Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, restaurant reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”
For many of my friends, I am their “China person.” Questions about Chinese politics, questions about Chinese culture, questions about good Chinese restaurants, they all come to me. But it is the latter – good Chinese restaurants – that I feel most obligated to answer correctly.
So when my friend Tanya randomly said to me “I want good Chinese noodles,” I went to work, researching and asking friends who work in Manhattan’s Chinatown, what was there number one pick for noodles. One name that kept coming up was Yiwanmen, or in Chinese characters, 一碗面, “A Bowl of Noodles.” Seemed like a must try.
Yiwanmen, on Mott street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has the look of a faux hole-in-the wall spot, with wood paneling on the outside in an attempt at making it look old even though it opened in 2017. Inside, a small dining area with three tables and a few side seats, its clear that Yiwanmen is too clean to be a true hole-in-the wall. But don’t let that distract you from the noodles, which are delicious, authentic and not to be missed.
Yiwanmen makes the smart, strategic decision of not offering too many noodle dishes, a total of 11 with only six being noodle soups. And while Yiwanmen presents itself as a Chongqing noodle spot (it’s chef is from Chongqing), my eyes – and stomach – gravitated to its more northeastern noodle fare, namely the hongshao beef noodle soup. Hongshao, a type of slow braising technique using fermented bean paste common in northern and eastern China, is not usually associated with Chongqing, a city smackdab in the middle of China that embraces Sichuan spicy as its flavor of choice. Should I go with something outside of the chef’s native city? I decided to take the risk. I ordered the hongshao.
And thank goodness I did. The pieces of beef explode with the sweet, savory flavor of the hongshao, and because it was slow cooked, the beef melted in my mouth, making chewing largely optional. The broth, a touch greasy, was flavorful withfresh cilantro and the noodles were perfect – not too chewy and they did not stick together. The chef may be from Chongqing, but he obviously is a master of all of China’s noodles. Although one noodle not on the menu is the famous thick, pulled noodle (la mian, 拉面) of northwest China. But given the ubiquitousness of those noodles throughout Chinatown these days, it was nice to find a place that shined the spotlight on China’s other noodles. And at $9 for a big bowl of noodles, Yiwanmen is at the perfect price point.
My friend also ordered the jianbing, a crepe-like sandwich sold on the streets of Beijing. I have never been a fan of jianbing so I cannot speak to whether Yiwanmen makes a good one. But if it was me (and hopefully it will be me again very soon at Yiwanmen), I would stick with the noodles. The fact that the place is called “Bowl of Noodles” in Chinese and not “Plate of Crepe-like Sandwich” is telling.
One thing to do before you go – make sure you aren’t wearing your nice clothes, like my friend who wore her silk dress. Drops of noodle soup just gets on you even if you try to be careful. Other choice is to wear a bib. But no matter what, when you are in the mood for noodles, get yourself to Yiwanmen.
Yiwanmen 150 Mott Street (between Grand & Broome Street) New York, NY 10013
October was my dad’s first trip to China. But by the second
day in Beijing, he remarked “these people are always eating!” It’s true –
Chinese people are always eating. And
eating amazing food to boot. So the number one take away from this post is, if
you see a line of Chinese people forming around a food stand or in a crowded restaurant
– you need to go to that place! Generally,
21 million people can’t be wrong. And don’t be afraid to eat the food, even if
they are selling it on the street. The Beijing government has become fastidious
about the cleanliness of street vendors.
With Beijing being the birthplace of some of China’s most iconic dishes and snacks, it is culinary dream. So if something looks good, try it. But just to give a little bit of direction to the first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy never misses out on when visiting Beijing.
Baozi – 包子
Baozi is a little piece of heaven here on earth. And I have
never understood why it hasn’t become more of a thing in places like New York
City. Luckily baozi can be found on almost every street corner in Beijing –
either at the window of a small restaurant or from a baozi hawker. Baozi is
essentially a steamed, large, bready dumpling that can be eaten at any time of
day. Inside this breaded goodness is a filling that can be anything – pork,
beef, lamb, egg, an assortment vegetables. The bun that surrounds the filling
often gets soaked in the filling’s sauce, making for a savory experience.
Zhajiangmian – a noodle dish with a tangy pork and bean sauce
– is the first thing I try to find after landing in Beijing and its often the
last thing I eat before leaving. Nothing is more Beijing than zhajiangmian and,
sort of like bagels outside of New York City, it never tastes as good anywhere
else in the world. You can get
zhajiangmian in lots of places in Beijing but the place that I think is the
best is Xincheng Xiaomianguan (新城削面管).
There is one in the Dashilar hutong area and one just south of the Drum Tower.
Likely they are elsewhere in the city. But if you can’t find it, just ask your
hotel where you can get some zhajiangmian nearby.
Jianbing – 煎饼
I am not a fan of jianbing, but most people are and it is quintessentially
Beijing. So it is a must try and tried fresh. The base is a very light and
fluffy crepe and when it gets firm enough, a tangy, hot sauce is washed over
it, an egg cracked on top and eventually scallions added. Sometimes a fried
bread stick is also added. Once cooked, it is folded and ready to be wolfed
down for a delectable treat.
Peking/Beijing Duck –
Eating Peking Duck in Beijing is not a cliché – it is a
must! And it’s hard to find a bad place to eat it. Basically look for a crowded
Peking duck restaurant and go in. If you can’t find one nearby, then head to
Quanjude, first founded in 1864, makes a mean, delicious duck. Some might turn up their noses at the fact they
are now a chain, but whatever. You aren’t in Beijing to be cool; you are there
to eat good food and Quanjude offers great duck. If you have a bit more money
to burn, there is Da Dong (大董)
which serves splendid duck in a higher-end setting that is an experience to say
the least. I prefer the one in by Worker’s Stadium（工体）with its neon lights and plastic,
life-size horses in galloping poses throughout the restaurant.
