Emily's Summer in Qingyuan

Day 45 – The Great Wall, the Summer Palace, a Jade Factory, a Pearl Place, and Spending the Evening with Zhuhai DukeEngage kids

July 5th, 2013

July 3

What an exhausting, exciting day!  I apologize in advance – this is probably the longest post I will ever make about a day in China.

Anny’s grandfather booked us a tour group to take us to the Great Wall.  We started off the morning fairly early after our day of travel yesterday, and met up with our small tour group outside of a hotel nearby.  The tour guide – Anson – spoke English very well, and was extremely enthusiastic to share his knowledge with us about the history, culture, and legends of Beijing.  Our group consisted of us three Duke students, two women from the Czech Republic, and a French family of three.

As we made the hour-long drive to the Great Wall, Anson told us about some of the history of the wall and things we were passing.  The wall apparently was built to defend seven different sections of the country – one built part, and others thought it was a good idea so they followed suit.  The wall has a bloody history.  Nestled into the mountains at approximately 1300 meters altitude, it took hundreds of years to build over many dynasties.  Men who were basically forced to work on the wall died toiling in the sun.  The work was hard – hot in the summers, extremely cold in the winters.  After walking it, I’m sure it was also hard for them to find water and food and shelter up there as well.  The men died, and were buried within the wall.  Anson told us of a legend of two lovers.  Three days after their marriage, the man was forced to leave to work on the Great Wall.  The wife broke the white jade circles she had been given by her mother-in-law at her wedding, and gave him half.  That way, wherever he was, she would be with him.  When they were reunited, the circle halves would become whole again.   Months went by, and the girl did not hear back from her husband.  She became worried as it got cold, and had warm clothing custom made in Xi’an to bring to her husband on the wall.  She went to the wall with the clothing to find him.  She asked men if they knew her husband, but since there were so many, she could not find him.  Finally, after fifteen days of searching, she came across some men who claimed to know him.  They said that her husband had died already, and was buried within the wall.  Legend has it that she cried for ten nights and days, and finally part of the wall broke, revealing where her husband’s body was.  She pulled him out and brought him to a nearby town to give him a proper burial.  She decided to join him in death, committing suicide.  The townsfolk buried her with her husband, and put their white jade pieces together again, finally uniting their circle once more.  The town has built a temple in their honor, named after him.  I forget the name, but it’s a touching story.

By the time Anson was done telling us this story, we were well into the mountainous area of the Great Wall.  The mountains were like fuzzy, green, carpeted lumps, stretching as far as the eye could see and set against a magnificent light blue sky.  We could see sections of the wall as we drove to our destination – one of the highest parts of The Great Wall, where we would take a ski lift to get us there.

We rode the tiny green gondolas to the top after being launched from a parking lot full of touristy stands.  It was crowded – a popular place for tour groups to go and drop off their groups.  I spent part of my trip behind a child with a visor that had a solar-powered fan attached to the front to cool him down.  It was a brilliant invention, turning off in the shade and needing no batteries.  It hadn’t seemed very hot when we first got there, but within moments of climbing the Great Wall at altitude, I was not only drenched with sweat, but panting for my breath.  Even though I knew the Great Wall was built in mountains, I never thought of it being particularly hilly for some reason.  I just about died, climbing vertically up steep steps that were twice the normal height (I really don’t know how people will short legs do it), pulling myself up ramps that were at seventy degree angles, climbing down stairs one at a time, afraid I was going to fall, and nearly slipping down the slopes that never seemed to stop.  Though treacherous to journey on, it was a really neat experience to be up there, on top of history.  Each stone used in the great wall seemed to be perfectly shaped.  Considering they probably had to hand-select the stones and bring them up to the wall, I was considering more of a mishmash of shapes laid by mortar, much like the Gothic architecture of European buildings’ exteriors.  Instead, they were uniform in size, shape, and level.  I was so impressed.  It truly is one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world.  The view from on top of the wall was magnificent too.  I could see other parts of the wall stretching like a serpent slithering through the waves of the mountains, watch towers poking up like spines every so often.  The watchtowers were like mini fortresses – dark and crammed inside, cool but a bit smelly.  It was like walking inside a European tower at that point.  They were, however, a flat place to rest my weary legs.  The mountains around us were lush without being covered in trees, as far as I could tell.  They seemed almost velvety in a beautiful but unfamiliar way.   They had no snow or water sources, so I really wonder how the builders kept themselves hydrated.

