The Debating Monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

The Sera Monastery is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism. The others are the Drepung and Ganden Monasteries. They are dedicated to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and are, or at least were, university monasteries. In earlier times life in Tibet revolved around the monastery. The monasteries played the role of religious center, education center with schools and universities, hospitals, marketplaces, and so on. Even now, much of a young person’s education can still be had at a monastery. The Sera Monastery was built in 1419 on a hillside in the north part of Lhasa.

One of the unique things about Sera is it’s long tradition of debating. As part of the their training, monks participate in a series of debates. These debates are held in a courtyard of crushed stone. Senior monks grill junior monks on various doctrine. The junior monks are seated, while the monks questioning their knowledge of Buddhist scripture fire questions at them, accompanied by dramatic hand slapping. The hand slapping is a signal for the seated monk to respond.

Debating monks

Debating monks

20120513-DSC_8690The debates are held each day. Though it seems pretty entertaining to the visitor, it is serious business and an important part of the training of these monks. Tibetan Buddhist monks are never without their prayer beads. In fact, most lay people in Tibet also carry prayer beads.

The debates last one to one and a half hours. It was noisy and the air was charged with energy.

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Junior monk debating

Junior monk debating

The short video below best shows how these debates are conducted. I found this religious training fascinating. I have always loved Buddhist temples and monasteries for the peace and tranquility that I feel there. This was a little different because it was so noisy and lively.

The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

Eating Seafood in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Tianjin for the first time. I have to admit that previously I had not had a great desire to go to Tianjin. I always imagined it as a big, dirty, industrial city. But I guess things have changed over the years. I had a couple days in Beijing where I met some friends so we decided to take the new bullet train out to Tianjin. It only took 28 minutes.

I had a former graduate student who was from Tianjin. Her parents were kind enough to pick us up at the train station, show us around the city, and feed us well. For lunch they took us to a fabulous seafood restaurant called 鹏天阁酒楼 péngtiāngé jiǔlóu. It was a large, well decorated restaurant. On the ground floor were dozen of large fish tanks full of turtles, lobster, shrimp, all kinds of fish, and so on. There was also many varieties of fish and other seafood on ice. There were also refrigerated cases full of side dishes. The way these kinds of restaurants work is you walk around, followed by a hostess, and you tell her what you want. You even select the specific fish you would like to eat. They write everything down, and in some cases, net the seafood right there on the spot for you.

Tanks full of live seafood

Tanks full of live seafood

Netting our selected fish

Netting our selected fish

Selecting other dishes

Selecting other dishes

After we selected our dishes we were ushered upstairs to a private dinning room. At most nicer restaurants it is common for larger private parties to have your own private dinning room. You will usually have a waitress assigned specifically to your room.

A typical private dinning room

A typical private dinning room

The Chinese are gracious hosts. I had worked with this graduate student for several years, had hired her, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and so on. Her parents were probably feeling somewhat indebted to me, so this their way of saying ‘thank you.’ As is usual in this kind of situation, they ordered way more food than we could eat. This is also the Chinese way of showing respect for a guest. In total they ordered 11 dishes. Some of those dishes are below. Chinese restaurant food have notoriously creative names and they are difficult to translate. I have provided more literal translations to these dishes and sometimes have avoided the more difficult to translate phrases.

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried  four-sided beans)

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried four-sided beans)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel roles)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel rolls)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè
(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ
(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

It was a really memorable meal. Chinese dining is a group experience with all dishes placed in the center of the table on a lazy Susan. Everyone then serves themselves from these dishes. Everything is communal. It is great to eat wonderful food with good company.

And I quite liked the city of Tianjin.

Breakfast in Beijing

I love Chinese breakfast food, especially what you get on the streets, such as 煎饼 jiānbing. A few months ago I was in Beijing with some good friends and they took me to a simple little restaurant for breakfast. Nothing special, but nonetheless delicious. This is pretty typical fare for breakfast in the North of China.

That morning we had 素包子 sù bāozi (vegetarian teamed dumplings), 油条 yóutiáo (fried bread sticks), 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed meat dumplings), and hot 豆浆 dòujiāng (soybean milk).

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

包子 bāozi is a generic term for steamed bread. They can be simply steamed bread with no filling or they can come with a variety of fillings. Vegetarian ones usually have spinach, mushrooms, and a number of other kinds of vegetables. Meat fillings are usually pork and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and will often have scallions, or mushrooms. They differ by region as well.

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

You can find 油条 yóutiáo all over China. They are commonly eaten for breakfast, either alone, or as part of another dish. For example, 煎饼 jiānbing will often have a 油条 inside. It is often eaten with 粥 zhōu in the south. Sometimes it is cut up into chunks and tossed into the 粥 zhōu sort of like croutons.

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo are a variety of 饺子 jiǎozi that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar. are a variety of 饺子 that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar.

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 dòujiāng is simply soy milk, but is often very fresh. In the Winter it is usually served hot in a bowl, like in the photo. It is a great way to warm up in the morning.

Below are a couple photos of 油条 yóutiáo in 煎饼  jiānbing. In the first photo you can see it just under the 煎饼 and in the second photo it is rolled up in it.

