Classical Chinese

Taiwan Provincial City God Temple, No. 14, Section 1, Wuchang St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100

Saturday afternoon is the busiest time in this traditional Taoist temple. This buzzing place is a colourful spectacle of layers of gold, red, smoke. Smart old men making offers of fruit, young women bow with smoking incense sticks clasped to their brow. I watch a strange ritual dropping of pairs of orange segment shaped red wooden pieces. A deep in prayer and concerned looking 20 year old girl does this several times. I can't even guess what this all means. Older people are sitting filling red envelopes with stacks of yellow prayers. Another woman is building a large ornamental boat and covering it with yellow pieces of paper printed with the red backwards swastika symbolising love. There is a long glass window similar to that of a bank at which some kinds of transactions are being made.

A short man of about 40 in a green shirt approaches me and begins to tell me about the temple. He then hits upon inviting me to a class of Classical Chinese. Why not, I say. He leads me though a sliding door, through a kitchen and up some stairs into a hushed classroom where around 40 men and women in their 50s and above are following pages of printed Chinese characters and repeating them rite fashion as the teacher calls them out and indicates them on a video screen. I am compelled to join in with the chorus, though have no idea what I am saying. My friend, Charles is marking the sheet in pinyin and indicating the tones. He attempts to whisper and explain to me by drawing a c clef and musical notation to explain the relativity of the tones. This works differently from mandarin pronunciation. The drill then becomes harder as the class now read the characters as phrases, and this is where the tones descend to create a flowing music. We are reading classical tang poetry. Charles is a teacher of Classical Chinese, like some of the others here. For him it is essential for the Taiwanese culture to perpetuate this form of the language. I suggest that this is like learning Shakespearean English. He expresses disdain of the simplified Chinese of the mainland. The group is serious and committed. They are excited by a short visit by the director of the temple who shakes my hand warmly then makes a little speech in Classical Chinese. I have to say that the whole experience was quite eye-opening and in spite of Charles eager coaching and explanations that this is worlds away and something that has no function or relationship with anything I could ever do!

Taipei first impressions

Let's be disingenuous and contrast with China. Well the people seem relaxed, confident and don't have that impassive coldness in their faces. Whereas the Chinese youth are as one lost in or hidden behind their mobiles and their peculiar taste in fashion labels and design, the Taiwanese have more cultured passtimes like reading, holding conversations and art. I think an interesting indicator of their sophistication and intelligence is the low rate of smoking and hawking up phlegm.

The 7-11 stores on every block are a treasure trove of bottled teas, plum being my favourite, exotic juices, chilled coffees, soya milks, rice milks and more. I didn't even notice Pepsi or coke. They function as snack bars too with hot buffets of sausages and cauldrons of tea eggs The guys at the counter will microwave things up and you can sit on a stool in the window. Family mart is the same. Meanwhile there are kiosks for buying train tickets and charging the Taipei card which functions as a pre-pay card like the octopus in hk.

You forget what the weather is outside, lost in the labyrinthine multi-layers of malls beneath the main station and running the length of Zhongshan. This is wondrous for the seemingly high number of elderly in motorised wheelchairs, and a pleasant shady place for the groups of youths practising cheerleader dancing and hip hop in the mirror walled arcades. Not a cop or security guard in site, clean, peaceful, lively but no sense of rowdiness or shouting. Between Zhongshan and songshan is a long stretch of book stores with kids, teen, adults and elderly browsing and meditatively immersing themselves in the printed word. I bet there is a damn sight more variety of writings here than in the people's republic…. The mall under the main station is less highbrow, with games arcades, astrologers, an Indonesian corner, ice creams (yes I had one, and although big was not up to gelato standard), stalls selling games figurines. As the place closes for the night I emerge on the street at the bottom of Zhongshan only to find typhoon style rain. By the Jeff koon style silver balloon dog sculpture, the first on a line of interesting small scale outside pieces that line the white brick undulating walkway that follows the Zhongshan metro mall overground (including robots, snails and rabbits), shelter the guys who usually sleep the streets here and guys taking a break from scootering through the deluge. The plastic bag translucent yellow and blue ponchos are not enough tonight.

More to follow. I plan to chill out and write now I'm in Hualien.