I walked for about an hour, taking my time and trying to pace myself.  Occasionally, I was approached to take pictures with the Asian tourists, and was once asked if I was Korean or spoke Korean (in Chinese, to which I replied no).  The way back was the problem.  I ran into Jason and Anny on the way back.  They had gone a little faster and further than I had, but had turned around and were going back just as slowly as me.  Whereas the way to the halfway point had been almost entirely downhill, the way back was an excruciating uphill battle.  I stopped midway on many staircases, hoisted myself up the ramps, and stopped often.  I was dizzy, out of breath, and my legs were buckling and shaking underneath me.  I thought I was going to have an asthma attack on the Great Wall.  We all stopped to catch our breath, wishing we had saved some water, and I ate an apple at some point.  By the time we made it back to our tour group van, we were exhausted and ready to take a nap.

Instead, we drove through the mountains to a jade factory.  Our small tour group was taken past the workshops, where workers were carving happiness balls with tiny drills under a thin stream of water, and into a private room where we learned how to tell real jade from marble and glass.  Jade, we learned, is cool.  Back in ancient times before refrigeration, when the emperor wanted to drink cool wine, they would pour the wine into a jade jar of sorts to cool it down, and would serve the wine in a jade glass/goblet.  It worked well enough that it remained cool for him.  Jade supposedly also has benefits for the circulatory system, and women wear jade bangles on their left wrists to promote circulation and good health, as the left side is a place with nerve endings good for acupuncture.  We examined three bangles, all of which were white and green and passable for real jade.  The first was glass.  It had a metallic, bright ring to it when hit by another piece of stone.  When held up to the light, it was clear and we could see the dye in it was more on a surface level.  The second was marble – it made a dull sound and was opaque in the light.  The last was real jade.  It can cut glass (you can rub it on a jewelry countertop and it cuts the glass), makes a clear ring that’s not too tinny like the glass, and when held up to the light looks translucent, with the minerals inside appearing like clouds floating in the sky.  We also learned that the white jade (the most “pure” jade) is from Beijing.

Fun fact.  Each country that hosts the Olympics gets to design the medals.  When China hosted the Olympic games in 2008, they wanted to infuse the medals with their culture.  The outside was metal – gold, one of their most prized metals, or silver or bronze, as is appropriate.  However, the inside was the interesting part.  The inside of each of the three types of medals was made of jade – a very very precious stone for the Chinese that often offers good luck and fortune. The gold medals were made of white jade – the jade of the emperor.  The silver medals were green jade.  I forget what the bronze medals were, but they were another type of jade.  Perhaps brown?  Anyways, the tour guide joked that Michael Phelps is a wealthy man because he won so many gold and white jade medals.  He also said that because Michael Phelps is such a good swimmer, the Chinese think he is a fish.  Because his mother often comes to his competitions, they have decided his mother is a mermaid.  I found this hilarious but fitting, somehow.

Moving on to the display showcases, we learned the proper fitting of bangles.  You make a fist, and measure from your index finger’s knuckle to your ring finger’s knuckle.  The inside of the bangle, when rested here, should be about three and a half knuckles.  Not two, not four.  The interpreter then told us we were free to look around the jade showroom and purchase whatever we liked.  I had told myself going in that I wasn’t going to be sucked into this – clearly a tourist stop and tourist trap – yet I was drawn to the thousands of pieces of magnificently carved jade.  How often am I going to be in China, in a jade workshop factory place, with the highest quality jade available?

Within minutes, I was wandering around the room, gazing at all the different options.  They seemed to specialize in jewelry, but I was more interested in getting gifts for my family.  I was struck by the stories behind each piece.  The white jade cabbage is a play on words to bring a hundred years of wealth into the home (bai cai, “bai” meaning white or one hundred, “cai” meaning cabbage or fortune/wealth) depending on which way it faces the door.  There was a dragon crouching with its paw extended, usually to “eat” your money and keep it safe, though if put backwards in the home (not facing the door or window), ill instead take your money and lose it.  There were matching pairs of female and male dragons that traditionally guard the entrances to homes – the male, symbolizing the emperor, has a ball under its right paw showing it holds the power, the female with a dragon cub under her left paw.  There were happiness balls.  These are a traditional wedding gift that was a single piece of jade carved away to have balls inside of balls – sometimes up to thirteen free-moving balls trapped within the larger exterior ball.  The outside is carved with a dragon and a phoenix, representing the emperor and empress and happy marriage.  The different layers represent the generations, showing large families.  The ball is also supposed to trap wealth and happiness for all members of the family.  There were also the figurines of the twelve zodiacs, often given at birthdays.  Apparently every twelfth birthday is especially significant since it is the year of your zodiac birth.  There is also the superstition that the year of your zodiac will bring you less luck than usual, so birthday celebrations are often even larger than normal to help usher in good luck instead.    Of course, they had the typical jade coin necklaces that bring solace, fortune, and happiness to the wearer.  I was able to get a good price for one for myself, so I now have a small but valuable piece of China to bring back with me.  I selected gifts for my family from the other pieces, and I really hope they like them.  The factory also made exquisite, bright paintings made from jade dust.  Jason and Anny both ended up buying these.  They were really cool, but I felt like I could paint something better so did not purchase them – just enjoyed looking at them for the time I was there.

