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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Shijingshan District: A cultural heritage and advanced technology hub

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By Talibeh Hydara

First of all, I went to the movies. Yippee!!! For the first time in my life, I actually left home and went straight to watch a movie in a theatre. I’ve been watching movies all my life. From watching Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Sylvester Stallone on a black-and-white television plugged to a car battery as a kid in the village to watching Will Smith, Vin Diesel, James Spader on a flat TV screen plugged into a socket in Manduar. I grew up watching movies of all kinds; Chinese, Indian, American, Nigerian, but not once have I ever been to the movies, until I came to Beijing. The experience was chilling: big theatre, immersive screen, comfortable seats and, to cap it off, a cupful of popcorn! The trip to China Film Company had everything. 

I watched The Wandering Earth II, a sequel to the Chinese sci-fi movie in which humans do the impossible to move the earth to a new solar system because the sun is burning out. Don’t worry, if that would ever happen, you and I wouldn’t be alive to see it. Those that come after us would take care of that problem while we sleep six feet under the ground. The movie portrays advanced technology, unity in diversity and bravery. It shows that if we help each other, if we listen to each other and be patient with each other, we could do anything, which includes moving the earth to a new place. I watched a great movie, munched popcorn and returned to the residence with a mug that I am still trying to figure out what it cannot do. The mug is so strong that I don’t think it would break even if you drop it from the sky. I got a comic costume too which gives me an appearance of a beggar rather than a vigilante in Atlantis.

I get excited whenever I see a fieldtrip on our weekly schedule. As a writer, going to new places and meeting new people can be a great muse.

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I’ve been to many places already since I arrived but, so far, none has inspired me more than the Moshikou area in the Shijingshan District. I felt possessed walking in that street, shaped like a dragon with the best road decoration I’ve ever seen. Once a battleground for military strategists, the Moshikou area took me back to thousands of years. The camel-bell road felt like Camelot to me and I felt the range of the polearm, the hug of the lamellar, the weight of the metal helmet and the galloping of horses as warriors clashed in the battlefield. Moshikou Avenue is a “millennial path and century-old street” that not only connected the capital with the outside world for thousands of years but helped me time-travel to the most vivid times of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The same area houses the Fahai mural art centre. I walked into mosques and churches so many times in my life but never a temple. It is a profound historical and cultural complex. Giant vertical screens. Striking illumination and a soothing sound that followed me all the way back to the residence. We had to do a little bit of climbing but it was worth the struggle because I got to meet Tankasri Avalokitesvara, the water-moon Kuan-Yin, the god of compassion. 

The last part was the best part for me. We watched a short 3D movie inspired by Wan Fuqing, the painter of the murals in the temple. The movie was about Fuqing when the temple was built during the time of Ming Zhengtong.

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In the movie, Fuqing mobilised painters to create the murals. He was a perfectionist and that got the better of him. He got exhausted and fell asleep. He then dreamed a trip to heaven where he met crowds of gods. All the animals and gods that should be painted, more or less presented themselves to him. That is all an artist needed. Fuqing woke up enlightened and then gathered all the painters to get to work. That is how and when the murals of the Fahai Temple were completed.

Believe it or not, I went into the skies with Fuqing and met the ancestors. I thought they were in the ground. It was the closest I have been to heavens and I didn’t want to come back. The experience felt so real. The lions roaring. The birds chirping. The greenish scenery. I could live in that hall forever.

Prior to stepping into the great Fahai temple, we had a brief stop at Gu Dao Si Cun, transformed from the historic Laoye Temple. The antique courtyard peeks into the memoire and folk customs of western Beijing. I found a frog chilling for thousands of years, unbothered by the noise around or the encircling gods in the siheyuan.

From the Fahai temple to the Cheng’en temple, the historical residence of Emperor and the most mysterious temple in Beijing, I embarked on a spiritual journey so much that I felt like a Swami. The Moshikou area—surrounded by lush hills, green pines and verdant cypresses—chronicles scintillating historical facts about revered dynasties in the Chinese folklore. It is a place everyone should visit.   