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

20120228-DSCN1432

Pop Culture China!: A Book Review

ref=sr_1_1

 

Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio.

I’m doing some research on Chinese pop culture, so this seemed like a good book to read. When I received it, I immediately noticed the heavy, textbook feel to it.EVen the layout seems very textbook-ish. It really is a reference work for libraries and maybe specialists. The author is a lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of London. The book is thorough, and as one might expect from this kind of book, the writing is academic in nature. It is best used as a reference work, and would be a bit heavy to read through from cover to cover. However, I did read it all the way through and found it to be well written and well organized.

Anyone who is interested in such things as the development of rock music in China, the evolution of film, the role of newspapers in Chinese society, how Chinese spend their leisure time, and so on, will find this book a valuable resource. Each chapter ends with a section called “A to Z” which serves as a kind of review of the major names, terms, and events discussed in the chapter. I found this useful. It is obvious that the book is well researched and a valuable contribution to our understanding of pop culture in an ever changing China. It’s a welcome addition to my library, but for most people I would recommend you check it out at your local library.

What Chinese Want: A Book Review

ref=sib_dp_pt

Doctoroff, Tom. 2012. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom Doctoroff has opinions and he isn’t afraid to express them. There is no beating around the bush here. I appreciated his direct style and getting right to the point, though he has a tendency to oversimplify things. There is nothing worse than dancing around the issue to the point that you’re not sure where the author stands. Not so with Doctoroff. He also tends to overgeneralize, saying things such as :

“Chinese fear chaos; they are unable to imagine social order without autocratic control.”(p. 26)
“In China, no one invests in status brands unless everyone recognizes them.”(p. 76)
“. . . the imitation and piracy of brands–has become a national point of pride.”(p. 79)
“. . . there are few Chinese labels actually preferred by mainland consumers.”(p. 86)

This may be true for the emerging middle class, but what about the millions who are happy to have consumer goods, period. For them, the cheapest brand will do.

Of the Chinese education system, he says, “It’s primary role is to advance the interests of the nation, as defined by the Communist Party.”(p. 126)

I know many faculty members at Chinese universities that would strongly disagree with this, especially those in the humanities. Again, he is overgeneralizing.

“Surgeons will still be bribed by patient’s relatives to ensure adequate care. Medical equipment will still be manned by inadequately trained and poorly compensated staff. Local banks, while dependable for low-end transactions, will offer no investment alternatives beyond basic savings and high-risk, opaque mutual funds.”(p. 152)

A rather pessimistic viewpoint. China has progressed in practically every area of society in the past 30 years. I see no reason to believe that things won’t continue to change and improve.

“On a personal level, the Chinese admire–are even intoxicated by–US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.”(p. 195)

Again, this is debatable. I have not met too many Chinese that are enamored by Western individualism. Most find it rather odd.

Despite Doctoroff’s tendency to overgeneralize, and his frequent repetition, he is not afraid to challenge the reader; he makes you think, ask questions. Some of what he says may even anger you, especially if you are native Chinese. All of this is okay. I like someone with an opinion even if I don’t agree with it. The best books are those that challenge you.

In sum, this book provides a nice look into Chinese consumer culture. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the dramatic changes in society in China today. I recommend it, especially for those interested in advertising and marketing and want to understand what’s going on in China.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Book Review

ref=dp_image_0Dunlop, Fuchsia. 2008. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

First off I should say that I love eating in China. In fact, that is what I most look forward to when I am heading to China. The variety and quality of the various cuisines in China is truly extraordinary. I really related to this book, not only for the eating adventures, but also because I also was once a young student in China trying to figure things out around me. Dunlop was a young girl studying Chinese in Chengdu when she became distracted by the heady smells and tastes that surrounded her. She enrolled in the local cooking school and dove headfirst into the wonderful world of Chinese cuisine, specifically 川菜 chuāncài, or Sichuan cooking, in her case.

What makes this book so readable, and persuasive, is Dunlop’s ability to engage the reader with personal and intimate stories of regular people and homestyle cooking.  As a speaker of Chinese she is able to share experiences with ordinary Chinese that would not be possible without a knowledge of the language. For example, she befriends the cook at the local noodle shop and eventually persuades him to give her the recipe for his famous dandan noodles, which she shares with the reader. I know I have said this before in other book reviews, but knowing Chinese really opens up all kinds of doors and allows one to experience a China that would not be possible if you did not know the language.

She correctly states on page 206, “Food has always been of exceptional importance in Chinese culture. It is not only the currency of medicine, but of religion and sacrifice, love and kinship, business relationships, bribery, and even, on occasion, espionage. ‘To the people, food is heaven,’ goes the oft-repeated saying.” Though the book focusses on Sichuan cuisine, she does give insight into China’s other culinary traditions as well.

The book is engaging, entertaining, and very informative. It is obvious that she has done her homework and knows her stuff. She gets added credibility because she experiences all this first hand while she lived in China and on subsequent trips back after returning to the UK.

The reader comes away from this book fascinated with Chinese food, and really hungry. The food she describes is the real thing. This is a well written memoir and I highly recommend it.

Fuchsia Dunlop is an active food writer and blogger and is the author of at least three Chinese cookbooks Her blog can be found here:

http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/