces made end up being smashed. It seemed a little harsh on the buyers but apparently they would receive another item to the value of 2000 rmb but from the gas-fired, mass produced factory. It is a gamble whether you end up with a priceless piece or not.

And what do they do with all the smashed up vases? Well, this town had the most attractive gutters that I have ever come across!

Shaolin Temple

And so we moved to the highlight of the holiday: the visit to Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Kung Fu. Behind us a statue of a monk holding his hands in the traditional salute.

As we entered the temple compound we each stepped on at least 7 of the lotus flowers carved in the stone flags. This was to represent 7 wishes /intentions as you enter the sacred space.

Shao is the name of the large mountain and means ‘young’ or ‘youth’. Lin translates as ‘forest’. So Shaolin means the temple in the young forest.

We went first to a Kung Fu performance by local students. All in all there are 1200 Kung Fu schools here and the largest has 35,000 students. These kids have a rigorous training schedule to be able achieve not only academically but also physically as the moves require great strength and flexibility. It’s a tough commitment.

(Not my photo but the routine here is tough!)

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 456 AD as the home of the Shaolin school of Buddhism when Buddhism spread eastwards from India. As the religion encountered Chinese culture it became the version which we know today as zen.

The temple was frequently attacked so the founding abbot trained his monks in fighting techniques and so Kung Fu was developed. They were the warrior monks who protected everyone else in the complex but they were highly successful so there was no shortage of recruits.

The rooflines draw the eyes heavenwards

I am fascinated by the creatures which you see on the curved rooflines. We discovered that these are usually animals associated with water eg sea horses, turtles, fish etc. The reason being that the buildings were all wood and so susceptible to fire. The animals are for spiritual protection and to keep the fire away by fooling it into thinking that the building is full of water.

The picture below is an original cooking vessel which would have been used to feed over 3000 monks. Being a kung fu school the monks would do extra endurance practice by being hung upside down over the pot to do the stirring. One has to hope that none of them ever had a runny nose!!!

The ginkgo trees in the courtyard are 1600 years old. There are multiple holes in the bark which legend says were finger punches from the monks’ training sessions but are more likely to be from them putting out the embers on the sticks that they used to poke courtyard fires in winter.

This is the son of dragon with its dragon head and turtle shell back. Sitting on and touching its head, neck and teeth is supposed to bring longevity, good fortune and health.

Busman’s holiday moment! This is the temple library where valuable manuscripts are stored. We weren’t allowed in (quite rightly)!

In the temple infirmary we each got a peach that has been specially blessed. Peaches are a symbol of longevity and although these felt suspiciously underripe at first, they were actually one of the best and most tasty peaches I have ever eaten.

Kevin found a friend!

This carving was very interesting. Can you see three faces? One in the middle and two in profile on either side. These represent the three main and interconnected religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Also in the Infirmary courtyard was a statue showing some of the body’s meridians. Taiji and Kung Fu work with these energy lines.

This is the pagoda forest. Each structure has the ashes of a master buried inside. There are so many that they are now running out of space so now only the abbot or very important contributors can have one. This picture below is the previous abbot so has trains, cameras and cars engraved on the plinth.

Michelle and Kevin enjoyed the ride

With a definite sense of dejavu we boarded a cable car and rode up to the summit on another very high mountain (only 1400 ft but who’s counting!). This was ShaoShi Mountain one of the 5 most important mountains in China. This one is considered to be the leader of the 5 so the most important mountain

And yet again, another scary cliffside walk which seemed to go on forEVER!!! I still didn’t much like it but again I did it (gripping Michelle’s hand this time). I sure am a glutton for punishment!

After that we did some filming. I put on my special Taiji outfit, the one that looks like calligraphy ink. It felt like being on a film set as there were soon crowds of curious onlookers around us, many of them also filming me as I did the Taiji routine. Part of what we do is to focus on the energy and ignore what is happening around us (which helped) It felt especially powerful doing the moves in front of the Temple gate and I could feel the energy very strongly there.

At one point we filmed me in my outfit with Peter and Shifu standing a little behind. They both had our group polo shirt on (with the Tai tree symbol that Kevin created). Shifu of course does the moves perfectly and so beautifully but someone thought that they were the students and I was the master and asked to join my school!!!!! It was all in mandarin so of course I had no idea what he was saying and just walked away! Lol!!

This was a beautiful gift for me and I am so touched and honored. It made the whole trip more meaningful and special.