Lunch was served at the jade factory.  It was Americanized Chinese food… something I’d expect to find in a Chinese restaurant at home, complete with forks and spoons and French fries.  I ate mostly vegetables and found chopsticks.  I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since I’ve even held or used or a fork or knife!

After lunch, our tour group went to the Summer Palace – the emperor/empress’ home from April to November each year.  I believe it was mostly the home of the Qing Dynasty (the last dynasty) – most notably, the home of “the dragon lady,” the emperor’s wife who gained power after her husband’s death.  Each day, she would take two hours to wake up.  Each dinner was large enough to feed five thousand people – one hundred and eighty six courses each day, served on multiple tables.  The first table of dishes was only to look at – to enjoy the sight of the food.  The next table (about forty dishes) was only to smell – to enjoy the aroma of the food.  The last table was to eat – but not before her eunuch tried each dish for her.  He would touch the food with a pure silver spoon.  If the silver darkened, the food had been poisoned.  If it was safe, he would try it for her to make sure, and then she would be allowed to eat.   It seems like a dreadful waste of food and time and preparation to me, but this demonstrates the lavish wealth the dynasties of China enjoyed.  The dragon lady also had pearls taken from the man-made lake at the palace to be ground up into a paste to put on her face.  Because she did this, the Chinese claim that when she died when she was 74, she looked no older than 46.  I don’t know if this is true, but it is what they claim.

The palace itself is shaped like a peach – a symbol for long life – built around a lake.  The Summer Palace housed about 10,000 workers during the summer time – only half of the workforce that they used in the Forbidden City during the rest of the year.  They would come by dragon boat and stay for seven months.  The seventeen-arch bridge (shiqi kong qiao) stretched from the east bank of the palace to the south lake island.  It was built in 1750 during Emperor Qianlong’s reign, and is the longest bridge in any Chinese imperial garden.  It has seventeen arches, so that no matter which direction you came from, you could always see at least 9 arches (9 is a very important, lucky number that was reserved only for the imperial families to use back in the time of dynasties).  There are 500 stone lions in different poses carved on the posts of the railings of the bridge.  I recognized a few of the lions from the jade factory.   There was also a huge, red pagoda/pavilion with intricate paintings in its rafters.  The Kuoru Ting was the most spacious pavilion of its type.  When the Summer Palace was named “the Garden of Clear Ripples,” there were no walls along the east bank so someone standing inside could see in 360 degrees. It is octagonal with double eaves, also called the “Pavilion of Eight dimensions.”  The Emperor Qianlong’s poems and classical writings are inscribed on a board hanging inside of the pavilion.  For me, it served as a beautiful resting point after an action-packed morning.  I was able to look over the lake lined with weeping willows and watch paddleboats and dragon boats go by.  It was peaceful – it would have been a beautiful place to live and spend summers.

After spending some time at the Summer Palace, our group got in the van once more and went to a Peal specialty store.  There, a girl explained the differences between fresh water and ocean oysters.  Ocean oysters are oval shaped and only grow one pearl at a time.  They can grow black, white, and gold pearls.  The fresh water oysters are triangular in shape, grow pink, black, white, and orange pearls, and can grow up to about 40 pearls at a time.  You can tell the age of an oyster based on the number of circles on its shell.  The dark lines mark a year of its life.  The worker grabbed an oyster to show us.  Ours was three years old.

“Guess how many pearls are inside,” she challenged us. “If you get it right, you can get a special prize.”

We weren’t sure, so she urged us to guess between twenty and thirty.  I guessed twenty-three.  There were thirty-three inside.   I was shocked.  They were small pink pearls, beautiful to my eye.  To her practiced eye, however, she dismissed them as low quality.

“We’ll grind these up for pearl powder,” she said.