Lamb Hotpot (火锅)
In the United States, when people think of hot pot, they
often think of the super spicy version from Sichuan. But hotpot is also very
much a Beijing thing, with the focus being lamb. Additionally, Beijing hotpot
can have a spicy broth or a non-spicy broth. A simmering pot of the broth cooks
in the middle of the table, with raw meat, vegetables and starch ordered to be cook
in the broth once it starts boiling. It is best to go with a group so as to
taste as much as possible. So if you are traveling with friends and family or a
tour, grab a few people and go. If you are a meat eater, be sure to order the lamb
slices. Potatoes, tofu, fish balls, chrysanthemum leaves and rice noodles are
some of my favorites to throw in the pot as well. Once cooked, you can dip them
into the sesame sauce that will be provided.
Beijing Yogurt (老北京酸奶)
When one thinks of China, one does not immediately think “dairy.”
But in Beijing, yogurt has been sold for centuries and is a rather exquisite treat
to try while wandering the hutongs. Unlike U.S. yogurt, it is drinkable and you
eat it using a straw. It is also unique in that it is sweet, but not overly
sweet, with a tinge of the sour. It’s hard to describe why it is delicious
which means, eat it.
This post could go on forever about all the scrumptious things to eat in Beijing. The point is, in Beijing, eating is half the fun; actually, it’s probably 75% of the fun. So just try everything. And if you didn’t eat one of the things listed above, don’t stress about it. As long as you ate something good, that’s all that matters!
But did you discover some edible delightness that didn’t make it to this list? Or found a restaurant that is a must to visit? If so, we would love to hear about it so please share in the comments section below.
Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic
series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious
aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews,
or anything else that could be considered “fun.”
Few cities have seen as much change as Beijing. When I lived
there in the late 1990s, farmers still entered the city with mule-drawn carts to
sell their harvest on some random corner in downtown Beijing. They could do
that then because many of the farms were just outside of the fourth ring road.
Today, fruits and vegetables are largely bought in supermarkets. Flashy office
buildings fill the skyline and luxury cars line the roads. In less than two
decades, Beijing has transformed from a sleepy capital city into a major,
But echos of the past still fill the streets and tourists –
if they know where to look – can still see customs that are centuries old. Old
men still walk their birds every morning; candied hawthorn sticks are still
hawked by street sellers; and women practice their taichi early in the morning
in Beijing’s various parks. For a first time visitor, here are some things that
China Law & Policy thinks should
not be missed.
Jingshan Park at Dawn
Here is a secret about Beijing. Although it is a city of
over 21 million people, you can have a little bit of it to yourself very early
in the morning. So learn to love your jetlag and just get up when your body
tells you to, which, for most people traveling from the United States, will be around
dawn. One place you want to visit that early in the morning is Jingshan Park. Jingshan
Park sits right behind the Forbidden City. The hill that is the park’s defining
feature was created from the dirt that was dug up to make the Imperial Palace’s
moat, and it offers some of the most spectacular views of Beijing. As soon as
you enter the park, follow the signs that take you to the top of the hill. In a
few hours, the hill will be a mad house but at 7 in the morning you could
easily be the only one at the top. Enjoy the silence, the view and the light
breeze across your face. Just to the south you will see the shimmering yellow
rooves of the Forbidden City – on a sunny morning, the rooves will glow. But
even on a cloudy or rainy day the view is not to be missed. And don’t forget to
look at the other views – on the north side you will see the Drum and Bell
towers; to the west will be the white pagoda of Houhai. Enjoy it for as long as
you like, knowing that for hundreds of years, others have shared in this view. Then
walk down and watch the senior set doing their taichi exercises.
Walk the Hutongs
Hutongs – the alleyways where Beijing residents have lived
since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – are unique to northern China. No other
place in the world has such architecture and it is a pity to not spend some
time exploring these lanes. At one point the entire city was made up of hutongs
but unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s desire to make Beijing into a
“modern” city for the 2008 Olympics, many of the hutongs were demolished for
large, non-descript apartment housing. However, there are still some hutongs
left to explore where you can see how everyday life has been lived for
centuries. One hutong area is the between the Drum Tower and the Lama Temple.
This area has become westernized and you will find bars, coffee shops and
high-end restaurants that cater to the expat crowd. But I do enjoy sitting in
Café Confucius, having a nice latte with their cat, and watching everyday life
pass by. If your travels do not take you to that area, you can also explore the
hutongs just south of Tiananmen known as Dashilar.
While a much more commercial district, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.
Do remember though that people still live in these hutongs.
And while it is completely fine to wander the alleyways, it is not fine to
enter into the courtyards where people live, even if the door is open. If you
would like to see a traditional hutong home – known as a siheyuan (“four
connected wall garden”) – check out the Mei
Lanfang Museum over in the Huguosi hutong area, one of my favorite hutong
areas. Not only will you be able to walk through a siheyuan home, but you will
learn about a rather interesting and charismatic figure in Peking Opera and
Yes, you should go to the Great Wall. It’s mesmerizing to
stand atop the Wall and look as it stretches endlessly into the distance. The only
real question is, which part of the wall to see. Should you see the is the
reconstructed wall or the “wild wall?” I
generally recommend the reconstructed wall for a first-timer. And if reconstructed
is what you choose, the section to go to is Mutianyu (which if you walk in the
direction of watchtower 23, you will hit the wild wall). If there are two or
more of you, then hiring a driver to spend the day out there is worth it. The
driver generally knows to leave early – the wall opens at 8 AM and, on a
weekday, if you are there at 8, you will have some of the wall to yourself. As
I mentioned yesterday, I have used Miles Meng’s service the last
two times I have visited the Wall and find it well worth it.
If you want to do the “wild wall,” do not do it alone. I can’t
stress that enough. Do it with a group so that you have a guide in case there
are any accidents. Sprained ankles are probably the most common, but there are
significant drops in certain places where the path narrows. I recommend signing
up for a trip with Beijing Hikers.
Usually it is a group of 10 to 15 people, with a bus pickup in downtown
Beijing. If you are doing the wild wall, do wear hiking shoes.
