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Archive for March, 2007

Zach’s First (Chinese) Bike Ride

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Approximately every single day since we arrived in China, Zachary (age 7) has been asking for a bike. Riding a bike in China is just a step beyond chaos – regardless of your age. Even within our apartment complex ‘sidewalks’ there is always people, dogs, stray cats, bikes, motorcycles, carts, construction rubbish, potholes, cars and sometimes trucks (not being funny yet). So as you can imagine, we have been at hesitant (read: terrified — that was supposed to be humorous).

So last week, we made the leap. Zach did great. We started small (see obstacle course above). A few days later Zach and I on our bikes ventured outside the apartment complex for the 10-minute ride to the local KFC (more intense – enter bigger vehicles going faster and people selling vegetables and pot -handles). Again Zach did great, and his confidence soared (which was quickly followed by a talk about “healthy fear”…).

Proud & nervous,

Dan

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[Click on thumbnails above for larger image]

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The Altar of Heaven

Please note – most of the information given in this post is directly taken from the book “Faith of our Fathers” by C. K. Thong. I highly recommend it for those interested in exploring the historical roots of worship of the Creator God (Shang Di) in ancient China.

DSC03016.JPG Prayer Hall of Good Harvests, main building in the complex
Tian Tan (commonly known as the Temple of Heaven) is one of my favorite places in Beijing. A 1920 National Geographic article describes the main temple as a “single building in which the simple dignity of Chinese architecture is at its best.” The buildings and grounds are magnificent in their symmetry, simplicity and focus. The current site was built during the Ming Dynasty, under the direction of Emperor Yong Le (who also built the Forbidden City) who reigned from 1402 – 1424. It encompasses an area of 674 acres, making it the largest site of Chinese religious activity, as well as the world’s largest altar dedicated to the worship of the Creator God.

Mr. Thong’s extensive research brought him to the conclusion that ancient Chinese leaders understood that Shang Di could never be contained in a building, or displayed as an idol – but rather that He is infinite and ever-present. The so called Temple of Heaven is more accurately translated “Altar of Heaven” as tian means heaven and tan means altar. This point is important, as the Chinese use the word temple (maio) to describe a place to house the spirits and gods of folk religions.

The Border Sacrifice Ceremony, followed by 22 emperors over 500 years at this particular site, is astoundingly similar to the rites practiced by Hebrew worshipers in the Old Testament. Celebrated during the winter solstice of each year, the Border Sacrifice Ceremony was the most sacred duty of the Emperor, and established his right to rule with the Mandate of Heaven. Interestingly, the origins and traditions of the ceremony began 4,000 years ago, pre-dating the instructions given to Moses regarding proper worship. We have to conclude that while the Mosaic law was given well after the Chinese worship ceremonies were instituted, an understanding of what is acceptable and pleasing to Shang Di is written on the heart of man.

In “Faith of our Fathers”, Mr. Thong relates in great detail every aspect of this important ceremony, including the ancient texts, songs, implements, dances and sacrifices involved. I will attempt to point out just a few of the amazing similarities:

1. Three months before the Ceremony, officials were sent outside of the city to find clean, solid colored, unblemished animals (usually calves) to sacrifice.

2. The emperor and his officials would fast from meat, wine and women for three days, in order to purify his thoughts.

3. After being accompanied in absolute silence by 5,000 attendants (military, horses, elephants, eunuchs, etc) for the 3 mile route to the Altar, the emperor alone would enter the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Here, the most powerful ruler in the world would prostrate himself before a tablet inscribed with the Name Above All Names (Huang Tian Shang Di) or Supreme Lord of the Great Heaven by kneeling and kowtowing a total of nine times.

DSC03027.JPG At the top of the steps is the tablet inscribed with the Name Above All Names (Huang Tian Shang Di)
4. The day of the ceremony would begin around 4:15 or seven quarters of an hour before sunrise. After purifying his hands and face in a specially set aside golden basin, the emperor would be carried in a sedan, wearing bo silk, the highest quality silk available, to the Altar Mound. Tablets bearing the inscriptions of ancestors and other spirits were arranged in lesser positions, inviting their participation, but not as objects of worship themselves.

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Looking at the complex from the Altar Mound itself, 5 meters tall and made entirely of white marble

5. The ceremony itself was divided into nine stages: Welcoming Di, Offering of Gems and Silk, Offering of the Zu (the roasted meat from the animal sacrifice), First Presentation of the Wine-Martial Dance, Second Presentation of the Wine-Civil Dance, Final Presentation of Wine, Removal of the Offerings, Sending Off Di and The Burnt Offering. Each stage was accompanied by pronouncements, music and kowtowing to Shang Di.

