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1 posts from December 2013

12/20/2013

A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to Qüfu: "Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage"

Rochelle Beiersdorfer is a senior from Youngstown State University in Ohio majoring in philosophy. This fall (2013) she was a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program.  Students from the CIEE Beijing Advanced Chinese Studies program also participated on this excursion. CIEE Beijing Center Director Dr. Patrick Lucas, whose research includes historical memory and social narrative, designed and led this excursion that took students to China’s central Shandong province titled “Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage/中华民族的想象与个人朝圣之旅.” In order to properly explore this theme, we visited, Qüfu,birthplace of the philosopher Confucius, Tai’an, home of Mt. Tai, one of China’s most famous mountains, as well as visiting families in a local village and spending the day in small groups harvesting corn. Rochelle agreed to write a blog describing not only what engaging activities they did as a group, but also, as a philosophy major focusing on Chinese philosophy, what meaningful things she took away from the experience of visiting Confucius’ hometown as well as other important sites.

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Qüfu (曲阜), located in Shandong province (山东), is the hometown of Confucius (孔子), a philosopher from the Spring and Autumn period (roughly 780 BCE- 480 BCE) that substantially framed Chinese socio-psychology.  As a result of Confucius' influence on the Chinese psyche, and, as an extension, the concept of identity (individual and national), Qüfu has become a popular destination for self-pilgrimage within China.  In a similar manner, Mt. Tai (泰山), also located in Shandong province, is a hot spot for self-exploration for individuals of Chinese heritage.  Being that China is rapidly becoming a global powerhouse, if not one already, the search for self-identity has probably become more critical for Chinese nationals.  To help CIEE participants understand some Chinese ways of thinking, CIEE scheduled a three-daygroup excursion to Qüfu, Mt. Tai, and Dashiqiao Village (大石桥村), titled “Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage/中华民族的想象与个人朝圣之旅”.  What follows is a brief recollection of this voyage of self- pilgrimage through the eyes of an American philosophy student. 

Our pilgrimage started on Sept. 19 at 5:15 AM as we drove through the empty streets of Beijing to Beijing’s South Railway station to take a high-speed train to Qüfu.  The train ride to Qüfu was relatively quick, and the landscape became more and more rural.  When we arrived in Qüfu the first thing I noticed and appreciated most was the clear, blue skies.  During the drive to the hotel, I kept noticing the same Confucius’ saying written on advertisements and banners:  Isn’t it pleasant to have friends come from afar? (有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎?).  This saying was also displayed above our hotel’s entrance.  Even though the original meaning of this quote, according to a few Western philosophers, is the pleasure of seeing different mindsets or viewpoints on an issue, this quote, in a modern sense and connected to our trip’s theme, can be understood as warmly accepting strangers (“friends”) as they undergo their search of self- understanding and their Chinese identity.  After eating breakfast, the day’s activities consisted of visiting the Kong Family Mansion, the Confucius Temple, the Kong family cemetery, some free time, and Mid-Autumn festival activities.

CIEE Beijing - Temple of Confucius
Entering the Temple of Confucius

Visiting the Kong Family Mansion and Confucius Temple was exciting, but truth be told, after visiting numerous temples, they all start to blur into one.  For me though, as a philosophy student, being able to see stone writings of Confucius scholars was pretty awesome.  In contrast, standing on the Kong family burial ground, was breathtaking, especially standing next to Confucius’ tomb and being able to see the hut that his students supposedly lived in and watched over him after his death.  This was meaningful to me because it brought numerous texts I’ve read on Confucius thought into reality.  Plus, on a grim note, it was Confucius’ burial site, a highly influential Asian philosopher of equity.  So standing within 10 feet of what remains of a highly influential thinker was awe-inspiring.  Besides the loud chitchat of other tourists, the atmosphere of the Kong cemetery was peaceful and, with all the lush, green vegetation, had a sense of blissful rebirth; as if when one identity ends another begins.  I would like to add though that it seemed odd that a cemetery would be considered a tourist site.  Shouldn’t it be a place of eternal rest and respected from a distance?   Anyway, after a full packed day of Confucius-oriented sightseeing, we had dinner at a restaurant near our hotel and did Mid-Autumn day festival activities arranged by our CIEE teachers. The activities included teams of students drawing our CIEE teachers’ faces on a blank sheet of paper, with one student blindfolded and others guiding them by yelling directions, and another was where we sat in a circle and tossed around a small bean bag. Whoever had a small bean bag after the music stopped playing had to get up and do something, such as sing a song or dance.   Some sang Chinese songs and others danced.  I was lucky enough not to be caught with the pillow, thankfully!          

After the first day’s activities were done, a few classmates and I went in search of ice cream.  Our search for ice cream was unsuccessful, but, I’ve been told, that the journey is as, or even more, important than the end result.  While we were in search of ice cream, we stumbled across a popular early morning and evening activity for middle-aged/older Chinese:  synchronized, public group dancing.  My classmates decided to participate in two dances, while I stood on the sideline and observed the locals’ reactions.  It was fun for us, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t enjoy us essentially crashing their activity.  In a symbolic sense, this was a means for us, as foreigners, to understand the Chinese psyche and cultural customs through movement.  Everyone’s (excluding my classmates’) movements were perfectly in sync with the music and with each other.  Moreover, nightly dancing in the streets seems to be a Chinese cultural phenomenon.  For instance, last summer in Beijing, I participated in public group dancing against my will on two difference occasions.  It’s definitely a community-building tool, and, you could go as far as to say, it’s a means to understand your national identity and your identity within a group.