Next, we learned how to tell real pearls from fakes.  Real pearls make a sandy sound when rubbed together, will give off a powder that is always white (no matter what color pearl they came from), and will remain shiny even when rubbed against another pearl.  They don’t seem to scratch.  It all was sounding familiar – like the jade place.  I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything this time.  But I couldn’t stop myself.  They had some great bargains.  Of course I didn’t buy the 500 yuan earrings… but when they offered necklaces with a single pearl against a backdrop of sterling silver shapes at a reduced price, how could I resist?  They were beautiful pearls, and a good price even when I converted them back to USD.  I think I’m set on gifts for my family for now, however.  It turned out to be an expensive day!

Our tour was over after our stop at the pearl place.  The driver kindly dropped us off at the Bei juo gu xiang, a large street, and we walked to the Mao er hu tong shopping area to meet Hsiao-Mei, the Zhuhai program kids who were also in Beijing, and some Duke Alumni for dinner.  We got there about an hour and a half early, so we meandered through the streets, looking in the small shops.  It was a cute area – cobblestone streets, one-story shops like something out of the past.  It was a quiet neighborhood that filled with tourists and shoppers as the night went on.

Dinner and the rest of the night were a lot of fun.  We ended up in a small courtyard – a size of a traditional Chinese home’s courtyard  – for dinner, sitting in comfy chairs chatting with friends and new people.  I found Lindsey, a girl I made friends with during our shared freshman writing class and Dante class from last year; Eliza, a girl from my intermediate Chinese class; Kaveh, a line monitor I recognized from a few years ago/FAC/DSG/Fulbright Scholar/ridiculously amazing person; and made a bunch of new friends.  The Zhuhai kids are all amazingly talented in dancing and singing, and the alumni all seem to be doing really interesting things with their lives.  Our “host” for the night was a Duke alum from 2010.  He is Chinese-American (mother was Chinese, father was white/American, grew up speaking English at home and took Japanese in high school, Chinese at Duke).  He was the first class of the Zhuhai program, specializing in Chinese Dance.  After graduation, he had left America and 20 years of family and friends to take a bank-consulting job in Hong Kong.  He said it paid extremely well and it was a great job, but after awhile numbers just became numbers in an excel sheet.  His work had no real meaning to him.  He had been teaching at the Number 9 Middle School (Zhuhai’s school) on the weekends when consulting, since it was only an hour ferry ride away.  He realized that teaching was rewarding and had a real purpose – that he could be invested in his students and see tangible results of his efforts, and was inspired to leave his job as a consultant.  He moved to Beijing, and is now working on an education program enterprise here.   It was interesting and inspiring to listen to him talk about his life path, and to hear his thoughts when he posed the question “could you leave America to work in China for an entire year?”.  He urged us to think about where our lives are going and to take chances – that our twenties are the most defining decade of our lives.

We went out as a small group of Zhuhai/Qingyuan students and younger alumni.  We ended up chatting and singing karaoke (the Wu twins are incredible!) at a club along a river until 2am.  We sang the Star Spangled Banner together at midnight to welcome in the Fourth of July.  It was a really fun night.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to interact with others my age from different walks of life, with only the shared love of Duke to connect us.  It was also a nice relief to finally speak in English fluently with new people.  This makes me excited to return home, but also makes me realize how much more valuable my time in China is.  It is a short time – only two weeks left.  It is such an amazing time in my life.

Great Wall:


Jason, Me, and Anny on the Great Wall:


Jade “happiness balls” being carved:



White Jade Cabbage:


Summer Palace:


17 Arches Bridge:


Guard Tower and pagodas by the lake:




Incense burner:


Dragon and Phoenix symbols in the front.  Interestingly, because the Empress was in charge at the Summer Palace, the Phoenix is the inner statue, and she stands over the land, showing she holds the power over the land instead of the dragon:


Dragon lion thing that represents wealth and prosperity:


Welcoming Dragons – female and male:



33 Pearls inside an oyster:


One Response to “Day 45 – The Great Wall, the Summer Palace, a Jade Factory, a Pearl Place, and Spending the Evening with Zhuhai DukeEngage kids”

  1. mom says:

    what a fun, exciting day you had! the Great Wall is definitely an amazing place. It is steeper in some places than others. We climbed steps and hills but nothing like what you did. Who needs a Stair Master when you have the great wall, huh? I remember being amazed at the sight of an elderly man carrying heavy wooden buckets up the hill to the wall. I don’t know what they will filled with, but he had a yoke across his neck and a bucket was on either side. He was bent nearly in two. I imagine the poor workers for the wall carried supplies and stones in much the same fashion – on their backs. It is amazing they were able to build such a huge structure with just hand labor. Kind of like the pyramids in Egypt.
    I’m glad you got a chance to see some of the beautiful crafts of china. I wish you could have seen a silk factory, or an embroidery factory – but then, given your penchant for spending…maybe that’s a good thing 🙂

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