We were curious to know how this place with such cultural and historical significance survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. We learned that in 1928 the Temple had largely been burned down after the Abbot supported the Nationalist Party. I guess the spirit animals on the roof hadn’t helped much. In any case, the temple complex was in bad shape and therefore ignored by the Red Army (fortunately). Only a few buildings are original. Most have been rebuilt or restored in recent years as martial arts have grown in popularity.

The Shaolin Temple is now more of a business than a religious institution. There are franchises all over the world and the town around has grown to deal with the tourists who flock there every year.

One of the tourist attractions was the sound and light open air show written by Tan Dun. It was quite magical to watch a cast of hundreds dancing and singing before the most impressive backdrop.

The lighting effects were out of this world. It was just a shame that many in the audience kept up loud conversations, arguments or watched videos on their phones!!!! It was frustrating for all of us who wanted to soak up the atmosphere and the music but reflecting on the experience I realize that there is no culture of attending theatrical performances (except Beijing Opera) so people did not know how to behave as an audience!!!

The original ‘Middle Earth’

While not the geographical centre of China, the Henan Province is the heart of the chicken (see previous blog) so it has cultural significance. This is the area where the Han peoples originated and they are the ones who eventually dominated all the other ethnic minorities in the country imprinting their culture and traditions as standard.

Today we visited an astronomical garden in what was the former capital of one of the early dynasties. The dynasties are numerous and complex. This is a handy (!) chart which superimposes the Chinese timeline with the Biblical one for an easy comparison. Remember to read it from right to left.

In approx 700AD Master Zhou (Ji Dan) developed this structure , an early Chinese sundial or instrument to measure the passage of time. Using the shadows he was able to calculate the longest and shortest days of the year and from that to break the year down into the seasons that we now know as the equinoxes.

This was of huge cultural and political significance. The Chinese at the time believed that the stars in the heavens were a dome and the earth was a square underneath. The Emperor used the astronomical data gathered to determine when crops should be planted or harvested. These decisions helped to reinforce the belief that this place was the literal centre of the world.

Interestingly, the mandarin for the word ‘China’ is Zhong guo. Zhong means middle or centre and guo is country or earth. So in effect this is the original ‘middle earth’

In the garden there were 19 pieces of early Chinese timekeeping technology- most developed centuries before Greenwich Mean Time existed.

This one below is a 24 hour clock but each segment measures 2 hours. The 12 symbols are the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

I do like a good dragon. This instrument above is for measuring the night sky. The Chinese also used this site as an observatory.

The name ‘China’ I was as told, was bestowed by the English after they discovered the fine porcelain that is produced in this region. Not able to pronounce Zhong guo (pronounced jong goar), they just kept saying the easier word ‘China’ until it stuck!

This is an unusual sundial. While many are circular this is a bar held aloft by two dragons. The shadow of the bar falls against the blocks indicating the month of the year.

Here we had fun measuring ourselves in height order! I am down with the kids at the ‘short’ end. Although technically Annie and I are the same height. Lol

The large structure below does the same job and is accurate to 35 seconds in determining the length of the year when compared to modern time pieces.

In the afternoon we visited the Longmen Grottoes in Loyan. This is the best example of Chinese Buddhist art work in the whole of China.

The grotto contains 100,000 statues of the Buddha in various sizes carved into niches in the cliff face. Many are now weathered or decapitated but some are in remarkably good condition considering that they are 1600 years old.

In grueling 38.5 degree heat (it was HOT) we walked the western cliffs and admired the many many Buddhas.

This was a stunning geological feature. Called a peony stone because the natural marks resembles the flower.

This large Buddha has a very feminine face which is thought to be that of China’s only female Emperor Wu ZeTian

She was a bad-ass ruler who governed through her weak husband who wasn’t really interested in politics at all. On his death she had her eldest son killed because he made it clear that he wasn’t going to let her rule through him as his father had done. The same fate befell each of her sons in turn as they reached their majority. She liked her daughter though (!) and let her live.

It was Wu ZeTian who popularized Buddhism among the Han peoples. She had her own male concubines (why not, if it’s acceptable for the men then why not the women?) She called them monks, however to give them credibility among the populace. It was one of these men who commissioned the Buddha statue with her features to show his loyalty to her.

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the next morning at breakfast we were discussing and allocating Chinese names to those of us who didn’t have them. Kevin is called LieLang which means ‘wolf hunter’ because Leping had dreamt about him saving her from a wolf attack! I am WuZetian because the Empress’s name actually means strong martial arts in heaven (or something like that) not because I have any intention of filicide.

The Dragon Pavillion

While yesterday was spent in the reconstruction of the Imperial Gardens in Kaifeng, today we visited the actual palace, or what remains of the vast complex from the Song Dynasty.