The songs included in the ceremony are the most striking to me. Some seem lifted right out of the Old Testament, which wasn’t even written yet! Consider: “Of old in the beginning, there was the great chaos, without form and dark … in the midst of it there existed neither form nor sound. You, O spiritual Sovereign, came forth in your Sovereignty, and first did separate the impure from the pure. You made heaven; You made earth; You made man. All things became alive with reproducing power.” Sound like Genesis? Its from “Zhong He” or “Song of Central Peace” sung during the first stage. During the second stage, the “Xiu He” lyrics include: “You have promised, O Di, to hear us, for You are our Father. I, your child, dull and unenlightened, am unable to show forth my dutiful feelings. I thank You, that You have accepted our pronouncement. Honorable is Your Great Name … I praise Your abundant love.” Familiar? And this one (“Xian He” or “Song of Splendid Peace”) I find especially compelling “The service of the song is completed, but our poor sincerity cannot be expressed. Your sovereign goodness is infinite. As a potter, You have made all things. Great and small are sheltered by Your love. Imprinted on the heart of your poor servant is the sense of Your goodness, so that my feeling cannot be fully displayed. With great kindness You do bear with us, and not withstanding our demerits, do grant us life and prosperity.” Finally, from the sending off ceremony, “Qing He” or “Song of Pure Peace”: “Forever He sets fast the high
heavens, and establishes the solid earth. His government is everlasting. His unworthy servant, I bow my head; I lay it in the dust, bathed in His grace and glory.”

Remarkable, isn’t it? Although many emperors throughout Chinese history followed the practices without understanding their significance (not too different than many of us in the west, I think), the Altar of Heaven and the worship of Shang Di celebrated there clearly point to His involvement in China from the very beginning of Chinese history. Our faith is not, as some would insist, a western and foreign religion, irrelevant to the mind and practice of the Chinese.

The Border Ceremony was practiced in China through the very last year of the rule of the dynasties, 1911. Each year, the emperor would worship, then send off Di for another season. The sacrifices and rites were only temporary salves, much like the Hebrew practice, requiring regular sacrifices for forgiveness of the sins of the nation. The gift of the Son, the ultimate sacrifice, once and for all eliminates the need for the Border Sacrifice Ceremony — and ushers in a new covenant between Shang Di and his creation.

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Large altar to burn the sacrificial animals/magnificent architecture/Rachel and I enjoy this special place, three days after the winter solstice

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West Michigan Visits East China

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I love looking back at old pictures. But I always feel a mixture of warm sentiment and sadness that those days are gone.

That was a little bit of what it was like to recently host Julie and Bryan Johnston, wonderful friends from Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was just great to have them here, but it made me all the more sad to see them go. Frankly it made us miss all our friends and family back home.

Join me now for a brief montage of our time together…

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We began their visit with a traditional Chinese dinner with local friends/ Bryan attempts to play a friend of ours a Chinese game. He lost. We all did. Mess with the bull, you are going to get the horns.

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Julie and Bryan in the middle of Ancient Culture Street – a local shopping district.

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Lunch in the Forbidden City. Julie LOVED those noodles!

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Pictures from inside the mysterious green coffee shop located inside said city. Always seeking a cross-cultural experience, we investigated.  We don’t think picture taking was encouraged, but my arm is quite long.

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Ahhhaaa

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Our local friend Thomas experiences Tim’s Texas BBQ in Beijing – complete with sweet tea!

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As we were passing through the ultra-fancy St. Regis hotel (P&S!) to get some ice cream, we witnessed a press conference with U.S. Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill as the 6 party talks with North Korea were underway. He did not ask for our input.

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Lantern Festival Celebration

Yuan Xiao Jie or Lantern Festival, is celebrated 15 days after Chinese New Year. It is the traditional end to the Spring Festival holiday, and is celebrated with its own special customs and food. At nighttime, parents and children walk through the night with paper lanterns lit by candles, fireworks are exploded and sticky rice balls filled with sweet or spicy filliings (“yuan xiao”) are eaten.

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Yuan Xiao (fried) and in soup – delicious!/Preparing the Yuan xiao

This year, Yuan Xiao Jie was March 4th – and Daniel was in Beijing for business. The children and I joined my Chinese teacher and his family for a traditional meal and firecrackers. Walking to his home in the snow, with firecrackers exploding all around,the children’s expressions went from wonder to fear to tears, then to excitement. I really can’t explain how it feels to take children out on such a night.

