Great Unsolved Mystery: Bear Claw?

What the what?
What the what?

I’m hoping some of you can help me out here.  I saw this thing on the streets of Beijing, lying on top of a table full of inexpensive jewelry and other trinkets.  The vendors did not speak English and I do not speak Chinese, so I could not ask them to explain why anyone would buy what looks like a bear claw.  (I’m not even sure that’s what it is.)

Do any of you know what this is and why someone would buy it?  I’m hoping to be enlightened!

Guqin Lesson

learning to play guqin
learning to play guqin


For more pictures from my guqin lessons, see my previous photographic post here.

One of the highlights of my recent visit to United International College in Zhuhai, China was my introduction to guqin (aka guchin) music.   Our group of visitors was treated to a brief introductory lesson in playing this stringed instrument.  The guqin has been played for thousands of years in China, and it is considered a refined instrument for gentlemen and scholars.

I can understand why.  We only had time to listen to one song played by our teacher, but even that brief introduction induced a meditative, contemplative feeling in me.



This is not the kind of music that makes you want to dance!  For me, the experience seemed closer to a yoga class.  The instructor made sure we were sitting with our feet firmly placed on the ground.  Furthermore, she checked our posture to make sure our backs and shoulders were upright, but not tense.   My initial impression was that if I practiced the guqin regularly, I would feel more grounded, more disciplined, but also simultaneously more uplifted.

Check out some samples of guqin music here:

Have you listened to or played guqin music before?  What are your reactions to it?

Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China is indeed as great as everyone says it is.   Visiting it recently, however, made me aware of a few other things besides its greatness:

  • It is visited by A LOT of people!  I was overwhelmed by the thronging hordes of humanity on the wall the day I was there.  I have no idea what the numbers were, but the wall was so crowded that I could barely move.  At times, I became claustrophobic and had to force myself to breathe.
  • You can see in the photos that the visibility was not great.  The weather could be described as partly cloudy, mostly polluted.  Alas, Beijing and its surrounding areas are marred by serious pollution, which imparts a constant gray haze to the area.  Partly because of the lack of visibility and partly because of the teeming hordes mentioned above, I didn’t take as many photos as I normally would have.
  • I didn’t realize until visiting the Great Wall that I am Exotic.  My travelling companions and I were distinct minorities in terms of our whiteness.  Furthermore, my companions have very blond hair, and I have curly hair.  All of these things apparently make us fascinating to a lot of Chinese people who aren’t used to white folks.  We were often stared at, and sometimes people asked us if they could take our pictures.  In one of the photos below you can see me with a young Chinese woman.  She had asked me if she could get a picture with me, and I said yes.  Then her brother wanted one with me.  Then her father wanted another one.  I felt like a celebrity!  This sort of reaction happened frequently at the major tourist sites in and near Beijing.
  • But then I came home, and now nobody asks for my picture any more.  😦  The moral of the story is that everybody is exotic–somewhere on the planet.





How to Be Rich and Happy, Chinese Style

I’d like to make an announcement:  my wealth will be increasing soon, as will be happiness and general well-being.  How do I know this?  Because my new Chinese souvenirs told me so.  Chinese culture is replete with symbolism, so it is no surprise that most of the souvenirs and gifts I bought when I was in China have symbolic significance.

Take, for example, this framed embroidery of two fish.  My sources tell me that fish represent abundance, or “more of.”  Therefore, by buying and displaying this embroidery, I will surely gain more wealth in the near future.   (One source claim that black and red koi more specifically represent wealth, so it looks like I made a good investment here.)


Fish mean I'm gonna be rich!
Fish mean I’m gonna be rich!


I also bought some jade jewelry.  Jade is BIG in China and has a great deal of significance attached to it.


Happiness and Health are MIne
Happiness, Health, and Moral Virtue are Mine


The meaning of jade

My tour guide told our group that jade has some health benefit because it contains some sort of beneficial mineral. (I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention because I don’t remember the details.)   She also said Chinese women often wore jade bangles because it brought fertility.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about jade and China:

“Jade occupies a special place in Chinese artistic culture, valued as gold is in the West but hallowed with even loftier moral connotations. The Shuowenjiezi (“Discussions of Writings and Explanations of Character”) of Xu Shen defined jade (yu) as follows:

A stone that is beautiful, it has five virtues. There is warmth in its lustre and brilliance; this is its quality of kindness; its soft interior may be viewed from the outside revealing [the goodness] within; this is its quality of rectitude; its tone is tranquil and high and carries far and wide; this is its quality of wisdom; it may be broken but cannot be twisted; this is its quality of bravery; its sharp edges are not intended for violence; this is its quality of purity. (Translation adapted from Zheng Dekun)”

Click here for source.

That’s an awful lot of benefits to be had for an earring and a pendant.  What a deal!  Plus, the silver design in the middle of both the pendant and the earrings is the Chinese character for happiness.  That means this jade will bring me happiness as well as health and  moral virtue.  I can’t wait!

But that’s not all.  I also bought these chubby feet:

Happiness and Wealth
Happiness and Wealth

My sources told me that the feet represent satisfaction with life, and the engraved fish on them represent wealth (as previously discussed.)  I figure it can’t hurt to double-up on my good luck charms.

