Saturday, November 5, 2011

China, Day Three

Today we did a lot less sightseeing than yesterday. The travel agency we used to schedule everything, China Women's Travel Service, are good at making sure we have plenty of downtime during our trip while still giving us very informative tours of the most important historical landmarks. After another outstanding breakfast at our hotel we got on our van at 9 AM again and headed to The Forbidden City – essentially a walled area with massive courtyards and surrounding buildings where the emperor and his family resided and performed ceremonies in ancient times. We again saw the importance of numbers in Chinese culture – all the royal structures had openings, doors and designs usually in 9s or multiples of 9s, symbolizing royal power. We saw how at certain times the emperor would enter The Forbidden City through a gate leading down the middle of a series of connected courtyards riding on a litter carried by men with poles along a set path marked out on the ground with flagstones. Stairs led up to and down from each of the buildings along the way, and massive square stones carved with dragons lay beneath the area that the emperor's litter would pass over as the men carrying him struggled up those stairs. Through the City we saw various buildings that served as places of ritual, places for the emperor to practice before performing the rituals (!), places for the emperor to change clothes before doing the rituals, places for the royal family to eat meals together, and the like. We saw the gates where the emperor's wife, the empress, and the rest of the royal family were allowed to enter the City separate from the emperor, who entered alone through the central gate – and how the empress was allowed to enter through the central gate on one day only – her wedding day. We saw how the emperor's concubines were expected to enter the City through a wholly separate entrance when they were joined with the emperor, and in a much less formal ceremony than with the wedding to the empress herself. We saw another section of the City where during the Ching Dynasty, examinations took place where common people interested in becoming one of the emperor's advisors would go through rigorous examination proceedings and a few people would eventually be chosen to become part of the royal court; apparently some people spent their entire lives trying to accomplish this feat. Interestingly, we were not allowed to actually view or tour inside any of the buildings, and the emperor's actual bedroom was not specifically known, as he would apparently spend each night in a different section of the City known only to his closest advisors.

After The Forbidden City we toured another large area close by called the Temple of Heaven. Essentially this was an area privately owned by the royal family where three times per year the emperor would be carried to pray and offer sacrifices to the Sun god for a good harvest and for blessings on the nation. For his prayers, the emperor was expected to climb on foot to the top of a platform and kneel to pray in a prescribed way. On the way into and out of the Temple the doorways and openings were designated for certain individuals, but this time the central opening was used only by the Sun god himself... so on days of ceremony the emperor would enter through a gate beside the main one, and the main gate would be opened with no human being allowed to walk through it.

Within the grounds of the Temple were a series of beautifully-manicured paths lined with cypress trees. There were also some covered areas with openings along the sides where elderly people from the Beijing area are allowed to come and mingle, play games together, and exercise. We were treated to some lively singing on our walk through this area – the song we heard apparently was one used to lift the spirits of the Chinese during the Japanese occupation of World War II, and the passion was evident in the voices of the people familiar with the song from their childhood: [we have a video taken of this song bit it is far too large to transfer effectively from China... we'll try to get it on here later]

After we returned to our hotel, Sarah and I tried a restaurant close by for lunch. We sat down and perused the menu, hoping to find something that looked appealing. We immediately realized that little on the menu sounded – or looked – good, as both the description of the food and the accompanying pictures did little to whet our appetites. We struggled to make a choice from such items as chicken gizzards on a stick, chicken tendons, chicken gristle, vegetable and bone soup, lotus root salad (which I thought almost looked edible but Sarah felt the picture showed some sort of unidentified slimy item), mutton (sheep meat) in various forms, fish dishes either with the bones and head cooked in an obtrusive way or found in a cloudy, unappetizing broth, tofu (which I cannot stand) in many forms, and pork and beef in various slimy-appearing dishes. We decided that veering from anything but fried rice with scrambled egg would give us something either soupy, slimy or gristly, so we chose the rice along with what we thought would be another safe side dish, roasted corn on a stick. The rice was quite good, but when the corn finally arrived we found it had somehow been cooked in a way that gave it no flavor whatsoever and a chewy, gelatinous texture that allowed us to eat only part of it before we found our taste buds begging for relief. On our way home we noticed – for not the first time – a McDonalds with music blaring from the entrance sounding like a weird Chinese lullaby and were accosted by a man trying to sell us some sort of document whom we have rebuffed enough times to where his only words now to us are “Maybe later?”.

Tonight as Sarah and I rest together I am reminded of what we saw today on our tour. Three things stick out to me: one, the way the emperor was carried through a gate into his City with nobody else allowed to come with him; two, the struggles that ancient people made to be acceptable to the emperor to enter the royal retinue at some point in their lives; and three, how the Sun god was expected to pass through the central gate into the Temple, again alone with nobody else. I see the stark contrast between this and the God we serve... a God who loves us so dearly that He made a way for us to enter into His presence with Him, no matter what our station in this life. He wants us to follow Him... not in a distant way, but up close and personal, passing through each gate in our lives with Him by our side, guiding us. He doesn't make us stand up to heavy scrutiny and enter into a relationship with Him only after passing certain tests – if we choose to draw near to Him, He loves us just the way we are and covers our blemishes with His blood. Our guide told us that the vast majority of Chinese have “no religion”, so as much as we love learning about Matthew's cultural heritage, we are excited to be used by our Lord to bring him into our family where we can share the love of Jesus with him, something he might not otherwise learn about.

Tomorrow we head out in the early afternoon on a plane to Wuhan City, where we will meet... Matthew!... for the first time. We are so excited and so thankful to the Lord for this opportunity.