Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Guilin - Day 2 - Jingjiang Palace, Silver Cave

If I speak Mandarin, Look Like a Mandarin, Walk Like a Duck...Am I a Mandarin Duck?

semi-overcast 34 °C

Jingjiang Palace/Castle and Mausoleum was our first morning stop. This is one of the optional tour.
This palace belonged to King Jingjiang (not Emperor, of the Ming Dynasty, but his brother). During the 257 years from the building of the palace to the end of Ming Dynasty, 14 kings from 12 generations lived here.

One of the buildings in this palace complex that I didn't expect to find here was the Imperial Examination House (Gongyuan 贡院). I'm somewhat surprise because Guangxi is essential a political backwater (it's as far away from Beijing as it can get). Here lies one of the great Chinese invention. While the ancient Greek invented Democracy, Chinese come up with Meritocracy, which is embodied by the Imperial Exam for Civil Service. This Civil Service Exam created a level playing field, allowing the son of even a lowly blacksmith the opportunity to advance to the highest rank in the land: military general or chief minister of the imperial court (except for the top job). Birth-rights and social classes are irrelevant, only hard work and talents is counted for something. This idea originated by Confucius (circa 500 BC), and put into practise in the Sui Dynasty in 605 DC (existed a few centuries earlier in lesser forms). This is the 7th century Chinese version of the modern day Equal Job Opportunity Movement.

Confucianism empathises hierarchical relationship and harmony[1] (vertical power structure) while Democracy favours individual rights and expressions, competition and conflict (horizontal power structure), democracy wouldn't take off in China as long as Confucianism thrives. This is why the East never meets the West, or would they? I hope I see the day when they have a rendezvous in my lifetime. I hope so because I just want to live to 300 years old. Actually many societies of former British colonies like HK and Singapore already shows such marriage of the East and West, and gives birth to many interesting hybrid, colourful forms of government. Even China herself is changing. She's changing from a Mao suit into a business power suit lately. If you ask me (I know you won't, so I just ask you to ask me), I prefer her in an alluring qipao. Now has many suits and dresses in her humongous closet (plus a few dusty, spiderweb covered skeletons). The business suits may not look as fetching as qipao or as together as the Mao suit, but it puts 3 square meals on the table for all her kids. Get real, Mao suits don't work on China, or anyone else. You simply can't knock a decent power suit, can you? Call me company man, I like the suit.

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Ok, back from the tangent. The tour guide put our tour group members into the individual Examination Cubicle (see photo); they even handed us with Examination Papers. On the side of fold-up Examination Table (it opens like those in a beer bar counter) is the calligraphy brush and ink plots. The Imperial Exam Papers contains many questions that tested the scholar of his general knowledge. In our mock paper, it contained general trivia regarding Guilin and our tour.
In the ancient time, for the three day gruelling exercise, this cubicle will be your examination room, dining room, bed room, and toilet. Yep, they provided the scholars the chamberpots for their not so literary, but substantial outputs. That's why there's an oil lamp in the niche of the back wall so the scholars wouldn't step into the chamberpots at night. Or allowed them to burn the mid-night oil, literally, to the original meaning of the expression.

This is the first time I hold a calligraphy brush in more than 30 years, with trembling hands, I thought I scribbled as much as I can on the papers and take it home as souvenir. I should enjoy looking back my calligraphic doodles that only I can read (much worse than the doctors'). Half way through my papers, the Imperial Examiner Clerk snatched it away as he yelled "Brushes down! Brushes down!"
As it turned out, they took the Imperial Exam Papers of the whole tour group (25 people) for assessment. They graded my papers with the highest mark and therefore passed this exam. I guess while others are busily posing for photos, I was busy writing. What's new?

They dressed me up in an official uniform of a newly appointed bureaucrat - a Mandarin (not a fruit. I'm not fruity) of the Imperial Ming Dynasty. As Guilin and this area is a county-level district, I was officiated the rank of licentiate (xiucai 秀才 - loosely translated as Budding Talent) in passing this exam - the lowest rank of the scholar-official. This instant-noodle-time public fame might just make the trip worthwhile. I kid. The photo ops just put meaning into my pathetic life. I jest. About the meaning, not the pathetic comment. That remains true as gold.


Dressed in my smart, sunday-best Mandarin gown I thanked the 'public' for congratulating me. To complete the make up, I would have to shave the front half of my scalp into half moon shape and wear a queue that was stipulated by law in the Ming Dynasty. Leave the queue or lose the head. Your call.

