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Notes from the China Dialog

This summer, Professor Shuishan Yu is leading a group of students on a Dialog of Civilization in China. The focus of the dialog is Chinese culture and architecture and students are visiting historic sites in Beijing and Shanghai. He will be reporting out weekly on their activities abroad.


Journal: Week Five

During the Fifth week, we concentrated our exploration on the southern cultures of China, the Yangtze and the Qiantang River Deltas. We visited both “Paradises of China,” Suzhou and Hangzhou. The students also had the first hand experience of the literati culture, its music, painting, calligraphy, instrument making, and the “refined gathering” yaji.

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On May 31, the students participated the literati gathering.

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May of the performers during the gathering are accomplished musicians, scholars, and artists, including Xu Yi, the grandson of Xu Lisun (1896-1969), one of the founders of the mei’an School Guqin whose bronze statue is in the center of the photo.

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We also visited Guqin maker Zhang Jinlin’s instrument manufacture workshop.

On June 2, we were in Suzhou, the Oriental Venice praised by Marco Polo. Suzhou is the famous garden city. There we visited the Ming dynasty gardens Zhouzheng-yuan and Shizilin (I. M. Pei’s childhood home).

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We also visited the Daoist temple Xuanmiao-guan.

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On June 3, we visited Canlang-ting, the oldest Suzhou garden, and Liu-yuan, the best Suzhou garden outside the ancient city wall.

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On June 4, we were in Hangzhou, the imperial capital of the Southern Song period (1127-1279). On the way, we stopped at the southern Neolithic Liangzhu site with its modern museum.

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We toured the beautiful West Lake on two boats.


On June 5, we visited several Buddhist sites near Hangzhou, including the temples and rock cut caves at the Lingyin-si area and the Tianzhu-si monastery.

During their flexible days, the students rode bicycles around the West Lake in Hangzhou and explored the southern cities on foot.

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We returned to our hotel in Beijing on June 6 and the students returned homes in America, China, Pakistan, and Bulgaria on June 7.


Journal: Week Four

During the fourth week, we had a comprehensive architectural and cultural tour of both the north and the south, both ancient and super modern, and both regional and metropolitan.

On May 25, we took the sleeper train from Beijing to Datong in Shanxi province. On May 26, we visited the Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County and the Hanging Monastery in Hunyuan County. The former is the oldest and largest wooden pagoda in the world; the latter is in the spectacular Mount Heng.

On May 27, we went to Mount Wutai, one of the four Buddhist sacred mountains of China and the holy land of bodhisattva Manjushri. We studied the two oldest extant wooden structures of China – the Nanchan Monastery from the 8th century and the Foguang Monastery from the 9th century.

On May 28, we visited the Jin Shrine from the Song dynasty. We explored the best-preserved walled and gated traditional city Pingyao on the 28th and 29th. The hotel we stay in Pingyao was a traditional courtyard compound with sloping roofs, painted wooden frames, and heated adobe beds.

On Friday May 30, we were in Shanghai. We visited both the traditional old city and the super-modern Pudong New District. In the old city, we visited the City God Temple area. After exploring the colonial architecture of the Bund and the 20th century urban center the People’s Square area, we went to the area with the densest skyscrapers – Pudong. We ascended to the top of the tallest completed building in China – the Shanghai World Trade Center – and had a spectacular view of the city.


Journal: Week Three

During the third week, we had lectures on the Chinese political system, economic system as well as art and design education, and the second Taiji workshop on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The students visited the famous landscape architecture firm Turenscape and the College of Architecture and Landscape at the Peking University. They had fruitful discussion with students, faculty, and designers at both locations.

On Wednesday, we visited the Great Wall. Instead of the heavily restored and tourist crowded Badaling section, we went to Mutianyu, which is more authentic and less popular so that we could fully appreciate the monumentality of the structure in nature.

On Friday, we visited two private architectural firms in the heart of Beijing. They are both in the traditional courtyard preservation district. One was founded by four Chinese architects; the other was by a Belgian. Last week, we visited a big design institution, the China Architecture Group. Students got a more balanced view about the contemporary design practice in China through such organized visits and with discussion with designers of diverse styles and backgrounds.

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On Saturday, we went to the Panjiayuan Antique Market. There are literally acres of vendor’s booths and shops. Students saw various artifacts from Shang-Zhou bronze, to Song-Yuan ceramics, to Ming-Qing paintings, though most of them were replicas. Some students had their Chinese names carved in traditional literati stone seals.

On Saturday evening, we went to the traditional Beijing Opera theater Huguang Huiguan. It is one of the few architecturally traditional opera houses in Beijing. All audience members had tables and could eat and drink during performance, a default enjoyment of theatergoers in the past. The students could now connect the final result with the rigorous trainings they witnessed during last week’s theater school visit.

The students also went to many historic sites and interesting places during their free time in Beijing, including the Summer Palace Yiheyuan and the Beijing Zoo.


Journal: Week Two

During the second week, we had lectures on Chinese religion and music in the mornings, and a variety of workshops on Chinese performing arts in the afternoons.

In the exhibition hall of the musical instrument collection at the Central Conservatory of Music, students learned and tried many different traditional instruments, including the Tibetan long horn. The lecture by Professor Zhang Boyu covered the cultural historical contexts of these musical instruments.

At the Beijing Traditional Opera School, students observed and got a taste of the rigorous training that the Chinese actors endure.

On Thursday, we took the over-night sleeper train to the ancient capital of Xi’an. The students could practice Chinese calligraphy in the hotel lobby there.

In Xi’an, we visited the Neolithic Banpo (5000-3000 BCE) site and the First Emperor’s Mausoleum and the Terra-cotta Armies of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). We also saw the largest pyramid – the First Emperor’s Tomb – in the world in terms of the area covered.

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The night view of Xi’an’s Bell Tower is majestic.

On Saturday, we visited the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) tomb for Emperor Wu and the Tang Dynasty (618-906) tomb for Emperor Taizong. Some students climbed all the way up to the top of the mountain/mausoleum. We also went to the famous Great Mosque of Xi’an from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and studied the Chinese Islamic architecture.

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On Sunday, we went to two Buddhist temples – the Great Wild Goose and the Small Wild Goose – with pagodas from the Tang Dynasty. We climbed to the top of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and experienced its dark and vertical interior.

The students also went to many historic sites and interesting places during their free time in Beijing.



Journal: Week One

During the first week, we had lectures on Chinese cultural history in the morning and a variety of workshops in the afternoon.

This is the Chinese ink painting workshop. The students had hand-on practice on traditional ink painting.

The students had hands-on practice with traditional Chinese ink painting.

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They also had their first Taiji martial art lesson.


Tian’anmen Square and Forbidden City


On Wednesday, we went to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, and walked the north-south imperial urban axis of Beijing. The students studied the design of imperial Beijing and learned what the big urn in the Forbidden City was used for. We also went to the same restaurant where President Xi Jinping recently had lunch.



During the first weekend, we went to Luoyang in Henan province, one of the six ancient capitals of China. We visited the first Buddhist temple in China, the White Horse Temple. We also visited the magnificent Longmen Caves, learning about Buddhist art and architecture. Despite the rain, the students really enjoyed themselves.

The students also went to many historic sites and interesting places on their own, such as the Temple of Heaven and the Ox Street Mosque.

More to come!