Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Swallows of Beijing

There has been a settlement on the site of Beijing at least since the
Han dynasty, and if you believe the paleoanthropologists, since before
the last ice age (although as far as I know it is unlikely that the
hominids of Zhoukoudian were the ancestors of any modern people now
living). The city was established as Ji, the capital of the state of
Yan, during the Warring States period (5th century BCE). But Beijing
didn’t really get going until the tenth century or so, when it became
one of the regional capitals of the Liao dynasty. It has had many
names over the years, but one of the recurring ones is Yanjing, or
“Capital of Yan,” referring to its early history. But the name Yan
means “swallow,” and so it can also be thought of (especially by
literal-minded early Chinese learners, as I was when I first came
here) as the City of Swallows.

Another word which I learned on that first trip, and savored with the
same poetic literal-mindedness, was the verb “to stroll.” It is “san
bu,” literally, “to scatter one’s footsteps.” It was something we did
in the twilight, after the close of another scorchingly hot summer’s
day, escaping from airless apartments to wander through the streets in
the comparative cool. Everyone was out on the sidewalks, and you
could buy watermelons and spit out the seeds as you walked, or munch
various fried things on skewers. I don’t know that anybody sells
whole deep-fried sparrows on a stick any more, except in ersatz snack
streets like Wangfujing, and spitting watermelon seeds is probably
considered anti-social in a post-Olympic world. People used to come
out in their pajamas, perhaps fresh from a shower, if they were lucky
enough to have bathing facilities at home, with plastic slippers on
their feet; in fact, they used to walk along back from the public
showers in their pajamas, with an enameled tin basin full of bath
supplies. Beijing has smartened up so much that it is no longer quite
the thing, I think; but I have to say I miss the sight of some skinny
old guy with a bristling white brush-cut, badly shaven, in singlet and
blue striped pajama bottoms, ambling along the street, pulling a jerry-
rigged toy car by a piece of rope, with a toddler in split-bottomed
pants riding along like a king, gazing archly at everyone he passed.

Those split-bottomed pants are still worn by the not quite toilet-
trained; and another thing that hasn’t disappeared is the practice of
shaving the hair of very young children quite off in the summertime,
so that they really appear entirely genderless (but quite cool and
comfortable). I have seen a number of boys or possibly girls sporting
this look. Beijing isn’t any cooler now than it was then, and
people still come out in the evenings, but so many people live in
housing estates now that most of the strolling seems to happen in more
semi-private spaces; and in any event, the streets have been adapted
to car traffic in such a way that they can’t possibly be the gathering
places they once were, at least not out here in the newly built
suburbs. I should spend an evening in town one of these days to see
if it’s different.

Beijing was not named Yanjing for its swallows; but in fact it has
many, and they can often be seen in gyroscopic flight over the parks
and waterways of the city, doing their part to combat the insect
population. The sun sets late in Beijing in the summer, and the
swallows hunted well into the evening. As dusk deepened, in those
days, you would become aware of a new fluttering motion that had
replaced the sleek dancing dives of the hunting swallows. After dark,
the bug hunt was carried on by Beijing’s thousands of little bats.
The bat is a sign of good fortune in traditional China, because the
word for bat (the “fu” in “bianfu”) sounds like the word for good
fortune (fu), and their flight overhead was a kind of blessing on the
city as everyone gathered in for the night.


Anonymous said...

One of the original pleasures of a "camp" we have on an island off the New England coast was watching the swallows from our deck as they swooped and caught bugs. Then one year we came back and they did not. I saw one there the other day and I am hoping that bird has brought friends. And will stay.

Anonymous said...

When I think about those split pants for children in China, I always wonder why someone could not devise something similar for female hikers.