We headed for the Yinzi or Silver Cave in the afternoon, passing through the amazing scenery of Yangshuo. The satellite picture shows 20,000 limestone peaks in the Guilin/Yangshuo area. With so many limestone peaks, it's not hard to imagine the number of limestone caves exist. The Silver Cave is one of the popular one.

The first cave I visited was a cave in Sydney (near Wollongong city) back when I was in the later stage of growing taller, and more pimply. The visit didn't leave me with a good impression. First (bad) impression lasts and it lasted for a few decades. Nothing wrong with that cave, I guess caving is just not my cup of tea. Needless to say, my reaction of going to visit another cave is somewhere between lukewarm and tepid (I don't care for lukewarm tea or beer for that matter).

Don't know if it was the low expectation, the Silver Cave wowed me all the way with its myriad of limestone formations, one feature outdid another, and its size is far exceeded that of my first cave (as far as I can remember. And we tend to remember things much larger and fancier than they actually are when we are small). Just when I thought nothing could top what I had seen so far as we came to near the end of the cave, something quite unexpected appeared. A group of soaring limestone columns and formations around a bend were as good as anything I have seen so far, but what makes this spot so unexpected and unique was a pool of water in front of this formation. The pool of water isn't very large (small than an Olympic swimming pool), and is only few inches deep. It's the perfect mirror reflection of limestone formations above it that is really bumped it up a notch to a new league of uniqueness. As I looked down into the pool of water, the plunging depth of limestone structures is reflected as deep as its soaring height, its ceiling becomes its floor. The illusion is so complete that I felt woozy from vertigo - the same deal I get when looking down onto a street from, say, a 15 storey window. I instinctually stepped back from the water edge, fearing that I may plummet into a pool of a few inches of water. The whole effect is eerily magical. Surreal. Actually quite frightening. Judging from other awe-struck looking, jaw-dropped tourists passing through here, I knew I didn't mistaken vertigo for awe-inspiring. Maybe we all do.

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This photo could hardly justify with what I depicted above. It does a good job in serving as an example to budding photographers of how one can fail miserably to capture the grandeur of the scenery. The cave limits how far I can stand away to take in the whole thing. A fish lens would do a better job (with a nice distortion). Also in order to capture both the limestone formations and the water reflection, a portrait (or vertical) orientation is called for, but it also ensures that it will lose out on the width/breadth of this thing. Even with the vertical format, I managed to only take in about 2/3 of the view above water, and less than 1/5 of the mirror reflection. In any event, no technology allows you to encapsulate the haunting quality of this place. In the words of the youth, real kewl...(don't forget to nod while swaying your bod when you say that, for max effect).

After dinner in our hotel in Yangshuo, we made our way to West Street. This street is also known as "Yangshuo's Lan Kwai Fong". LKF (Lan Kwai Fong) has became synonymous with a district in Asia (typically Chinese) that has a concentration of trendy, westernised types of cafe, beer bars, and restaurants that draws Western customers, tourists and expats alike. Holland Village, also called a Singaporean LKF, is another victim of such name calling. The following KTV bar (common in Asia) decides to cement this idea and call their business LKF, which is obviously a saleable brand name.

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It's actually more than a Yangshuo's LKF. Besides drinking, eating and dining, there are large number of souvenir shops, and accommodation, which makes it much larger than your typical LKF. "Chinatown" would be a more apt description.

One of the local speciality is the beer fish, and it isn't hard to find in Yangshuo and even easier in West Street. We didn't get to try as all our meals are provided. You can also hire a bike here to watch the drop dead gorgeous scenery, and judging from what drove past me, tandem bikes are quite popular.
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[1] In the Beijing Olympic Game Opening Ceremony, in the conceptual performance of the Chinese invention of the movable type printing, a Chinese character popped up. In case you wonder, the Chinese word is '和' or 'Harmony'. Of all the words in the Chinese dictionary, this one is chosen. This also fits in well with what I said about East and West, and the 2 Chinese religions in my entry "Two Chinese Ancestral Festivals"

The West believes that out of competitions comes progress. The (Far) East is interested in harmony more than progress. In fact, they value tradition, which is antipathetic to progress. This is the two cultural features.

But let's look at history. In the 18th to 20th Centuries sees the ascent of the West accompanied by much conflicts in the forms of social upheavals, Industrial Revolution, colonialism, nationalism, 2 world wars, ideological struggles, and Cold war. These are all expressions of competitions and conflicts. 21st Century sees the rise of Asia, and it's a century of globalisation where cooperation (aka harmony), not competitions, is a better way to go.

Of course, competitions and cooperation both occur hand in hand in all cultures and eras, I'm just talking about the broad strokes, the main themes, the big drivers.

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