After the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is perhaps one of
the most extraordinary tourist sites in Beijing. As its name connotes, it was the
summer home of the Qing emperors after the Old Summer Palace
was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 (with some of the most prized
antiquities of China carted off). While
the Summer Palace certainly has buildings that are must sees, it is more than
just a palace. It is a massive, beautiful park where you could easily spend a
whole day if you have the time. People may say that you only need two hours to “do”
the Summer Palace, but this would be a mistake. After seeing the major sites in
the park, go off on some of the side paths and enjoy the peace and quiet with spectacular
views of the lake and Beijing to the southeast. Bring your lunch as the Summer Palace
is a great place to picnic, relax and just have fun.
Beijing has quite a number of impressive Buddhist temples
but the Lama Temple outshines them all.
Originally built as a residence for one of the Qing Dynasty princes, the
building was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 1744 and has remained
one ever since. It is still a practicing monastery and if you get there early enough,
you might be able to see the end of the morning group prayers. It is something to
listen to rather than to watch. In fact, much of the experience at the Lama
Temple is about your other senses. Through out the temple complex, the sweet
smell of incense will fill your nose and even though it is often crowded, it is
quiet enough that you can hear the tinkle of the small bells hanging in the
breeze. It is this feeling of peacefulness – in the heart of Beijing – that will
be a more lasting memory than any picture.
The World Trade
Center’s 6th Floor Terrace
Now that you have seen the old, it’s time to bask in the
new. The place to do that is China’s
World Trade Center (Guomao – 国贸),
a massive complex of office buildings, hotels and a multi-floored mall in the
southeast corner of Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The two, glass brown buildings at
the south of the complex, the ones that look very 1970s, were the original World
Trade Center buildings that opened around 1990. I actually worked in one of
them in 1999 and at that time, those two towers were surrounded by shanty towns.
Today, those towns have been replaced by some of China’s most impressive,
glittering architecture, including the imposing CCTV tower. And there is no better
place to view Beijing’s modern architecture than from the 6th floor
terrace of the World Trade Center mall.
If you find yourself getting lost in the maze of a mall, just follow the
signs to the Blue Frog restaurant. The terrace shares space with that restaurant.
But no worries if you are not up for a bite. Fortunately, most of the terrace
is free and open to the public.
These are just a few suggestions of what to see in Beijing.
The most important thing is just being there, in the heart of this vibrant city
that is changing the world. Was there something else you did in Beijing that
didn’t make the list and should have?
Please feel free to comment below about your favorite Beijing experiences. And join us tomorrow as we
conclude this series with the all important “what to eat” in Beijing.
Beijing has long fascinated the Western mind. Since Marco Polo
published his travelogue of China in 1300, Westerns have been inspired to visit
Beijing and have rarely left disappointed.
And rightfully so for the emperors of China knew what they were doing
when they built the city. On a clear day, Beijing’s imposing, ancient
architecture, with its blazing red walls and shimmering gold rooves, pops
against the bright blue sky. Even with some of the city’s destruction during
the Mao era and, more recently, for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is still a city
like no other in the world.
But for a first time visitor, this city of 21 million people can
overwhelm. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to eat. How does one
prioritize? China Law & Policy is here to help. In this three-part Just for Fun series, we give some
pointers – based on our own experience in Beijing – on what a first time
visitor should look to do. What should you see?
What should you eat? Today, we
start with some preliminary matters to take care of before you even get on your
flight to Beijing. For those of you who
are regular visitors to Beijing, feel free to share in the comment section what
you think is essential for a first-timer needs to prepare for his or her trip.
As soon as you arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport, you will be
behind “China’s Great Firewall.” Those websites you visit daily – the New York
Times, anything Google related (think gmail, maps), Facebook, Twitter – are
blocked by government decree. But there are ways around it; one way is the use
of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). Technically, accessing the internet through
anything other than access points provided by the Chinese government is a violation
temporary regulations that are still in effect. And Chinese
citizens have been
fined ($150) during a recent government campaign against VPN usage. But
most tourists that visit China use a VPN and here is a list of VPNs
that usually work in China. Here though
is the clincher – if you are going to use one, you have to download it on all
your electronic devices before you
leave for China. Because VPN’s are essentially illegal in China, their websites
are blocked in China and app stores are not permitted to offer VPNs once you
are in China. So be sure to download them on your cell phone, laptop, etc., a
few days before you leave and play with them so you know how to work them. A
VPN will run you between $12 to $15/month. Almost all of the VPNs require automatic
renewal on your credit card, so mark your calendar to terminate your
subscription once you return.
Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It
Second thing to note is that you need to travel with your passport
on you at all times (and in case you missed it in preparing, you need a visa to
get in). The U.S. Department of State recently
reminded tourists traveling to China to always carry their passports.
Additionally, you will need it to get through security checkpoints at certain
tourist sites, such as Tiananmen Square. More importantly, for those traveling
to China in their golden years, some tourist sites give a discount – sometimes
as much as 50%! – to anyone 60 years and older (Forbidden City, Summer Palace
are two such places). But the only way to verify that fact is by showing your
passport. So don’t miss out on that deal.
King, At Least for Tourists
For tourists, China is still very much a cash-based society. China
sort of skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile payments. At a small, hole-in-the-wall shop on some
random street in Beijing, you will see Chinese people just flashing their phone
at a machine to pay for their water. Fortunately for tourists, these shops
still must accept cash. But
they won’t accept credit card. For sure you can use your credit card at your
hotel, for dinners at more established restaurants, and in fancier shops. When
it comes to everything else, you will need cash. So you will be going to the
ATM. . . a lot. You should be able to
use your ATM card at the major Chinese banks – Bank of China, China
Construction Bank, ICBC, and China Merchant Bank, all of which are common
around the city. And remember, you
cannot purchase Chinese money outside of China.
So as soon as you get out of customs at the airport, make a stop at one
of the many ATMs that are in the airport and withdraw some cash. How much you
need for the trip all depends on what you plan to do and what you plan to buy.
