Our Man in Beijing
by Karel KoskubaThis is a report from my recent trip (this article was printed in 1995) to Beijing, where I went to attend the "First World Conference on Taiji Training". Dick (Watson) had warned me that according to his (usually reliable) information it wasn't likely to be of a very high standard but as I planned to visit Beijing for some time I thought it would be a good opportunity (excuse?) to go there anyway.
Getting there.My journey started auspiciously. The flight itself was comparatively short, perhaps due to Russia opening its airspace to international traffic. London - Helsinki 2.5 hours and Helsinki - Beijing 7.25 hours.
Having arrived in the morning, I set out to find the Conference. Not an easy task considering that my Chinese was virtually nil but, being armed with both English and Chinese versions of the address, I was full of optimism. The optimism seemed fully justified when, after purchasing a map of Beijing, I found the street I was looking for (Tiantan Donglu) in no time at all. Number 4 was, surely, just minutes away. After a protracted search I had found several number 4s and had become quite friendly with some of the residents and most of the street sellers who were charting my progress with growing interest. My Chinese vocabulary was also slowly growing. But still no Organising Committee at 4 Tiantan Donglu. Well, eventually I found that the English address was not quite the same as the Chinese one! All is well that ends well, however, and soon I was busy enrolling for the Conference. Fortunately, my instinct for trouble, sharpened by the many years of living with my wife, had caused me to question the contents of the conference and I soon found out (thanks to John Davies) that, perhaps due to lower than expected attendance, it had been simplified and then simplified a bit more and in the end all that was left was just a pale reflection of what was in the original program. So having amicably parted company, with an invitation to participate in any of their events, I then set out to arrange my own lodging, training, etc. This would, normally, not be an easy matter but I took the precaution of getting addresses of various people in Beijing just for such an eventuality.
Being there.Anyone visiting Beijing on a limited budget should consider staying in (... out-of-date information deleted). Buses are extremely cheap but given the language barrier, getting anywhere is a long business. Taxi fares are not too bad but I would advise anyone to do as I did and rent a bicycle (princely sum of 30p/day) as it gives a much better view of the city and its people. The autumn weather in Beijing is wonderful and made for cycling around. With temperatures around 18 deg C (77 deg F) and blue sky all the time it would be a joy to ride around if it wasn't for the smog. The air pollution was quite bad and was probably caused by burning coal for heating and cooking. Mornings were generally clear but towards the evening, as the temperature dropped, a haze settled over the city. It wasn't as bad as someone, who advised me take a compass so I could navigate in the dense smog, made out but then maybe he was there in winter and it probably gets worse then!
Renting a bicycle proved a very shrewd move as the distances in the centre of Beijing are quite enormous. The roads are very wide - it seems quite normal to have 6-8 lanes for cars with four additional lanes for bicycles. If you add wide pavements with lots of lawn in front of the buildings you can see that crossing from one side to another is a major walking expedition. Having a bicycle meant I didn't have to worry about these little matters. With a bicycle you can go anywhere, even to the Forbidden City.
Bicycles everywhere.Another joy of riding a bicycle is negotiating the traffic. Nowhere have I seen more chaotic traffic. This had quite surprised me as I had imagined that the Chinese would be very law abiding, seeing as they still live in a communist country. Well, for me it was a paradise. Presence of the traffic police didn't seem to make much difference though occasionally I would come to a crossroad and everybody seemed to obey the traffic lights. I never worked out why the traffic rules were sometimes obeyed and at other times just ignored. Though I must say this goes mainly for the bicycles. Cars in general were much better behaved. Having a bicycle myself, I quickly adapted to ignoring red lights and the rest of the traffic. To wait for a suitable gap to cross a stream of traffic looked like a very long affair. So having briefly observed the local custom, I followed suit. One needs just to plunge in at steady pace and observe how traffic parts round to let you through. It can be a bit unnerving at first but one gets used to it very quickly. Of course, that meant I had to pay attention to what was going on in front of me regardless of whether I had a right of way or not (as they say, the price of freedom is constant vigilance!). This was true not only at crossroads. Pedestrians would step in at any time, bicycles or cars would make U turns and as I was in the habit of gawking around, I nearly had several collisions in the beginning. But fortunately my reflexes honed by decades of unceasing practice had saved me (and the unsuspecting natives).
Another good feature of Beijing is the layout of the roads. They all form a north-south and east-west grid which is ever so easy to navigate. It is, of course, essential to get a map with Pinyin translation of the road names and places (and preferably one where both are the same!). Since most of the major road names posted at crossroads also have the Pinyin translation, navigation was no problem.
