Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Part of the Dumpling Gang

While in the Yi lacquerware shop in Shuhe, I was invited to help participate in the making of dumplings. Wednesdays were the night that several Yi families would gather to make communal dinner. I was asked to help with stuffing and then closing the dumplings. After observing one woman expertly doing this process, I attempted to copy her steps. I have to admit that mine were rather easy to spot, not nearly as neatly crimped as those of the other women. 

I'm rather easy to spot in the photo above - the only redhead of the dumpling gang.
I loved how everyone helped out in the process, whether it be rolling out the dough, chopping up the ingredients, steaming the dumplings, or distributing the finished meal and drinks. 

Melissa and Paul, owner of the Azeala lacquer shop
Despite my substandard dumpling making skills and language challenges, I was made to feel a part of the group. One of the young women asked me to give her an "American" name - I selected the name Ruth, reminiscent of the strong Biblical female. They then gave me the Chinese name "Malisha," as it was close to my American name. 

Melissa "Malisha" and my new friend "Ruth"

Monday, July 27, 2015

Choose Your Tea Type

 Tea is a big deal in China. Both Hangzhou and the province of Yunnan where I visited are known for their tea. Entire trade routes were set up here and through treacherous paths to Tibet for trading tea. The shops posted here contained a huge variety of tea, with a bewildering variety of packaging, preparation types, flavors, and prices. I did see a few people purchasing items, but lacking the knowledge of the tea itself and the labeling (most was in Chinese only), I decided to purchase the tea for my cousin elsewhere.

What beautiful patterning at this store in Shuhe
More tea stores in Shaxi
Most restaurants I visited, as well as some of the guest houses, provided complimentary tea. In the picture above, that large silver thermos at my guesthouse was filled with hot water and intended solely for me. Dried tea leaves were already placed in the cup, to which my host continued to pour hot water. Its delicate flavor was enjoyed without any additions such as milk or sweetener - much different than the tea I had in other countries, particularly India (I do love chai), Tunisia (sweet and served with pine nuts), and Mali (sweet "gunpowder" tea).

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Lacquer Art of the Yi Ethnic Group

As I meandered through the streets of Shuhe, I spotted a decorative gate through which more shops were located. The hand-painted red, yellow and black bowls caught my eye; these were not cheap-looking mass-produced touristic crap pieces. I felt compelled to enter the shop and look around. Shortly thereafter, a kind man from the store approached me and patiently showed me around, answering my many questions. Joel Zheng was one of the people who ran the shop. Although there are many people in the Yunnan province who are also from the Yi ethnic group, he came from a smaller village in the Sichuan province and came to Shuhe hoping for a larger market. 

The bowls and vases that had caught my eye were lacquer pieces. Lacquerware making of both utensils and art pieces dates back between 1,700 and 1,600 years in the Yi ethnic group. The pieces Joel had in his shop were made from Azalea wood, which grows well in the higher altitudes of his village. 

The process of making the lacquer pieces is more complex than what the finished piece might initially appear to be. The bowls above show fourteen different stages. According to Joel, a bowl might take between 40-50 days, due to the number of stages and drying time. To my surprise, the bangles took 50-60 days - which helped explain why their prices were higher than I would have expected for a bangle. 
Lacquer art in the Yi ethnic group is usually done by men. The brush bristle is made from the tail of a sheep. The background color is typically black, made from ash. It represents the earth, and may also symbolize dignity and decency. The red color, made from minerals, represents fire and connotes bravery and enthusiasm. Yellow is the third color typically used. Also made from minerals, yellow represents the sun and symbolizes beauty and brightness.

Designs are directly painted on the piece, without the use of stencils or even preparatory sketching. Such an approach requires many years of experience, practicing first on substandard pieces. Many of the patterns are derived from nature.  One would find patterns representing nature items such as mountains, sun, waves, rivers, cocks combs, ferns, flowers, fires, fishnets, and the bull/cow eyes. 

The swirls on this bowl represent the eyes of a cow

Mouse over the image to see a few symbols
The lacquer art of the Yi has been placed on the state-level Representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage due to its unique process and cultural value.

Read more about the Yi lacquerware

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impression West Lake

On my final night in Hangzhou, my cousin and I went to see Impression West Lake. Although a bit more expensive (prices started at $42 and VIP prices were at $100), it was an enjoyable show set right on the West Lake (a platform was built 3 cm below the surface). Directed by Zhang Yimou who is most noted for developing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, the love story was enhanced by startling light effects and beautiful music by Kitaro.

Although I didn't understand everything presented (symbolism, based on a Hangzhou legend), it was enjoyable to watch. The show included hundreds of actors and encompassed a rather wide area in some sections. I would have loved to have seen it closer and observe the intricate costumes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tea Fields of Hangzhou

After visiting the Lingyin Temple, we took a cable car up the mountain. Below us were some emerald-green tea fields. Known as Longjing Tea, the highly-prized (and expensive) tea from the area is grown. Longjing Tea is pan-roasted and was given the distinction of being labeled by the Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi as Imperial Tea.