How to Get
Now, for taxis. It will be almost impossible to hail one off the
street and Uber and Lyft are not really used by Chinese taxi drivers. They use
DiDi, which does now have an English
version but I have yet to use it. So if you don’t use Didi, empty taxis
will drive right by you – even with your hand held up trying to hail them. For
some reason, taxi drivers prefer a DiDi fare over a hail. So if you don’t want
to download Didi on your cell phone, then your best friend is going to be
Beijing’s extensive subway system which is a great way to experience Beijing as
a Beijinger. But try to avoid rush hour when the trains are packed. Also, some
stops are not terribly close to the tourist attraction and often there is a
long walk to transfer trains. So if you
are traveling with someone who has challenges walking a lot, investing in a car
service is a good idea. For the past few years, I have used Miles Meng (click here for info
– just email Miles and he will set it up and give you the price) for airport
pick-ups, driving to the Great Wall, and heading out to the Summer Palace. The
driver drops you off and then tells you where to meet for the pick-up. It is
more expensive than the subway, but when I was traveling with my Dad, a senior,
it was a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time without
tiring him out.
Paper – Don’t Leave Home Without It
When I first went to China in 1993, my roommate, who had lived in
China before, immediately told me that I needed to carry a roll of toilet paper
with me. Twenty-six years later, that advice is still applicable. Beijing is
great in terms of public toilets. It’s just that the public toilets don’t
supply toilet paper. Which makes sense in a city of 21 million people; imagine
how much of the city budget would be earmarked for toilet paper. While you
could carry pocket tissues and they would do the same job, in the end, I just
end up throwing a roll in my backpack. And you can buy very nice toilet paper
in local shops and supermarkets when you arrive – no need to bring that from
the U.S. And in terms of public bathrooms, most now do offer at least one stall
that is a “western” toilet and not a squat toilet. Although in more dubious
bathrooms off the beaten path, I choose the squat toilet over a sit down.
that you have the preliminary matters down, it is time to start planning the
itinerary! Join us tomorrow when China Law & Policy shares some of
its favorite things to see and do in Beijing.
The thing about Chinese food in California is the vegetables. With cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco only a stone’s throw away from major agricultural areas, “fresh” takes on a whole new meaning there. When you mix that with the fact that Chinese cuisine really plays up vegetables and lets them stand on their own, you can find some of the best Chinese food in America.
And some of the best Chinese food in America is exactly what I found last Friday night in a tiny little restaurant called Tasty Noodle House located in a nondescript strip mall in San Gabriel valley, just outside of LA proper.
With three other friends, one who is a vegetarian, we ordered large with a total of eight dishes. While the waitress told us at dish six that we over ordered, the food is so amazing that, by the time we were done with our meal, not a single scrap was left. Some of this had to do with the fact that we were starving after a day of hiking, but also Tasty Noodle House goes light on the oil, allowing the flavors of the food to stand on its own. But even without the heavy oil, the food is authentic and the place is perfectly Chinese – a bathroom that can only be found by walking through the narrow kitchen and Mandarin soaps on the flat screen TV.
The first dish to arrive was the sautéed green beans. Ordinarily, this is a dish with pork but Tasty Noodle House does a different take: thick, succulent string beans, flavored with garlic and ginger with tiny little shrimps. The ginger addition and shrimp were a pleasant surprise and really made this into a light, delicious dish.
Amazing Scallion Pancakes
But what came next is what I would term a little piece of heaven: the scallion pancakes. These were thin little things, perfectly crispy and soft, and with only a hint of scallion, not the overpowering flavor that usually fill the pancakes in less refined Chinese restaurants. These pancakes also did not have the grease of a takeout joint and instead appeared to replace traditional Chinese cooking oil with what my dining companions could only conclude was butter. While not traditional, this addition of butter made these pancakes irresistible.
But the highlight of the meal was the Sichuan eggplant (鱼香茄子). This is by far the best Sichuan eggplant I have had in a long while. The tough purple skin was not to be found on this eggplant, allowing the eggplant itself to take on the flavors of the sauce which was exploding with flavor. Although slightly oily than other dishes, this was eaten quickly by my dining companions. If you like eggplant, this is a must order dish.
World’s best Sichuan Eggplant? Yes!
And while Tasty Noodle House does amazing things with its vegetables, its meat dishes are not to be overlooked. Because we were only ordering one meat dish, the waitress informed us that the best meat dish on the menu is by far the sliced lamb pan fried. She was right. The lamb, a good, lean cut, was delicately balanced by the very fresh vegetables that also came with the dish. All too often lamb dishes in Chinese restaurants are nothing more than a vehicle for cumin, with the cumin overpowering all other flavors. But not at Tasty Noodle House. Instead, the chef truly understands subtlety and allows the flavors to work with each other.
Finally, while Tasty Noodle House has pretty amazing dumplings for a restaurant that is not a dumpling house. These are not store bought dumplings either. The waitress informed us that all dumplings are made on site, even the skin of the dumpling is made there. We ordered the leeks and fish boiled dumplings and the filling to dumpling skin ratio was almost perfect, with the filling bursting with fish meat and skin adding only a supporting role.
Our other dishes were also all pretty amazing but these few stand out as truly spectacular. Tasty Noodle House is one of the best Chinese restaurants in America with an all around amazing menu. This isn’t a place that specializes in one dish or a place where the heaviness of Sichuan’s “mala” flavoring is overly relied on to mask otherwise
flavorless dishes. The chef – from the Dalian region of China – truly understands how to play with flavors, allowing each to play its role in the carnival of flavors in your mouth.
Tasty Noodle House is a small space, with about 7 tables. I would recommend going during off hours to ensure that your wait is not too long. But if it is, that just means you will be even more hungry and will order more. And that over ordering will not break the
Plates almost all clean
bank. For my three friends and me, the total bill with tip came to about $84. Note that Tasty Noodle House does not serve alcohol and from what I could see from others, does not allow BYOB. But you don’t need it here.
I will be returning to LA in the spring and rest assured, there will be another trip to Tasty Noodle House so I can order the rest of the menu. I can’t wait to see what else the chef has in store.