Shijingshan is not only home to temples and historical artefacts. It is also a prospective innovative district with both the science fiction center and a metaverse park with cutting-edge technology.

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It has put China’s sci-fi industry on a revolutionary path to development. The Zhongguancun science fiction industry innovation centre, the LUSTER Metaverse centre, the SOREAL Metaverse park and WANOS have all wowed me. But from LUSTER’s immaculate implantation of eyes and brains into machines to WANOS immersive production of sound, nothing captivated me more than the prototype computerised intelligence car.  

The car has biometric palm recognition. That means you don’t need any keys to even open it. All you have to do is just wave at it; show it your palm and it opens for you. Its sophistication is even beyond that. When you want to lower the car window, all you have to do is command it with your finger, no handles or power-driven buttons anymore. In my country, the handles to open the car windows are most of the time somewhere in a pocket in front of the driver. As a passenger, if you want to lower the window or close it, the driver would have to give you the metal handle and you screw it in first before rolling it down or up. This vehicle saves you all that trouble. Just point your finger to the direction you want the glass to go; up or down, and it does exactly that.

The car is being programmed like a partner, sort of. It has both gesture and voice recognition. When you are in, it picks up your mood. If you’re sad, it plays a soothing music to calm you down and makes sure your body temperature is in tandem with that of the vehicle. Not just that, the usual side and rear-view mirrors have been replaced with cameras, which means you don’t have to struggle anymore to see what’s in your cracked mirror outside. The screen is just in front of you with the best images possible. On the safety aspect, and this is the fun part, if you’re sleepy, the car alarms each time your eyes are closed or even pick a cigarette. This is an astonishing step into the future!

It is a prototype, yes, but from today, I am going to start saving money until that car is ready. It is my type of car. 

Growing up and watching movies, it has always crossed my mind to take some form of self-defence lessons. Being vulnerable and defenceless has scared me since I was a kid. But without masters, we practised karate and kung fu moves we watched in films. We stretched our muscles, put pressure on our bones and endured unbearable pain. Through that self-inflicted pain, I learned to punch hard, do splits accurately and backflip. It was amazing how well my body responded to the rigorous trainings we devised on our own without any professional help. Self-defence stayed with me ever since. I wanted to take lessons; taekwondo, karate, kung fu, anything that increases my alertness and gives me a chance to defend myself. Later in life, however, the items on my priority list kept replacing each other and by the time I realised it, self-defence was down the pecking order. That is why I was thrilled to take part in basic Tai Chi lessons on Friday. Tai Chi is sports, health, martial art all rolled into one. It is a practice that involves a series of slow gentle movements and physical postures, a meditative state of mind, and controlled breathing. In 2020, it was listed in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. That means it is already widely appreciated and I cannot tell you anything new about it. I just want to share my experience.

Leading the lessons was Mr Yang Songquan, the founder of Beijing Chenjiagou Taijiquan Training Center, who has been a global icon of Tai Chi for decades. He was born in Chenjiagou, the birthplace of Taijiquan and grandson of Master Chen Zhaopi.

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Yang Songquan is in his early 70s but not even a cat makes a more distinctive gait than him. As young as I am and as old as Songquan is, by the time the lessons ended, there was stark difference in our energy levels. It’s been few days since but I still feel like my muscles are leaving my body. He and his students even did some advanced demonstrations for us, including the ‘touching hands’ style but he was just smooth and strong. Mr Yang Songquan has given us the basic lessons in Tai Chi and, with the help of the pamphlet, I will start doing it in my room, following each step and immersing in the silence. I believe what Yang Songquan believes: “Taijiquan is the most brilliant doctor, which can keep human beings away from diseases.” It was quite fulfilling to just follow his steps and silent movements of his hands. Tai Chi is special!   

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