The second day of the trip we were either on the bus or in the countryside.  The bus ride was long and the scenery outside was the same thing over and over again:  small villages and towns with corn everywhere on the streets in massive square piles.  After a few hours we finally arrived at Dashiqiao Village, the village where we would be spending the day.  While in Dashiqiao, our CIEE teachers had us divided into small groups, with whom we would harvest corn with our village hosts, eat lunch in their homes, and then as a larger group, visit the Daoist Temple Daiyangguan (岱阳观).

We began walking to the corn fields as soon as we arrived. When harvesting corn, you had to be conscious of your surroundings and your group members’; getting hit in the head with an ear of corn hurts.  Also, it’s a very systematic process (i.e. pick corn, throw corn into the collective pile, repeat) and you usually get lost in thought.   While harvesting corn, I was thinking about home and that maybe I don’t enjoy experiencing rural China as much as I previously assumed I would. In retrospect, I believe these thoughts definitely hinder my understanding of Chinese identity, because rural China is in many ways the, or at least, a defining point of Chinese identity, because China is still largely an agricultural-based society.  Come to think of it, this is probably why going to Dashiqiao was included in the trip’s itinerary: to allow us, as CIEE students, to experience the roots of Chinese life. After harvesting corn, we ate a homemade lunch with our families, and then walked to the Daoist temple Daiyangguan, where CIEE arranged for one of the villagers to tell us the history of their town’s temple.  As I said, this was a Daoist Temple. Daoism (or Taoism) is a Chinese school of thought that, in many ways, is in opposition to Confucius thinking.  Daoism teaches one to follow the natural way (the Dao) and that the Dao that you are able to know is not the real Dao.  The temple was interesting because it blended Daoist and Buddhist ideologies into one artistic expression, which our Resident Director, Dr. Patrick Lucas, described was common all across China.  I thought that the halls depicting the grisly scenes of hell, deities torturing unrighteous individuals, and the statues of the most prominent hellish deities, were some of the coolest aspects of the temple.  It was a little too ominous though, because of the statues’ fierce expressions bearing down on you unmercifully.  In many ways, it was comparable to Chinese people in the subways just un-ashamedly staring straight at you until you or they get off the train.  It’s a little unsettling.     

After the Daoist temple, we returned to the village, and then continued our journey to Tai’an (泰安), the city where Mt. Tai is located.  That night we went to an outdoor performance about the cultural history and significance of Mt. Tai.  According to the story told during the performance, the voyage to the top of Mt. Tai was, in some ways, a means of passage for past emperors and government officials that goes back over two-thousand years, as climbing Mt. Tai was a passage for emperors to receive the mandate of heaven in order to rule. Doing so now, was a way for modern Chinese to connect to that grand past.  The next morning we also went on this means of passage in the rain.  Some of us took a cable car up, others walked up.  Taking a cable car seemed like I would be cheating myself out of experiencing the significance of Mt. Tai, so I climbed to the top in the cold rain.   I think I stopped a few times, to either rest or take photos with Chinese people.

CIEE Beijing - Top of Mt. Tai
Celebrating a victory over 泰山 (Mt. Tai)

While walking up Mt. Tai, because the mist was so dense, you couldn’t really see anything besides what was in front of you and what was behind you.  After an hour of walking in the rain up steep, uneven stairs, I finally reached the top of Mt. Tai, soaked and cold.  Because the mist was unexpectedly thick at the top, there was no scenic view, just grey abyss.  I’m sure there are ways that you can symbolize the fog as an expression of identity, but I can’t think of any besides that maybe self-discovery should be an inward endeavor and not an outward one. Thus, you shouldn’t have to go on an actual, planned voyage to discover who you are as a person, just dive into the depths of your psychological disposition.   In other words, don’t search outward, because there’s nothing there but grey abyss.  Cheesy concept, I know.

After descending Mt. Tai, our planned activities were done and we returned to the polluted chaos that is Beijing.  However, our pilgrimage to understanding ourselves wasn’t over, or maybe it hadn’t even started.  This trip to Qüfu, Dashiqiao, and Mt. Tai allowed us to experience the Chinese pilgrimage, and as a foreigner with no Chinese heritage, I can understand it and respect it, but I once again realized I am unable to fully experience it or to have as deep of an experience as a Chinese person might.  As I mentioned before with the Kong family cemetery, a lot of the places we went to seemed like tourist spots, which seemed to degrade their importance as locations in helping a Chinese national or someone with Chinese heritage understand their identity as a Chinese individual.  On the contrary, maybe these historical sites being easy to accept (just buy a ticket and you’re in) gives the Chinese people going on this identity pilgrimage a sense of self or what it means to be Chinese.

As a philosophy student studying in Beijing, I ask myself, every day, in some way or another, “who am I, who am I really?  What am I doing in Beijing?”

And since this trip I have caught myself questioning when does my pilgrimage start…