Tasty Noodle House
27 W Las Tunas Dr.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Today, the Mogao caves are are UN World Heritage Site. But for a few hundred years the caves fell into oblivion. Few knew of their existence and none visited. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the caves were “re-discovered” by a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu. Quickly word of his discovery reached some of the Western archaeologist-explorers traveling through Central Asia. Understanding the significance of this art, many of these Western explorers descended on Dunhuang to see this all for themselves.
As a result, many of the greatest pieces of Dunhuang art are in various museums in the West. Was this art taken legally? Do the Chinese want it back?
Dunhuang expert, Dr. Neil Schmid answers these questions and more in Part 2 of his interview with China Law & Policy. If you would like to hear Dr. Schmid speak live, join him next week as he speaks on these issues on September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing.
Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:
Length: 12:29 minutes
To read or listen to Part 1 of this two-part interview series with Dr. Scmid, click here.
EL: Just to move away from the art to the political. I know when I visited the Mogao caves, it appears that for foreigners visiting the caves, part of the tour is a stop in a separate building documenting the Western countries’ purchasing and taking of the Mogao’s manuscripts and cave art at the turn of the 20th century. We know that in the case of the British, they purchased from the monk in charge of the caves at the time, the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra. They had examples of an American explorer also purchasing some old Buddhist manuscripts, as well as physically lifting some of the cave art out of the caves. In that period, why were Westerns so interested in the Mogao caves and how did they even know about it to go out there?
NS: Great questions. So the first visitors were before 1900 and they were typically involved in exploration and survey. This has to do with what was called the Great Game, the machinations between the United Kingdom and Russia, the Russian Empire, to control Central Asia. So it was through that process that Central Asia began to be known. While we have these military and quasi-military figures in Central Asia, the first sort of striking discovery was something called the Bower Manuscript. This manuscript was a shock because here in Central Asia we find a birch bark manuscript from the 4th to 6th Centuries in what’s called Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit or Prakrit.
Before nobody ever thought that we would find these types of materials. What it means is that the Indian civilization in many ways reached into Central Asia. This got people very excited. Number one because these materials don’t exist in India for the most part because the climate is much too moist.
Sir Aurel Stein, 1909
So what happens is after they discovered that manuscript you began to have so-called scholar-explorers, archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein is a perfect example of that combination, come in and began to do surveys and archaeological surveys of Central Asia.
It was during this period that they began to get word of this great Buddhist site and also a site with lots of manuscripts and that got them very, very excited.
EL: Based on the fact that the tours with Westerners in Dunhuang make it a point to recount this history of the Western explorers and the purchasing of many of the manuscripts, is China making any efforts to get these manuscripts back? Especially the Diamond Sutra.
NS: Not on a large basis. So what we have is a lot of scholars working together, e.g., Chinese scholars with British scholars or French scholars, on an increasingly large basis. Also museums and institutions working together. So what we find now is that on the scholarly end of things, a lot of these materials have been digitized by the International Dunhuang Project. It’s a remarkable project for the amount of material and it is based out of the British Library. They in the process, over the years, have gotten a number of other institutions on board – the Chinese, also the French, the Russians, the Germans – to begin to digitalize their materials, manuscripts and paintings. So this is one thing that has sort of lessened the desperation for return finds because scholars have access to the materials world-wide now.
The Dunhuang Mogao Caves from Afar
Regarding so-called plunderer, Aurel Stein is often labeled that, but as you mentioned, he actually purchased the manuscripts. Of course that is controversial. Also there was Langdon Warner, who is from your alma mater [Harvard], and he is notorious for having used a technique which he felt was innovative. Basically to use tape – I am simplifying it – to put on the murals and rip them off. In the process some were damaged. He actually has a receipt for these. So Harvard’s response might be, for example, “Oh, we have a receipt, they were paid for, we bought them in good order.”
EL: So it’s all very legal.
NS: It’s all very legal, exactly. People might disagree with the methods and the authorities he spoke to actually purchase the materials. Of course, there is a lot of room for debate on this issue.
EL: I think in a talk you gave previously, you had mentioned that the Abbot [at the Mogao Caves] had tried to get the Qing Dynasty and the Emperor interested it. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?
NS: Yes. Wang Yuanlu was the person who was renovating the cave site in around the year 1900 when he discovered the cache of manuscripts. And it is a fantastic cache of manuscripts. He recognized that they were important, he wanted to get in touch with the authorities in order to know what to do with these manuscripts. And in fact the Qing Dynasty authorities weren’t that interested. Part of the slow response by the Chinese government at the time was that it was dominated by Confucian elites. They saw Buddhist materials as simply not that interesting. So this is one reason I believe that the process was slowed down for the Chinese government to recognize the value of this incredible find.
EL: Just to fast-forward a bit in time, when you go to the Mogao Caves you still see a tremendous amount of art
Tang Dynasty cave art peeking out of an entrance at Mogao caves
on the walls, you still see a tremendous amount of the carvings. How were these cave arts able to survive the Cultural Revolution as well as the campaign against the Four Olds that sought to destroy a lot of Buddhist art?
NS: Mogao and Dunhuang was fortunate because they had a powerful patron if you will, Zhou Enlai, Premier Zhou Enlai. He was hugely supportive of the renovation project, the project to stabilize the cliff face, to begin the catalogue process and also research in general. He specifically said that Mogao Caves were not to be damaged. And I have to put in a plug here also for the Dunhuang Research Academy and the people there, scholars there, who had been working on the materials for literally dozens of years at that point, they made a serious effort to talk to Red Guards, to discuss the value of the materials.
EL: And what about today, what’s being done to preserve the caves and will preservation be successful especially as more tourists come to Dunhuang?
Camels on the Silk Road
NS: Part of the problem with the caves today is that moisture and also carbon dioxide is beginning to deteriorate the caves. There’s also ground water coming up because there’s a lot of irrigation to make pretty gardens, if you will, in front of the attraction. So that water is seeping up into the caves so that the lower level of caves, at the bottom of the murals, they’re beginning to completely deteriorate.
