September 2010 issue

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Beijing’s rising sun

As the political, economic, cultural and educational hub of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is an exciting juxtaposition of old traditions and new-age thinking. Nicola Hancox takes a tour of this ancient citadel.

The Chinese capital needs little in the way of introduction. The gateway to historical attractions such as the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, its revamp in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games has given Beijing a modern spin to rival Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The city has distinct advantages over other language learning destinations in China, however, says Ryan Quimby-Jones, Business and Development Manager at local language school Mandarin House. “Students that go to Beijing are typically interested in the culture, politics and rich history of China,” and he adds that the local dialect, Beijınghuà, is the standard, and most recognised form of Mandarin. Considered simpler and easier to understand, “This aspect is very important to students that really want to apply their lessons outside of the classroom. Most people outside of the classroom will use the standard dialect where other cities this may not be the case,” he reflects.

Being a student in a foreign city can be a daunting experience but Quimby-Jones reflects that the locals are a kind and welcoming people, and if anything are just as curious about students as students are of them. He says, “It is not uncommon for foreigners to feel extra attention on them when walking down Wangfujing [a pedestrian only street]. Right next to the Forbidden Palace you can expect to feel like a celebrity fleeing from the paparazzi! A small group will gather around taking pictures while kids will try their English skills and [students] will try their Mandarin skills on them.”

Full of tourist attractions, Beijing is never short of international visitors and students can and should join the crowds to explore the Forbidden City – the world’s largest imperial palace. Surrounded by a six-metre deep moat and protected by a 10-metre high wall – fortified using glutinous rice and egg whites – this architectural feat was off limits to the common man for over 500 years. With 720,000 square foot to cover, Wendy Zhang from East West Connection recommends students take a long stroll around the adjoining lakes that formed part of the Emperor’s vast gardens. Collectively known as Shichahai, the three lakes are situated just a mile north of the Forbidden City’s expansive grounds and are conveniently surrounded by restaurants and bars, notes Zhang. Students can also hire rowing boats to enjoy the picturesque setting.

Beyond the other obvious World Heritage listed sites; the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, Quimby-Jones suggests first-time visitors familiarise themselves with the city layout which consists of quaint little courtyards and narrow streets and alleyways known as Hutong. This unique part of Chinese cultural history is perhaps best enjoyed by bicycle, although students should beware as one of the narrowest parts measures just 40 centimetres wide, leaving little room for manoeuvre!

Quimby-Jones also recommends Wangfujing, a lively shopping street at the very heart of the city. At night, this commercial hub is illuminated by hundreds of colourful neon signs. However, the cooking aromas emanating from one of the many snack streets that shoot off the main stretch may tempt hungry shoppers. The Donghuamen night market is one of the most popular snack streets and is certainly an eye opener. One for the adventurous foodie, here market vendors sell an exotic delicacy called chuanr – a type of meat on a skewer. Meats include deep fried insects and barbequed sea horses.

Julia Zhou from Beijing Easyou Chinese Language School recommends students try some of the many traditional dishes, such as Beijing hot pot (stew), dumplings and baozi – a type of steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables. While Zhang advises students sample gong bao chicken (kung pao chicken), a Sichuan speciality. “It is [very] different from [the dish of this name found in] western countries. Here it is a little sweet and a little spicy,” she describes. She also adds that students are given sample menus in both English and Mandarin upon arrival to help them when out and about. “Additionally, we take [students] to various banquets which include various types of specialities and of course the famous dish, peking duck,” she adds.

As an inherent part of Chinese culture, many staple foods carry symbolic meaning, for example, noodles are a sign of longevity while tangerines and oranges, which are traditionally handed out during Chinese New Year, symbolise luck and wealth. Other foods are intended to honour gods or a revered person in history. Zong Zi – glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves – are a perfect example of this and are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival in June – thought to commemorate the death of Chinese poet, Qu Yuan. The day-long celebrations culminate in dragon boat races which, says Quimby-Jones, draw in the crowds. “The excitement of both locals and tourists create an exhilarating atmosphere as spectators line the riverside in anticipation of the fleet of dragon boats to race past the finish line,” he says.

In fact there are a number of exciting festivals and concerts that pepper the Chinese calendar. Quimby-Jones observes that during January and February Chinese New Year celebrations take over. “The fireworks in China will be like no other you have experienced in your life…” he notes, adding that modern day celebrations are just as captivating as the more traditional affairs. “In some districts, riddles are hung from lanterns that line the streets and prizes are given to those who guess the answers!”

Guo Ruicheng from Capital Mandarin School adds that the Spring Festival (as it is also known) is a solemn occasion, steeped in tradition. He says, “People will make dumplings, set off fireworks and put on new clothes,” a custom said to symbolise a fresh start, while cleaning the house is thought to rid the home-owner of ill-fortune.

Ruicheng relates that more modern offerings include the many concerts and sporting events held at the über contemporary National Grand Theatre (the Egg) and the fantastical National Stadium, colloquially known as the Bird’s Nest (main venue of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games). “[These] have a lot of brilliant performances at the weekends,” he affirms. Zhang also cites an array of random events sure to appeal to social butterflies including a lively music scene that showcases some of Beijing’s hottest rock bands. The What Bar is pitched within touching distance of the Forbidden City and attracts music fans in search of some alternative music.

It is exactly this kind of fusion, where old meets new, that keeps this Asian capital thriving. As Ruicheng says, “The strong modern breath is blowing in your face when you set foot in Beijing…once again demonstrating her enchanting charisma in front of the whole world.”

Agent viewpoint

“China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Companies from all over the world are now doing business in China and are requiring employees that speak Chinese and are familiar with the Chinese way of thinking. Beijing, being the capital city of China, is the ideal place to gain those much-coveted skills. One of the most fascinating things about Beijing is the mixture of modern life and age-old history. Our students especially enjoy their stay with their Chinese host families – they get a great chance to practise their language skills, and can enjoy real Chinese food. Beijing also offers great opportunities for trips to the countryside.”
Christopher Thebing, Kolumbus Sprachreisen, Germany

“For learning Mandarin Chinese, Beijing is the best place as people on the streets do not have a strong accent, so students can practise speaking. Besides the spoken language, Beijing has many cultural and historical sights, museums and temples and other well-known sightseeing spots (like the Great Wall, Summer Palace) as well as many bars and discos. Many students stay with host families, which probably is the most interesting experience and speeds up the learning success. Compared to other cities, Beijing offers more cultural and historical sights.”
Sabine Stambke, Amazing China, Germany

“Students go to Beijing because it is a large city with an endless list of things to see, do and experience. Students like the language, civilisation and people. It is impressively huge, modern, clean and easy to travel around.”
Alain Bertholet, Langues Vivantes, Belgium

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