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Pedaling to Harmony in Beijing

[The following article was written in October, 2018 by Charles J. Chamberlain. All rights reserved.]

Rounding a busy corner one unusually clear morning, I guided my bicycle carefully into heavy two-wheeled traffic. Suddenly in front of me was a pig-tailed young school-girl sitting side-saddle. Her mother pedaled furiously, and the young girl sat casually behind her, reading a homework assignment while simultaneously eating a breakfast roll and occasionally grabbing mom’s jacket for balance.  I marveled, not so much at the sight in front of me but at the apparent ordinariness of it all, at least in the eyes of the Chinese people around me. No one batted an eye.

Beijing bicyclists

Beijing bicyclists. Courtesy of GettyImages.

Key to Chinese Culture

That morning, the girl and her mom were only two people in a sea of millions of “rush hour” commuters on bikes, scooters, taxis, vans, private cars, and vehicles that defied categorization. What these millions of travelers taught me that morning and hundreds of other mornings was a key to understanding important aspects of Chinese culture, and ultimately human nature.

The ancient Chinese Capitol city of 23 million boasts wide streets flanked on either side by bicycle lanes, which are also bordered by brick sidewalks. It sounds like a city planner’s dream until you see how these channels of humanity are used. At times, the roadway becomes a pedestrian walkway, the sidewalk transforms into a thoroughfare for scooters, and the bike lanes turn into bus routes. In addition, notions of “drive on the right” or “drive on the left” are often tossed out the window like day-old rice.

Most Americans would call it chaos. The western world, with its emphasis on “rule of law,” cringes at the thought of such “disarray” and disregard for safety. However, any westerner who spends more than a month or two amidst the pandemonium must come to a stunning realization: Dang it. It works.

Bicycling safely around the streets of Beijing leaves you with the disorienting suspicion that you’re missing something, like entering a room illuminated with ultra-violet light, when your eyes strain to see things that are just beyond their capability. When you navigate the streets of Beijing on a bicycle, you participate in an intricate dance with an unknown set of rules, using an unknown method of communication. It seems just beyond your human capacity to understand why you arrived safely at your destination.

The bedrock of American society is its system of laws. Americans assume that road safety is a function of obeying a rigid set of traffic laws. Even though the Chinese have traffic laws, they don’t look at them or follow them in the same way. No, there is something far more compelling than laws to keep the roadways safe. This intangible “thing” is difficult to describe but has a wider impact on China and its people in all areas of life. This “thing” represents a fundamental difference between two cultures. What is it? It’s harmony based on trust. The Chinese people have a profound trust in each other and the harmony of their society, not in sterile text written in dusty law books.

American vs Chinese Peace and Safety

When riding a bicycle through Beijing, your trip will be punctuated by numerous incursions into “your space” by people in various vehicles who don’t pause or even look in your direction before entering the road from a driveway, or who don’t slow down to make right turns. You will encounter people who stop suddenly in the middle of a road, leaving their vehicles unattended. You will play “chicken” with vehicles coming head-on in “your” lane. These are conditions every bicyclist will see within just a few minutes on the road.

If, while cycling in Beijing, you hold fast to the American dogma that you have been granted rights to a specific space on the road, going a specific speed, in a specific direction, and that each vehicle sits in a legally protected bubble of these rights, you will have a miserable experience. You will develop road rage as you insist on your rights, and you will “stop and go” instead of “go with the flow.”

Forming a Bridge to the Chinese Culture

If, on the other hand, you relax your guard and realize that everyone on the road is part of a harmonious, moving, flowing organism, you will participate in a relaxing cultural experience like no other. When the Chinese people put their trust in their fellow travelers, it is based on a tradition of congruency. In other words, as a fellow traveler, you are expected to make your actions congruent with your intent. If you intend to travel on the right at a certain speed, then do it. Don’t hesitate. Don’t slam on your brakes because someone has crossed your path ahead. If you intend to travel on the left, be consistent and congruent with that intent.

You soon achieve an almost Zen-like state while bicycling the busy streets. Somehow, you are relaxed yet hyper-vigilant. You can predict in advance when a fellow traveler is about to enter your lane. As you engage with others on the road in this way, you become absorbed in a trusting fellowship with the Chinese people. Your bicycle soon becomes the means of building a bridge to a strikingly cohesive, collective culture. Harmony, balance, movement, and flow are rooted in Chinese culture. One point of access to this culture can be found on two wheels.

The Beautiful City of Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street

Mid Autumn Festival is a harvest holiday here in China. We had a day off from our teaching and decided to take a fast train to Tianjin, about a half-hour away from Beijing at over 200 mph. The city was surprisingly beautiful with new, modern buildings and older “concession” buildings which were built by various European nations that gained control of the port city after the Opium wars in China. We first visited Ancient Culture Street, a large area that has preserved the old Chinese culture.

Street Vendors

 

Monkey King is back

 

Typical shops

 

Shopping Ancient Culture Street

 

The art of Paper Cutting

 

Old Versus the New

 

Adventures are more fun with friends. Ruthann Martin is a fellow teacher at CFAU. She’s from South Africa.

 

This man was playing an old instrument (Er Hu, or two-stringed instrument) to entice us into the shop

 

Pineapple or Rice? They know how to make their rice sweet and delicious. We are not used to healthy snacks

 

The art of making porridge includes hot water that comes from a big tea cup. Mike Martin in foreground.

 

You have to enjoy the statues everywhere!

 

They do like their pancakes . . .but not what we would expect

 

This is homemade candy. They can create any shape you would like.

 

 

April 2018 — Llama Temple

If you ever have just an hour or two and want to see a beautiful Buddhist temple, try the Llama Temple (or Yong He Gong). It is perfect, but not too large to see in a hurry.

You can tell how important a building is by the number of little roof animals there are to protect it. Literally, an 8-animal roof means the building was especially important . . possibly where the emperor himself would come.

 

 

April 2018 — A Marriage Market

Because wannabe grandparents are so anxious for their children to find a mate, they come by the thousands every weekend to JongShan Park next to the Forbidden City and advertize for a mate for their son or daughter. In the rural areas, there are 30-40 million too many men, due to the 1979 one-child policy and rural families believing a son is better than a daughter. Now, there are no women to marry in the countryside. In the cities, it’s not that way, but young men and young women are not getting married and producing those precious grandchildren.

It so happens that a famous LDS landmark exists exactly where the marriage market takes place. The tree under which David O. McKay offered a dedicatory prayer, was right in the thick of the action. When we single adult advisers took our single men and women to the park to see the tree, little did we know we were taking them to a marriage market.

At our apartment are Kevin Earl, Paul, Sabrina, Eketzel, Emily, Charles and Wei Su (also Laraine in the middle) We love these people!

The famous tree. Take no notice of all the activity around the tree — the buying and selling of marriage aged children.

Listening to a reading of the description of the area in historic records while fending off curious bystanders who wonder if we have brought eligible marriage candidates.

These “ads” include a son or daughter’s height, weight, skills, education level, etc. After taking this picture, these men were anxious to see if I was married and where I was from. When I told them I was American and that my wife was over “yonder,” they lost interest. I don’t know if it was being American or being married that turned them away.

Imagine the dedication of these parents who bring these ads every week.

They all look eligible for marriage, right? These are some of the YSA’s and singles from our Branch

Chuck with the Bennetts, District President and wife.