So what’s been done over the last three decades is that the Getty Conservation Institute has gotten involved – of the Getty Museum in L.A.. That’s since 1985. It’s been their longest running project of conservation, heritage conservation. They have been instrumental in working with the Dunhuang Research Academy and also the Chinese government in creating, number one an analysis, a very detailed analysis, of the materials involved in the construction of the caves, how they deteriorate, why they deteriorate and ways to prevent it. On top of that there’s also a digitalization project going on [and a major upcoming exhibit on Dunhuang caves May 2016 at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles]
Part of that, along with the visitors center that recently opened, is to provide tourists with an alternative experience. So through the digitalization or the immersive digitalization of the case themselves at the vistor’s center and then to decrease the number of visitors actually going into the caves.
Mogao Cave #98, Uighur retinue
EL: The visitor’s center is very, very impressive and a lot of fun which leads me to think they’re hoping a lot more people come to visit it. For people who aren’t China people, China scholars, what do you think is the significance of these caves? Why should just regular Americans, when they take a trip to China, why should they go out to Dunhuang?
NS: The caves which span in their creation 1,000 years are the largest repository of Chinese art. Maintain and contain items and designs and styles, aesthetics, and also the very space itself that doesn’t exist anywhere else in China. So in terms of this kind of immersive experience, you can’t get better than Dunhuang to see how people experienced Buddhism in the Tang, for example, period. So that’s a major reason. Dunhuang itself and the Mogao caves, the site is stunning and gives you a sense of what the power of trade that unfolded over 1000 years on the silk roads or silk route if you will. The caves themselves have a cosmopolitanism. Dunhuang at that time we know from manuscripts was incredibly mixed and well-integrated. So there is a fascination with that as well.
EL: Finally, can you describe your favorite cave and why it is your favorite cave? You have to have a favorite.
EL: You can’t love them all.
Mogao Cave #98, King of Khotan and retinue (c.920)
NS: In spite of its formulaic nature, there’s a cave, Cave 98, which is remarkable. It’s quite large; it’s a large family cave, it’s an elite’s cave. But what’s fascinating for me is it’s well preserved but it also lays out the political nature of the caves, the political nature of Buddhism also. You have large donor portraits of the King of Khotan and his relations to the Dunhuang elite. Its remarkable for that reason that here we have a sort of detailed outline of political alliances that were being constructed and set in a ritual space, which is a cave. This sort of liturgical moment that in some ways is frozen in time. That’s what these caves do, they maintain relationships both among people and also with the Buddha forever and forever. I find that fascinating and Cave 98 is particularly rich in the historical-political elements.
EL: Okay, well, thank you again Dr. Schmid for your enlightening explanation of the Mogao caves. Hopefully, more people will go there but not breathe on the caves. Thank you.
NS: Thank you very much
See, for example, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (London: Kodansha International, 1992).
A selection of Dr. Schmid’s publications and talks can be found by clicking here. Or join Dr. Schmid at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing on September 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm.
Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Rong, Xinjiang, and Imre Galambos. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road, Second Edition. Second Edition, Revised edition. Los Angeles, California: Getty Conservation Institute, 2015.
Tibet is considered the Buddhist capital of China, causing many not familiar with China’s geography to believe that Buddhism came to China from India through Tibet. But with the highest mountain peaks in the world, the Himalayas, separating India and China, Buddhism had to take a different route. Instead, it entered northern China through what has become known as the Silk Road. As a result, some very early Buddhist art can be found in remote northwestern regions of China. One such example are the Buddhist cave art in Dunhuang, an oasis town situated in the Gobi Desert which with its desert climate was able to preserve this art. The Mogao Caves are probably the best known.
But any trip to the Mogao caves by a Buddhist art novice leaves one with many questions on the art, the history and its significance. Fortunately, China Law & Policy had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Neil Schmid, an American expert on Buddhist Studies and Dunhuang. If you are in Beijing, Dr. Schmid will be speaking on these issue next week, September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute.
Read the transcript below of Part 1 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:
EL: Thank you for joining us today. First, can you give us a little bit of background on the caves: when were they first constructed, why and by whom?
NS: Elizabeth, thank you for inviting me. So there’s a story, maybe apocryphal, that in 366 [CE] a monk by the name of Le Zun had a vision. This is a vision that happened outside of the oasis of Dunhuang, in a small, small ravine with a cliff face. There he had this vision that he was basically to build a cave. This is, again maybe it is apocryphal, is the originating story of the Mogao caves.
EL: And what year was that again?
NS: 366. So he was followed by another monk, Fa Liang, and then a series of monks after that.
EL: So can you explain more why these caves were created?
NS: As I said initially they were dug out as meditation spaces. Spaces where monks could live relatively distant from Dunhuang or some sort of urban or town center due to spiritual practices. This is the origin of these caves. Then what happens over time, over the centuries, is that the site becomes a pilgrimage site and with these powerful monks – spiritually that is – people began to patronize them. In doing so, they began building caves themselves. These people were typically the elites or also groups of people who would gather together and fund the digging and the construction of a cave in Mogao, in this area.
You asked about whom they were actually built by. So they had funders, they had donors, but there was – and we have a lot of information especially from the 10th century on. We know that it was a professional class of artisans who actually did the construction work – painters, sculptors, metal smiths, textile workers.  They were organized hierarchically according to their expertise and their titles reflected their skill and their standing. So these are the people who actually built the caves and we can talk a little bit later about that process of building itself.
EL: So that’s interesting that you talk about the professional class of artisans and also just the changes over who was sponsoring the building over centuries. When you go to the Mogao caves themselves, you do see some changes to the art when you visit different caves. Can you explain more or highlight what some of those changes are from the beginning to the later parts. And do you believe there’s a high point to the art itself?