Door of life
Door of life


Just to be on the safe side, though, I walked through the door of life to bring me more benefits.  This gate/door is found at one of the Ming Tombs I wrote about earlier.  I have to admit I didn’t completely follow what my tour guide was saying, but I do remember that she said to definitely NOT go through the door from the other side.  That way, the door represents death and will bring evil into your life.  (I did see one poor woman walk through it from the wrong side.  She must not have had a tour guide.  I hope she’s OK.)  On the other hand, walking through it from this side (the side you see in the picture) makes it a door of life (or something like that) and brings all sorts of wonderful benefits.

And since a person can never have too much good luck, I also touched a few of the knobs on this door (found at the Forbidden City)  This door is supposed to bring great luck to whomever touches the knob(s) because there are nine rows of nine knobs and nine is an auspicious number.

9 x 9 = good fortune
9 x 9 = good fortune

With all of these symbols working in my favor, I figure I’ve got to have a good year, right?  I’ll keep you posted on the rise and fall of my fortunes.


If you know more about Chinese symbolism, please feel free to chime in.  It’s a fascinating topic!


How to Die in Style: The Ming Tombs of China

While in Beijing, I signed up for a two-day organized tour.    Part of that tour was a visit to the Ming Tombs, the burial site for the Ming Dynasty emperors (1368-1644).   I admit that I yawned a bit when I saw that we were going to visit a tomb.  I have never found visiting dead people particularly interesting, and I was expecting the tombs to look something  like this:


Richard III tomb

Tomb of Richard III

click here for photo source.

I was surprised, therefore, to discover that the Ming Tomb site for 13 emperors in fact covers an area of approximately 46 square miles.  The enormity of the site cannot be captured in a photo.    Like so many things that are Chinese, the scale of these mausoleums is hard for me to grasp.  Each of the 13 emperors has his own site, arranged something like this:


map of Ming tombs

For source of photo, click here.

This site was carefully chosen because of the protective qualities of the mountains, as well as numerous other qualities according to feng shui–the details of which I admit are beyond me at this point.

We visited just one of the tombs-Changling.  This was the burial site of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle.  His personal title was Zhu Di, but he chose his reign title, Yongle, because it means “Perpetual Happiness.”  I suspect, however, that the hundreds or thousands of Chinese people he had tortured and killed during his reign may have disagreed about the happiness of his reign.

Yongle’s reputation is mixed.  On the one hand, he was known for his cruelty.  On the other hand, he was known for his power.  (Perhaps there is a relationship between these two qualities?)  It was he who moved the capital of China to Beijing, and it was he who created the Forbidden City.  A despot who created an advanced network of spies on his own people, he also brought about economic, educational and military advancements that benefited the Chinese people.

I was surprised to learn that the exact location of his body is unknown.  He was buried somewhere in the wooded mountain that you can see in the pictures below, but nobody has been able to find his body or all the loot that went with it.

The Chinese believed that in the afterlife, people took up similar roles and statuses as they did when they were alive.  Therefore, the family of the deceased made sure to provide the dead person with all of the goods he or she would need in the afterlife, including furniture, artwork, etc.

They also, unfortunately, believed that people needed companions, so they often buried the emperors’ concubines or other lovely women along with them–even though the concubines were still alive.

For more information on the Ming Tombs, the Ming rulers and burial practices of the period, check out this wonderful website on the subject:  click here.


Sex Report from China

I was at dinner last week in a restaurant in Zhuhai, China when the conversation turned to sex.   Along with a group of other academics from Minnesota, I was  attending a teaching seminar sponsored by a university in Zhuhai.  Some of the undergraduate students of this university were helping our group with translation, transportation, and other logistics.

I sat next to one of these undergraduates, a male, at dinner.  We were chatting casually over Tsingtao beers, and I asked the young man what he did for fun in his spare time.  He mentioned video games.  I asked if he had a girlfriend, and he said “yes, of course.”  Then he mentioned casually that he sometimes went with her to a budget hotel outside of the city for privacy.  He said these budget sex hotels were a booming business because students did not have any privacy in the dorms and they could not afford regular hotels.  I just nodded and smiled and we went on to discuss his major and career aspirations.

The conversation was so casual and off-the-cuff that I was not even sure if I understood him correctly.  Or maybe he was pulling my leg?  I was curious to see if I could find more information on the internet about this phenomenon and I came across this article from Radio Netherlands  which seems to confirm what the student was telling me.

“China’s budget hotels used to target small business travellers, but their clientele nowadays is a rather different one. Cheap hotel rooms have become the space where the Chinese can pursue sexual freedom. Sexologist Xiaoliang Zeng writes on budget hotels and sexual liberation in China.”

I can’t say that I have been to any of these budget hotels, so my reporting is incomplete, dear reader.  However, I did stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel in Beijing, which wasn’t particularly cheap.  I was a little surprised to find that my hotel room offered not only coffee, tea, and peanuts, but also this collection of condoms, “pleasure enhancers” and a “happy vibrations” toy:



Perhaps these items are now standard fare in hotels, but I have never noticed them before. Have you?

Clearly, the issue of sex, hotels, and China is one that needs more investigative reporting and perhaps a detailed sociological analysis.    Perhaps I should apply for a research grant so I can enlighten the world further on this subject….