Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tianhou, Tombs and Soccer: A Day Exploring Shenzhen


So on Sunday I decided to explore the city I’m living in for these two months: Shenzhen.

The great myth of Shenzhen is that everything’s new here. Yes, it is true, 99.5% of the population and 99.5% of the buildings all showed up in the last thirty years, after Deng Xiaoping made this place basically “China’s #1 Capitalist Place.”

But Shenzhen is at the mouth of the Pearl River, which goes right up to Guangzhou (Canton), a major trading port for centuries. It also has brilliantly fertile soil and has been at the crossroads of migration for two thousand years: first Han migrants that brought Chinese language and culture, and then Hakka (also Han) in the medieval era who settled in the area. So there’s some cool things.

The Tianhou Temple and Song Tomb at Chiwan are among these attractions.

Tianhou Temple: the main gate
This is the Tianhou Temple at Chiwan. Originally built in 1274, and rebuilt several times over the centuries, it is one of the wealthiest temples in China, benefiting from donations from rich locals and Hong Kong business people. It is dedicated to the cult of Mazu, or Tianhou, a  goddess of the sea who is basically the big goddess in all of coastal South China and Taiwan. She started out as a folk hero in tenth-century Fujian, but later was deified. The cult then spread throughout coastal South China, and with immigrant communities to Southeast Asia.

The temple itself contains a large altar-and-incense hall, a smaller hall, and some surrounding buildings with incense towers, a Mazu museum, and shops to buy incense and sacrificial goods. It is very well-maintained and very beautiful. Also on the grounds: a turtle pond, and a rock garden.

Incense burners in front of the main hall.

The main hall, renovated and re-renovated for centuries.
Ten minutes’ walk away, you find the tomb of the Young Song Emperor. This area of China is pretty much on the southern boundary of what was once the great and mighty Mongol Empire, which replaced the Song Dynasty as the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. The royal retinue, centered around the 8-year-old emperor, was pushed south during the invasion until they reached the Chiwan peninsula. During the last major battle, the Song navy was crushed by the Mongols. One of the imperial retainers, realizing all was lost, picked up the little boy-emperor and jumped into the sea with him. Later, this tomb was built.

It stood for a long time as a site of local prayer, but was forgotten for a while. It was rediscovered by a soldier during the Cultural Revolution, but went pretty much untouched. After the reforms, the city cleaned it up and opened it again, and it functions now as a religious site. Imperial flags decorate the boundary, and there are memorial stones. It’s the southernmost imperial grave in China.

The statue is somewhat more recent, and the podium it's on is quite new.


It is chilling to go to a memorial for an eight-year-old child. But it is also, in a way, touching. People seven centuries later still remember tragedies and still keep in touch with a history oft considered lost in the post-1949 China. The efforts in the ‘50s and the ‘60s to abandon that old devotion just…allowed it to be reinvented.

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My camera ran out of battery, so the last bit I will describe.

The Universiade is being held here at the moment. It’s basically an Olympics for college athletes. It’s a lot smaller in visitor numbers, and it’s not quite as crazy as one might think right now. However, this means two things:
1.       There’s a huge security presence on the street. Even the slightest peep of trouble and there are ten policemen right there.
2.       There are lots of tickets to sport events.

So for our students in the 9-day summer programs, we got some tickets to a soccer match. The stadium happens to only be ten minutes’ walk from campus. I can see it from my place.

It was a men’s game between Russia and the Ukraine. I was worried about rowdy, drunk fans, but it was mostly Chinese families who wanted to see what was going on in the stadiums that the city and province spent several years and much effort and money to build. It was also highly irksome for the citizenry of all classes. My dad comes here now and again for business and mentioned that people here were a bit irked in some ways by the various inconveniences that went unaddressed by the government, e.g. like my entire office was about public services shutting down for four days. The security was strict; I had to do my inhaler on the spot for the guard.

 It wasn’t the most exciting game, but it was fun. My colleagues and I sat with a great view of one end of the field, and a ball from a misfired kick came our way at one point. Russia won 1-0, and played a really good game against a disorganized, lackluster Ukrainian team. Watching soccer live is quite an experience. It’s one thing to “oh” at a missed shot, another to “oh” in front of the shot alongside 1,500 other people.

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I’ll be going to the beach tomorrow for my job to direct team building exercises. Expect pictures and a post. Then Friday night to Sunday night I’m in Shanghai seeing people. I don’t think I’ll have internet at the moment, but I might yet bring my laptop.

Side note: so my friend Lizzy, who’s in Texas at the moment, is awesome. She’s been doing “I want to travel”-themed internet surfing and found for me a Tai Chi class in Hong Kong for free next month. I’m going to go!  Thanks!



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