NS: The earliest caves we have are from the Northern Liang and that’s 397 [CE] to 439 [CE]. These caves are very, very heavily influenced by Indian and also Central Asian styles. The motifs, the iconography, the sculpture, is very, very much dominated by something other than Chinese. Over the years, these artistic forms and iconography and also the ritual space itself begins to shift away from monks towards an increasingly lay-oriented perspective. What the caves also take on in terms of transformation of the artistic styles and ritual styles is an increasingly sinicized, i.e. Chinese aesthetic. So for example what happens later, you have stories about Indian, about the Buddha done completely in Chinese costume, in Chinese-like settings. It naturalizes in some ways Buddhism for Chinese. We see this very clearly evidenced in the caves.
Mogao Cave #275, Northern Liang (397-439)
EL: I know some art historians believe that some dynasties have better art than others or higher-end art than others. Do you agree with that? I think everyone always thinks the Tang Dynasty but how do you deal with that?
NS: That’s a good question. I could talk about my personal favorites.
EL: That’s okay.
NS: I particularly like Tang, what’s known as high Tang style. But it is very, very difficult to say one style is a high point. Obviously it depends on the reference points of what you consider a high point. There’s amazing artistic skill that goes into the creation of earlier caves in terms of actual painting styles which are now lost in China. So in some ways you could say that due to their introduction and disappearance, these were high points in particular artistic styles.
EL: That’s fair. I guess the other thing is when visiting the caves you can’t help but wonder how starting in 400 AD, people were able to paint and build such amazing art. In particular, there is that one awe-inspiring Buddha. Do we know exactly how these caves were built? How the painting was put onto the walls? How many people it took to build these caves? I think you were already talking a little bit about the professionalization of the artisans. If you could go into a little bit more depth about that.
NS: So what happens in the Tang, the Five Dynasties period, and also in the Song, is that you have elite families funding the construction of caves and in the process they create what is essentially a painting academy. At this painting academy you have trained artisans. Note that they are laity; they are not monks, they are not clerics. We have lots and lots of documentation from this period and detailed manuscripts about what they were paid, how often they were paid, were they lived, the types of work, individual specialties. We know that laborers were typically paid in food, so cooked meals. Also oil, also grains. This was a typical form of payment.
How the caves themselves were actually constructed, they were constructed by starting at the top of the interior of a cave and then digging it out and down. So what they would do then after it was dug out is they would begin to furnish the walls and then apply a straw and stucco mix. Then on top of that begin the painting process.
In this period, again very late Tang, Five Dynasties period, Song period, it became very programmatic, very organized in terms of the pictorial program of the caves themselves. And very standardized. They used a variety of drawings for example to create on a regular basis the paintings in the caves. They also used something called “pounces” which is a piece of paper with dots cut in that they would then typically blow a paint across to get an outline. Then they would color that in. One of the motifs you see again and again at Dunhuang in the Mogao caves is the Thousand Buddha motif.
Mogao cave 249, Western Wei (534-556AD) Early version of Thousand Buddha motif.
EL: Right, right. You see that it is painted like in an assembly line.
NS: Exactly. There is this whole modularity to the construction and also the painting process. Then the paint themselves typically use things like -the expensive ones – lapis lazuli and malachite. The painting was done on dry stucco and again through a series of artisans. The construction of a cave, or a large cave, during this period would be perhaps a year. It would take a year.
 On the construction of the caves and guilds, see Sarah Fraser’s excellent overview, Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (Stanford University Press, 2003).
For most foreigners in China, baijiu (pronounced bye gee-oh) is a joke, or at the very least, the key element in any story about passing out, blacking out or vomiting up your banquet dinner. But for the Chinese, baijiu, a strong, traditional grain or rice wine, is a must at any celebratory outing. While foreigners often turn up their noses at baijiu, the Chinese really seem to enjoy it. And have so for around 2,000 years.
Capital Spirits, a new bar in Beijing’s Dongzhimen neighborhood, successfully bridges
Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu
the gap between foreigners’ misunderstanding of baijiu and the Chinese love of it. Showcasing some of China’s finest and smoothest baijius, Capital Spirits gives the uninitiated a reason to respect – if not begin to love – baijiu. The bar offers a number of baijiu flights, where for 40 kuai (around $8), you can taste and compare four or five different baijius from around the country. Each drink in the flight is introduced to you by the bartender, highlighting the differences and history of each brand.
But for those who cannot yet face pure baijiu, Capital Spirits also offers an eclectic and inventive baijiu cocktail mix. That is the menu my friends and I ordered off of when we were there one recent night. The cocktails were familiar – the hutong hound, a mix between grapefruit juice and baijiu was similar to a greyhound; the pineapple express had elements of pineapple and Malibu; and the ma-la rita, like a margarita. But the taste of baijiu was evident if not in the strength of the cocktail alone. While each was refreshing and tasty, especially the ma-la rita which had an enjoyable Sichuan peppercorn kick to it, because of the baijiu, these were sipping cocktails, not downing ones. If you do want to down drinks in a more traditional manner, Capital Spirits has a full bar (two men were drinking whiskey when we showed up) and a non-baijiu cocktail mix.
Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits – the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express
Capital Spirits’ goal is to convert the doubting to the gospel of baijiu, a task that it appears to be slowly winning. But what it truly does best is create an intimate neighborhood vibe in this small hutong space. This is a crowd willing to try new things, and as a result, willing to talk to strangers. By the end of the night, we had bantered with many of the other customers. David, the bartender that night, was also hospitable, explaining all the different drinks. But if you want to be left undisturbed, that is an option too in this dimly-lit space.
I am probably not going to become one of the converted. Baijiu is still a mean spirit, especially for yours truly who thinks Mailbu and pineapple juice is a strong drink. But I am going to go back to Capital Spirits. It’s a great place to enjoy a drink – even a non-baijiu one – with a fun group of a people.
