The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

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A jade burial suit? Are you crazy?

The day after my paternal grandmother died, I went to a funeral home with my uncles Jim and Paul to pick out a casket.

The director of the funeral home met us at the entrance and said he was sorry for our loss. We followed him to a brightly lit room, where around a half-dozen caskets were on display.

“This is one of our basic models,” the funeral director said, pointing to a casket with an oak finish. If we wanted to go with something “a little more expensive,” he suggested a coffin with a shiny white exterior that resembled marble.

Not even the most basic casket seemed appropriate for my grandmother. Aesthetically speaking, she was a woman of simple tastes.

“$2,000 for a casket? Are you crazy?” I could imagine her saying. “Bury me in a cardboard box, and use the money to buy Jimmy a new coat for winter!” Continue reading

Where emperors galloped

I went to Chengde on a whim, and it turned out to be the best city I had never heard of. My mother and brother were visiting Beijing from Kentucky, and I wanted to take them somewhere outside the Chinese capital so they could experience a different part of the country.

I picked Chengde because it was close and had a lot of history. During the Qing (1644-1911), China’s last dynasty, it served as a getaway for the royal family. Situated 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing, Chengde with its rolling mountains and thick forests provided a cool and scenic escape from the capital’s blistering hot summers and flat landscape.

Pule Temple, with downtown Chengde in the distance.

This pagoda, located inside the imperial summer resort, houses a statue of the Buddha.

We went in the fall, when the leaves had turned brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. Chengde’s main historical site is Bishu Shanzhuang, an imperial summer resort that began construction in 1703. Admission was pricey – 120 RMB ($19) – twice what it costs to tour the Forbidden City in Beijing. But the resort’s impressive mountain lookouts justified the expense. Continue reading