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Getting firecrackers ready/smoke and noise of the firecrackers exploding/Noah toasts our gracious hosts

Returning home around 9, the snow was quite heavy, muffling the firecrackers a bit. After ten, it was quiet enough for the children to finally drop off to sleep. What an evening of memories for us all!

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DK’s Lunch Bunch & “What is this?”

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So we have gotten used to to some very ordinary experiences that are really pretty unique. Lunch at the office is one of those. Below are a few pictures of my co-workers from my office. We gather in the conference room everyday for lunch (although several times a week I will go to the kid’s school for lunch). The people are a wonderful mix of local Chinese, 2) a Singaporean, a Dutchmen and Westerners like me. The food choices are equally eclectic (my favorite is fan bien men, which is basically like Cup O’ Noodles/ramen, an apple and’ imported’ beef jerky (special thanks to the Peterson family!)).

But the best part is the conversation. It is always a wandering mix of Chinese, English (including a Texan!) and Dutch. I understand most of the English, a fraction of the Chinese and none of the Dutch. It is constantly a compare/contrast of our cultures. What a learning experience! I am finding out so much about the Chinese culture AND my own. I feel as though I am just beginning to discover the richness and blind-spots of both.

My favorite comment was made yesterday: “Shen ma shi ja ge?”, or “What is this?” When Americans eat Chinese food in America, what do they always serve afterwards? Fortune cookies. Some friends of mine here shared a small box of such ‘traditional’ Chinese treats brought by family from the States (thank you Scott families!). I brought them to the office yesterday. My Chinese friends had NEVER seen or heard of fortune cookies before. It was quite funny to introduce them to this “traditional” Chinese cookie!
– Dan

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Like Manna From Heaven!!!

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I never thought I could get so excited about a suitcase. This is special suitcase. This suitcase was hand-delivered to China. This suitcase was full of LOVE. Our dear, dear friends from Family Ch Stores put together an amazing care package and sent it via the visiting Julie Johnston. It is truly hard to describe, not only how appreciated these Western items are, but the shared affection that exists between my family and our ‘FCS Family’. These gift were so thoughtful and personal. Here is the run-down:

  • A Cornucopia of Cereal. Breakfast cereal and instant oatmeal are like gold. Impossible to find and essential to getting the kids off to school each morning. We loved the notes (Sara IS “sweet as peaches”!).
  • A Jumbo Java. Not just a big bag. A big bag of my FAVORITE coffee beans in the world – Schuil’s Northwest Dark Blend (I can say the ‘world’ part now). And what goes better with a delicious mug o’ brew than yummy chocolates? (also included).
  • A Myriad of Music. A huge and fresh selection of the latest and greatest, clearly hand-picked Ch music. I literally named my new playlist “Chris & Dan Love Me”. He wo ai nimen, wo de peng you!
  • Egg-Riffic. Somebody was thinking – we got Easter Egg coloring (and super-fancy Tye Dye – wowzers!). How thoughtful was that?! The kids were dying to do it right then! Of course, we could never find it here and we will get to use it with local friends for our Easter parties. Perhaps the real meaning of Easter will come up…
  • Leaping Leotards. This next one just about makes me cry. Sara asked Julie if should could find a few leotards for Mia’s new dance class (see post below). Our friend Shelley and her daughter Kayleigh found out (BOTH quite the dancers). And they gave us Kayleigh’s “all-time favorite” leotard (the one below that is pink/purple/black). Can you imagine a more special gift?

More on our time with the Johnston family in a few weeks. I thought about including a shameless plug for shopping at FCS, but I think I have already done that…
So Thankful,

Dan

PS Several of you out there have also sent packages – trust us, our response is the same as above. Thank you!

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Craziness breaks out!

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Only real dance professionals need to wear two leotards at once! (Hannah on far right)


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Daughters of the King

DSC03872.JPGWhen you are given a gift you didn’t even know you needed, well, that is when you KNOW you are understood and loved. This past week, a dear lady began a dance class for the 4 – 6 year old girls on our team. There are no mirrors or wooden floors, no dressing rooms or ballet bars, but the group of little girls who gathered last Monday in a beautiful assortment of Easter dresses, Barbie dress-up clothes and nightgowns were floating on clouds. “Aunt” Beth made each girl feel precious and graceful and lady-like … their “flower dance” brought tears to my eyes.

Sweet Mia loves dance class. Its something just for her and its really, really pretty. There isn’t alot of “pretty” in our lives right now. What a wonderful and unexpected gift for Mommy and Mia!

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The flower dance begins (the girls as seeds)/blossoming flowers/Sweet Mia

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