Although in a hutong, Capital Spirits is easy to find. Take Line 2 to Dongzhimen and get out at Exit B. You will be on Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and the Second Ring Road. Walk west along Dongzhimen Nei until you hit Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Cross to the otherside of Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie and immediately turn left. Pretty much the first hutong on your right will be 大菊胡同 (Da Ju Hutong). Capital Spirits is pretty much five feet in on your right. There is no sign, but there is the address painted on the front: 大菊胡同3号
Like every other country outside of the United States, China is a soccer-crazed nation and with the 2010 World Cup, employers fear a loss of productivity of their workers. With China six hours ahead of South Africa, the matches begin at 7 pm local time, with the last match starting at 2:30 AM., giving most Chinese the opportunity to watch the matches with their friends into the wee hours of the morning. And it appears that many are taking advantage of this time difference even without a hometown team to root for.
Given China’s dominance in recent Olympics as well as its people’s love for soccer, it’s weird not to see a Chinese team at the World Cup. Especially since even its neighbor – poor and ideologically-suffocating North Korea – made the cut. China was able to build up its curling prowess to win a bronze in women’s curling in Vancouver – a sport most Chinese, actually most people outside of Canada, have never heard of. Surely it can train a World Cup-worthy soccer team. So what gives?
China - Economic superpower but not a soccer one
A recent article in the L.A. Times essential blames China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” While China’s state-controlled capitalism – where the state programs and controls much of the “free market” – has allowed for success in the economic sphere, it’s destroyed any hopes for soccer dominance. China’s various professional soccer leagues are managed by the Chinese Football Association, a commercial entity that is overseen by the General Administration of Sport, a government body. With dueling ideologies, the result is confusion and lack of coordination. Additionally, China’s professional leagues have been plagued by high-level corruption, gambling scandals, and match-fixing, rotting the sport to its core. While a recent clean-up of the corruption might have short-term impact, without better checks and balances, expect corruption to return to Chinese soccer and stymie any hope of creating a World Cup-worthy team.
Vuvuzela - Made in China
Although there is no China presence on the field, there is plenty of China presence in the stands. Those annoyingly loud vuvuzelas that drown out referee whistles and any sounds from the field are mostly made in China. And China’s wig production saw a huge uptick in demand for wigs dyed the national colors of various nations.
But what has received the most attention is ESPN’s Martin Tyler’s on-air comment that the North Korean fans are in fact paid Chinese actors, an allegation that was also made last month in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. As a team playing in the World Cup, North Korea is given a large number of tickets to give or sell to its people. But for most North Koreans, a flight to South Africa would cost too much, leaving many of the North Korean-designated seats empty. But supposedly, these tickets have been transferred to China, who is sending 1,000 actors to cheer on its neighbor.
Both China and North Korea remain mum in regards to the nature of the North Korean fans and have neither denied nor confirmed the rumors. But China has hired “professional” fans in the past. Most notably the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In order to fill empty seats, the Chinese government sent groups of enthusiastic Chinese volunteers, wearing yellow shirts and armed with thundersticks, into the stands to cheer for both teams playing. That’s right – the Chinese sent volunteers to cheer not just for their own team, but for whichever teams were playing. Essentially, the Chinese Olympic officials wanted to guarantee an enthusiastic crowd for the teams playing.
During the 2008 Olympics and now for the North Korea matches in the World Cup, the Chinese received criticism for
Fans cheer on North Korea at the 2010 World Cup
this “manufactured” support. But I sort of think this type of magnanimity is cute and I kind of like it. Imagine if you are the beach volleyball team from Luxemburg – you don’t even have beaches in your country let alone fans of beach volleyball that are going to watch you at the Olympics. So how inspiring must it be to play in the Olympics and have a cheering section. Sure it might be manufactured, but sometimes it’s just the cheers that matter for the team. And for the other people in the stands, having a section that starts to get into the match, makes watching an otherwise boring event fun. People don’t do the wave during the ninth inning of a tied Yankees-Red Sox game. No. They do the wave when they are bored, when the defeat is so obvious that you need a little entertainment to keep you involved.
So Monday morning, when North Korea takes on Portugal, I hope the fans – be Chinese or North Korean – are there wildly rooting for the North Korean team. China should look to market this thing – a cheering section for hire and an enthusiastic one to boot? There are a lot of politicians and disgraced corporate executives in the U.S. right now that might be interested.
When one studies Chinese or anything China, the question inevitable arises from others: what’s the best Chinese restaurant? Like all things China, it’s complicated and like the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese food is not
Best Steamed Shrimp Dumplings Ever - Corner 28
monolithic. Today in “Just for Fun,” we review Corner 28 in Flushing, Queens.
Corner 28 is not easy to find and that’s a good thing. This gem of a Cantonese restaurant lists an address on Main Street but in reality, the entrance is around the corner on 40th Rd.; you will have to walk around the flower vendor to enter and then up to the second floor. But once in, the effort is worth it.
The menu offers a wide variety of Hong Kong delights, from congee and noodle soups, to various dim sum standards. This is a great place to go for dim sum if you are looking to avoid the crowds and carts of the traditional dim sum places. All of the dishes use fresh ingredients with lots of flavor, but the best dish was by far the steamed shrimp
dumplings. It’s hard to find steamed shrimp dumplings with the proper ratio of wrapping to shrimp; most times the dumpling wrapping overpowers the shrimp and leaves a stickiness in the mouth. But at Corner 28, the chef has evidently perfected the proper balance between shrimp to wrapping by providing a huge serving of meat that has been marinated in a sweet and light sauce. With the first bite, the flavors of the shrimp cannot be denied.
Also of note was the Thousand Year Egg congee. While rice gruel often does not appeal to non-Chinese, this is unfortunate, especially when it is the Hong Kong version – congee. Congee offers a meal in and of itself and Corner 28 serves a strong one. With the congee are thick and soft breadsticks, known in Mandarin as youtiao (oil sticks). These are some of the best youtiao out there.
Prices are also extremely reasonable. With dim sum dishes averaging around $2.50, Corner 28 will not break the bank.
Housed in a relaxing and modern atmosphere, above the hubbub of Flushing, Corner 28 not only offers fresh and yummy Cantonese food, but also provides a great break before getting back on the subway.
Corner 28 718-886-6628
40-28 Main Street, Flushing NY
(entrance around the corner on 40th Road)
Take the 7 train to the last stop, Main Street, Flushing