Dragons were thought to be the most powerful creature. This is called the Dragon Palace because only the emperor can use symbol of the dragon. no one else was allowed to.

And everywhere you can see dragons

Such expressive dragon faces
This dragon statue is 1000 years old so people massage the stone to get good energy. Sara and I tried but didn’t feel any!
Maybe she did…

From the door of the pavilion you can see the view across the lake. Notice the road dividing the lake in half. The two sides are like Yin and Yang.

Legend has it that the lake on the left was well maintained and clean like some of the courtier families in their service to the Emperor. They served with purity. The right hand lake however was dirty and not well cared for. This lake represents those courtiers who only serve the Emperor with words and platitudes but no good deeds. The wise Emperor knows that he needs both to be able to rule.

In the gardens was a large lotus pond. When all the flowers are in bloom it would look like a white carpet.

Kevin and Peter enjoyed a brief respite
Sara enjoyed the fragrant flowers

Then it was on to Lord Bao’s residence.

Lord Bao was a judge in Kaifeng from 1057 to 1058 who was famous for his adherence to justice and fairness. He took the civil service test and was one of three chosen in his year from the whole of China to serve the Emperor. He worked his way up gaining a reputation for steadfastness and honesty. He was so strong and stable that he was referred to as being ‘like iron’. As iron is a dark metal he became popularly depicted as having a black skin.

Here in this statue you can see one closed fist representing the way he dealt firmly with corruption at court and his relaxed open hand which shows how he treated the rest of the population.

Also interesting is the hat with the metre long projection from the back of hat. This was designed by the first Song Emperor who did not want his courtiers to whisper among themselves during the morning audience. He wanted to be able to hear everything they said. In effect this was a very early form of social distancing!!!

The first 3 Song Dynasty Emperors all wearing the special hat! I didn’t get their names.

This particular dragon was quite interesting because it is actually a guillotine. Look carefully and you can see the blade with its handle.

Here Lord Bao is holding a piece of wood or bamboo in his hand. Only high courtiers carried these and the purpose was to ensure that they kept their eyes respectfully averted from the Emperor during their audiences. Plus they could write their briefing notes on it as prompts for their daily reports.

Check out these shoes! Platforms for men way before the 1970s!
And at lunch we were treated to a Lord Bao cake (in black obviously)
The inside was sweet and crunchy and a little like a fig biscuit.

Henan Province.

Our second trip of the summer is to the Henan Province, the capital of China for 8 dynasties (that’s over 2000 years) the most important of which was the Song Dynasty from 960 – 1279 AD.

Chinese people say that the map of China resembles a chicken and they often refer to places as the chicken head or the chicken feet. The Henan Province is known as the heart of China because it is in the location of the chicken’s heart.

We took the high speed train and even traveling at speeds of up to 300km per hour the journey from Shanghai still took over 5 hours.

This trip is with the Concordia Taiji class (& families). Here we all are ready to board the train. Masks are compulsory on public transport here.

Our first day was spent in Kaifeng in the Millennium City Park. Built 20 years ago, this is a modern reconstruction of an ancient garden designed by Zhang Zeduan, the only record of which is a long thin painting.

Being in the park is like stepping back in time and immersing yourself in the Song Dynasty. To start off you can hire traditional costumes so Leping and I did just that. It was great fun dressing up and even having our hair done.

For about £5 we could wear the costume around the park all day. This gave plenty of opportunities for posing against various backdrops.

Then it was time to wander around the park. Dotted among the food vendors and shops were various shows and displays from stilt walking puppets to magicians.

One that you don’t see very often anywhere else was cock fighting. I had never witnessed this as it is a sport that was outlawed in the England 200 years ago. To be honest, not my favorite… poor birds!

The ancient battle re-enactments were quite stunning though with particularly loud explosions and dramatic effects.

This was the sea fight

And then there was some pretty impressive horsemanship with close fighting at a gallop.

But there were two occasions today which were hilarious. The first was the fire eater when Noah, one of our younger members at 14 years old, was picked for some audience participation and to his mother’s horror was given a cigarette to light from the guy’s breath.

Then there was the balcony show where the richest merchant in Kaifeng was offering the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage to whoever caught the ball that was thrown down. Noah valiantly jumped and in a move worthy of a rugby forward clutched the ball of red cloth and managed to hang onto it despite being mobbed by all the surrounding men!

Up he went to the balcony where he was dressed in red robes and duly married to the daughter. It was the cause of great merriment in our party.

It was a beautiful place and a great time was had by all. I couldn’t have wished for a better day of cultural immersion.