Shopping!Everyone knows that Hong Kong is a shoppers' paradise. Well, Beijing is catching up pretty fast. And at least in one aspect it is ahead (in fact behind, but as far as the shoppers' perception goes, it is ahead) - and that is prices. But this one aspect easily outweighs most of the advantages of better supplied centres (such as Hong Kong). Given my punishing training schedule (see below), I did manage to snatch couple of moments to do some early Xmas shopping. Everything went very smoothly and parcels were piling up very satisfactorily one on top of another. But, in the heat of bargain hunting I had forgotten one small detail - I rode a bicycle! So there I was with a bundle of parcels I could hardly carry and there was this bicycle with just a small pannier at the back which also had a small clip with a weak spring. Needless to say the obvious solution of taking a taxi and coming back for the bicycle later did not occur to me at that time! To see me careening across Beijing laden with parcels must have been quite a sight. Quite likely you have seen a comedy where the comic tries to pick up the last of many parcels, only to find that, as he picks it up, another one slips from his grasp. This can go for very long time. And it did. Without the benefit of Taiji training which gave me finely tuned reflexes, perfect balance, endless patience (obviously no space left for wisdom) I would still be somewhere in Beijing picking up parcels. As it was, I did eventually manage to survive the journey and arrive in the hotel a complete wreck. My teacher there, master Du, did wonder that evening whether he was, perhaps, pushing me too hard!
Parks!Parks - just gorgeous. Very well designed and kept. Full of little or not so little temples, pagodas, ornamental gates, etc. Unfortunately, one needs to pay to get in and for the Foreign Friends to get into, say, the Temple of Heaven Park it is about £2.50. That includes entrance fees to all the temples inside but to pay it every day would be a bit expensive. Well, this Foreign Friend, with his flawless command of Mandarin, managed to persuade the ticket attendants that 3p entrance fee would go much further in cementing a lasting friendship (the price has now been unified at about 30p).
Inside the parks, the most fascinating feature were the people who come there in the morning to practise their exercises. The ranges and types of exercises are quite unbelievable:- martial arts, jogging, qigong, ballroom dancing, kite flying, ball games and who knows what else.
The Tiger of Tian Tan.I was very fortunate to have been introduced to master Du Xien Ming with whom I practised everyday. In the morning I would go to the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) Park and in the evenings to his home for more practice. He insisted, since I was there only for about 10 days, that once a day was not enough. This left me middle of the day, basically to recover. Cycling to the hotel after a morning training session in the park I could understand why people cycle so slowly and leisurely. I couldn't go any faster myself, just glad to be moving at all. I couldn't say I was physically tired. It seemed to have been a type of mental stupour where, once I got back to the hotel, it would take me two hours to change my shoes.
The training was excellent. Master Du Xien Ming is 77 years old and has practised Chen style Taijiquan for nearly 60 years so he has lots of things to teach. He came from the same club as masters Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Xiaowang and Yang Wenhu (not sure about the last name's spelling). They all had the same teacher(s) - masters Chen Fake and Chen Zhou Kui. Du Xien Ming's Taiji was first class and, as I have been dabbling with Chen style for nearly 10 years (public thanks to Sean Derwan who taught me my first Chen form), it was just what my Chen style form and pushing hands needed.
Master Du Xien Ming himself was quite incredible. At his age most people find it a challenge just to move. Well, he was not only moving, he was jumping and stomping more sprightly and with more power than I could muster, pushed me around and twisted my arms like pretzels but his most impressive performance came in the evening when we sat down to eat. His capacity for eating was quite enormous! Being quite a lot smaller than me and much older, he managed to eat about twice as much as I did and then, whilst I was unable to move, he proceeded to demonstrate how to do the form properly with all the stomps and jumps. I was quite speechless.
Apart from the excellent training there was another advantage in practising with master Du Xien Ming - that was his standing with the Internal Arts (not only Taijiquan) practitioners in the park. As his only foreign student I had generated quite an interest and so was able to meet a number of other teachers which otherwise would be very difficult, if not impossible. Of course, they would want to test the foreigner and most such tests went very smoothly. But when someone less experienced tried too eagerly and accidentally managed to get himself off-balance, it was easy to give master Du all the credit and save face all around.
Trip to England.The training came to an end far too early but given master Du's natural curiosity and my desire for further instruction, it wasn't too difficult to persuade Master Du Xien Ming to agree to come to England next summer.
(The rest of the article is not relevant as it discusses master Du's then forthcoming visit)