From the top, we had a good view of the surroundings, including West Lake in the distance. Too bad it was hazy.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hu Xueyan Mansion, Hangzhou

On a very rainy morning, I decided to head to the Hu Xueyan Mansion, just a few minute's walk from the historical Qinghefang Street in Hangzhou. Constructed in 1872, the mansion covered an area of 5,815 square meters (19,078 sq ft). A successful businessman, Hu became wealthy after investing in banking, tea, silk, and medicine. 

A pavilion and pond with koi was a central part of the mansion.

The Hu Mansion comprises of over 20 buildings arranged in the typical landscape style south of the Yangtze River and is an excellent example of the architectural style of the late Qing dynasty. Zigzag bridges (designed to thwart evil spirits who could only travel in a straight line) and covered walkways took visitors to different parts of the mansion. Some rooms were opened and had some furniture and other furnishings for view. I also found the servant's quarter interesting, with a very rare telephone from the era.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Qinghefang Ancient Street, Hangzhou

During the morning of my second day in Hangzhou, I took a direct city bus down to Qinghefang Street. Located near West Lake, it is the only remaining preserved historical section of the ancient city. Some of the pharmacies, tea houses, restaurants and handicrafts stores have been in existence for hundreds of years, a few dating back to the mid-1600's. 

Such shops now compete with McDonald's and KFC, but at least the district government has worked to protect the area's historical buildings.

Some sheltered archways provided for some better photography on this very rainy morning. Many of the shops weren't yet opened when I first walked through. Some that were open sold rather cheap-looking souvenirs, including some simple appliqué lanterns from Orissa, India.

Some shops demonstrated local candy-making or allowed visitors to sample their teas. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Boating around West Lake in Hangzhou

Despite the intermittent rains, visiting West Lake was a must. Situated at the heart of Hangzhou, it is considered to be one of the scenic wonders of China. Covering an area of around three square miles (8 sq km), West Lake is a popular place for boating and walking around its willow-shaded causeways & shores. 
I would love to revisit the city praised by Marco Polo and see the West Lake during better weather and different seasons. West Lake is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, noted for its natural beauty and cultural value which has influenced artists, poets, and architects.   
Boats of varying sizes plied the rather tranquil waters. Sails were seen in the distance. Due to the rains and some pollution, the green hills looked more like a hazy blue. 
Some parts had lotus plants which must look absolutely beautiful later in summer when blooming.

 Sculptures such as Zuang Shun and the distant golden water buffalo added some extra interest. In the distance is the "broken bridge" - one of many picturesque bridges along West Lake. I didn't have time to walk along the lake's two causeways. 
 We took a 40-minute boat ride. Fixed prices posted along the shores made it much more tourist-friendly.

Strolling along the well-maintained walkways along the shore is a favorite activity. Some places had cafés, restaurants, and shops, but the area I walked along didn't feel over-commercialized.
Pavilions, gates, and temples could be seen.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Step by Step

This red-robed man at Lingyin Temple attracted a bit of attention. Prone on the ground, he then stood up, took a step, raised his arms upward and then pressed his hands together, after which he resumed the prone position, aided slightly by the wooden mitts. Obviously practiced, he slowly but steadily made his way up the stairs in a similar manner. During a very brief rest above the flight of stairs, a visitor approached him and gave him some money.
The act of outward piety and bodily sacrifice reminded me of my trip in south India down to Velankanni. Here I observed people (of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and perhaps other faiths) crawl on their hands and knees as an act of devotion. Along the road, we had passed by people who had been proceeding along the pavement on their knees for many kilometers. 
Crawling to a church shrine in Velankanni, India

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Jiao for Good Luck

When photographing the detailed relief on a wall within the Lingyin Temple complex, a man promptly entered the scene. Reaching upward, he placed a coin on the wall. Others reflected in the sunlight that struggled to appear through the thickening clouds. Did a certain height signify greater luck or happiness?
I wish I knew the story surrounding the mural.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Walk along Lengquan Creek

The physical setting in which the Flying Peak Buddhist carvings were located was a sight to behold. Mid June, the vegetation was lush and verdant. Rains from the night made temps just a bit cooler, but still quite humid. Sheltered even further by the trees, Lengquan Creek was mirror-like, enhancing the tranquility. Still early in the morning, it wasn't overrun with hordes of visitors. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Stone Carvings of Flying Peak

On the way to the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, China, we walked through the lush area known as Flying Peak. On its limestone cliffs, one could view a beautiful collection of Buddhist grottos and stone carvings, formed during the Five Dynasties and Yuan Dynasty. It would have taken quite some time and detective work to find all the 470 carvings and 153 shrines. Considering the age (many are over 1,000 years old) and common defacement during the Cultural Revolution, the state of preservation was quite remarkable. 

The most famous relief carving is the Maitreya Buddha with a Rucksack, nicknamed the Laughing Buddha. A masterpiece of the Song Dynasty, it was carved in 1,000 AD. The largest of the shrines within the Flying Peak area, it is 9.9 meters (32.5 ft) long and 3.6 meters (11.8 ft) high. Along with the rotund jolly Buddha, it also shows the 18 Arhats which surround him in a protective formation.

While a number of the carvings were visible just by walking along the stream, others required more climbing or entering cave enclosures. Vines and other vegetation partially obscured others.