A smoldering Sunday afternoon

I’m a bit behind with my blog writing. In part because I got a cold that was more persistent than I had originally thought and in part because work got in the way. Here is the blog entry I started last week and didn’t finish until the week after.

Sunday afternoon, June 6th, I decided to visit some local sites I had not seen yet. I was out most of Saturday with a cold but I felt better on Sunday and decided to visit Beijing’s old observatory and visit friends afterwards at the Great Leap Brewery #6.  Around this time of year Beijing gets pretty hot ~90F (32c) and surprisingly humid, at least it felt that way, and therefore an easy visit to a small observatory followed by refreshing drink afterwards seemed like a good idea.

The old observatory is small and gorgeous. It dates back to 1442 and continued its role until 1929.  It was built on top of a city wall’s watch tower, and it’s surrounded by typical Chinese courtyards. On top of the watch tower there are many instruments that were produced by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit from Flanders (current Belgium) who lived in China from 1659 until 1688 when he fell from a horse and passed away. He was in China during the Qing dynasty. Ferdinand introduced western astronomy to China, which was more precise and better at predicting celestial events than the competing Chinese technology. He eventually built a close relationship with the emperor and even became the director of the observatory. He is still commemorated in the observatory to this day. This is an example of early technology transfer between the West and the East.

The observatory’s watch tower with instruments, some of them designed by Ferdinand Verbiest.
A view of the observation tower from one of the courtyards
The central courtyard that houses exhibits
The foreigners haven’t been forgotten yet

After my observatory visit, I’d gotten more thirsty than I had bargained for and I headed for the Great Leap Brewery #6 for refreshments and to meet with some expats. It’s kind of funny how everyone knows everyone here. The expats were introduced to me by a friend in Shanghai, who hired the person I was meeting back in Brazil (!), and that person is now working for Microsoft research in Beijing. Isn’t this a small world?

One of the expats was given a present by another expat. A 香包 (xiāng bāo, fragrant package), which is part of the dragon festival ceremony, but none of them seemed to know what it was. I explained the meaning behind 香包, and they were skeptical. How could a foreigner who had been here for just a month know this better than them? Afterall, they had been living in Beijing for 9+ years and they even held a Chinese permanent residence card. At that point a Chinese couple at the table beside us, who had clearly been listening in, confirmed my explanation.

Unbeknownst to my drinking buddies, my Chinese teacher had given me a culture class the day before and explained the Dragon boat festival to me. The Dragon boat festival commemorates Qu Yuan, a poet who lived during the warring states period (340-278BC).  He is revered because he is regarded as the first author of verse, and he exhibited great patriotism. He committed suicide by wading into a river after he heard his country’s capital was defeated by the neighboring Qin state. 

According to folklore, folks started to float small boats with food on the river so that the fish would leave the corpse alone. This, combined with other folklore elements, eventually grew into the Dragon boat festival.  Central to the festival are a number of customs such as the 香包 (xiāng bāo) which is a package of fragrant herbs to ward off the evil spirits, the 粽子 (zongzi) which is a little package of sticky rice with either a salty or sweet content to commemorate the food floating on the river, and the 5 colored threads (五色线), wristbands, which too are intended to ward off evil spirits.

Dragon boat celebration at Microsoft Research in Beijing.

The Dragon boat festival is celebrated in mainland China, Taiwan, Hongkong and Macau and in Chinese communities around the world. The impression I got is that its celebration is mostly about tradition and patriotism although that meaning seemed to be lost on some of the younger folks I met. For them, just like young people anywhere else in the world, it was more an excuse to drink and be merry. 

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