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A Guide to “Street-Side Curiosities” in Beijing

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Walking around the streets of Beijing, you're constantly bombarded by an array of sounds, sights and smells, some of which you may not have become accustomed to yet – chòudòufu (臭豆腐) anybody? But, living here for too long, in a constant hurry to get here and there, many of us have forgotten about that initial sense of curiosity that once had us asking, "I wonder what that is." The following is a list of some of the ubiquitous objects and phenomenon around Beijing that mostly everyone has seen, but may not actually know much about.

Photo: nipic

1) Chinese Stone Guardian Lions
Stone Guardian Lions, shíshī  (石狮) – often mistakenly referred to as "Foo Dogs" – were traditionally made of marble, granite, iron or bronze and were placed outside of imperial palaces, imperial tombs, government offices, temples, the homes of the wealthy for protection. If you've seen these lions in Beijing recently, you might notice that they now tend to grace modern establishments and pretty much anywhere else willing to pay for a replica (which can be easily made from concrete and resin). Upon close inspection, you'll notice that the lions are not identical – the female has its left paw placed upon a playful cub, symbolising the cycle of life, while the male has his right paw upon a ball, xiùqiú (绣球), often carved with a geometric pattern that Westerners have dubbed the "Flower of Life". The female lion protects those who dwell within, while the male protects the structure itself. According to traditional fēngshui (风水), when an observer looks out from the entrance of a building, the lions should be facing in the same direction, with the male on the left and the female on the right.

2) Hutong Creatures
Anyone who frequents Beijing's hútòng (胡同) at night will eventually spot a small, slender and elusive mammalian creature running across the alleyway. Ostensibly, they are totally harmless, but that won't make you any less curious to know what the heck those things are! There are a few possibilities. Although a variety of polecats, weasels and mongoose inhabit China, most of them are confined to the southeastern regions of China. As for a northeastern variety – the marbled polecat is a strong possibility. With its dust-colored hair and lean, tube-like body, it is both equipped for blending in with the Beijing dust as well as the winding hutong environment. Yet another possibility – in the past few years, a number of pet shops, mostly along Gulou Dong Dajie (鼓楼东大街), have opened to customers in search of angora ferrets. The angora ferret is a mutation discovered among standard ferrets in a lab in Sweden.  These ferrets were sold to farms in Denmark, from where most of the Beijing pet stores buy theirs.  Like most mutations in nature, the angora ferrets have unique characteristics such as a longer body and higher weight but also come with the inability to produce milk for their young.  Due to this inability, they cannot survive in the wild.  But is it possible that some ferrets intentionally or unintentionally were released?  So just what are these hutong creatures, and will they survive? The debate continues...

3) Mapo Doufu
Mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐) is sometimes translated as "Pockmarked lady's tofu". No, not because of the spongy consistency of the tofu. According to Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, "Eugene Wu, the Librarian of the Harvard Yenching Library, grew up in Chengdu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pockmarked Ma's Bean Curd at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, that it actually caused sweat to break out."  And don't worry if you accidentally ordered too much of this Sichuan specialty; Mrs. Chiang also notes, "For some reason, mapo doufu tastes almost as good the second day as the first, so don't worry if there are leftovers." 

4) Beijing Subway System
Even if you came to Beijing with no knowledge of the Chinese language, chances are you have at least learned the word mén (门), which means gate or door. Also, there is a near one-hundred percent certainty that you've ridden the Beijing subway at least once. Did you notice that many of the subway stops end with the word men? Beijing was once home to an elaborate city wall – a feature distinctive of China's old cities. Another distinctive feature of China's city wall layout was the absence of a central "castle" or central bureaucratic headquarters. Instead, the administrative centre was spread over a large area with no overt focal point. The Chinese city usually had "inner" walls and "outer" walls separating different areas of the city. Beijing's wall was comprised of four rectangles: a wider outer city to the south, a narrow inner city to the north, the imperial city within the inner city, and finally the Forbidden City situated within the imperial city. The wall stood for 530 years before being totally removed in 1965 for political reasons as well as to make room for the second ring road.  On July 1st, 1965 the construction of Line 1 began and Line 2 followed in 1984. Although the wall no longer remains, the names of its gates still do. But does any fragment of the great city wall still exist? If you're ever near Beijing Railway Station, then head south to find the very last authentic piece of Beijing's city wall. 

Photo: chinasck

5) Chinese Lucky Cat
The Chinese Lucky Cat, as it turns out, is actually not Chinese at all.  Known as Maneki Neko, or zhāocáimāo(招财猫) in Chinese,this traditional ceramic object is a common Japanese symbol of good luck, dating back to the 1870s Meiji Era Japan and can be seen in any variety of shops and restaurant usually with an automated right arm moving up and down. The cat is not waving, as Westerners commonly believe. Rather, he is beckoning for good luck to come to the establishment. The Japanese beckon by holding up the hand with palm out and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up (Koreans do the same, but with the arm extended out, palm down). Sometimes both paws on a lucky cat are raised, but the reason is unclear. Some believe the left paw brings customers and the right paw brings good luck, but the opposite is also held to be true. There's yet another possibility: Maneki Nekos with beckoning left hands are used in drinking establishments for those who can hold their liquor, also called hidari-kiki, or, left-handed. And for all you Poke-fans out there, you might remember Meowth and his distinctive coin gathering abilities – he was designed specifically to look like Maneki Neko

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Keywords: Beijing curiosities street-side curiosities Beijing common sights in Beijing Chinese lucky cat Beijing Subway station names

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2 Comments ( Add your comment )

Ali F

This article opens the gates of China for visitors.

Jan 15, 2012 15:22

I love this. What great ideas and things to know!

Jan 15, 2012 15:20

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