Beijing is a city with a number of different faces. In and around DongCheng, ChaoYang, and XiCheng, a modern metropolis marries looming architecture reminiscent of the Soviet Union, all this seemingly interspersed with relics from Imperial China. Move around enough and you find places reminding you of Europe, such as the 798 art district. And then If you look carefully around the city centre, you find the old hutongs, some refurbished, such as the famous Nan Luo Gu Xiang, others either waiting redevelopment or about to get demolished as part of an urban planning programme. At various parts of the city are the beautiful parks, where a quick paddle boat across the many lakes is easily affordable.
Peking University is much like the city. It, too, is a sprawling, neatly organised rectangle where the compass directions of North and South help orient you. It, too, has crowds – of both students and visitors – traversing its grounds daily. It, too, has many different faces: we have the sleek, greyscale, Natural Science Buildings where our classes are held; the South part of the campus with dormitories for the local students; the picturesque North with lush greenery and the administrative offices in Imperial style.
During my month here, I took three classes. Each also showcased a different side of China, as well as ‘Beida’, as the University is locally known. I stumbled into the advanced Chinese Class, almost regretting the choice – I had not studied (nor used) my Mandarin for close to five years. But it was the best decision I made. A couple of years ago, back in Singapore where I am from, a debate started on the way we learnt mandarin in school. The authorities admitted to getting some things wrong. If they wanted to learn from someone, I would point them immediately to Beida. My Chinese teacher uses an extremely simple, but effective style: whenever we would learn a new word, he would either compare the new word to a synonym or antonym. For Mandarin, where words often have precise usages (for instance, the difference between 发展 and 培养) this not only lets the word stick in the mind, but also trains you to use the new word in the right context.
My second class was on Ageing and Population Health. Prior to attending the course, I recognised, obviously, China’s need for a strong field of demographers because of its sheer size. But I had failed to grasp the ageing issue properly. China’s ageing issue, in reality, stems from a startling confluence of factors: birth control, Chinese culture, rapid economic development and its large population. The oft-repeated soundbite often used to capture this notion was that France took 114 years to double its ageing population from 7% to 14%; it has taken China just 27. However, the fascinating aspect was the strange confluence of factors listed above that came together to create a policy puzzle. A case in point: China has a huge eldercare problem. The one-child policy means that four aged parents only have two children looking after them; this is made more difficult by Chinese tradition which emphasizes informal care by the female, meaning one middle-aged female might be asked to care for up to four aged parents! It is a common problem with unique origins.
My final class, on Local Traditions and Chinese Society, was an entertaining combination of history, sociology, anthropology, and food. Our Professor encouraged us to watch a hit documentary called a bite of China, half a social commentary on the different regions within China, half a documentary on food. The class could be described in the same way. The Professor reiterated that China is a lot more complex than simply a rural-urban split. In food, for instance, there goes a saying that people in the North ate wheat while people in the South ate rice; the North-South divide was also captured by the old saying杏花春雨江南，骏马秋风。 As part of the class, we got introduced to GongFu tea and food from more than the eight famous regions (Guangdon, Shandong, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Henan, and Anhui). He ordered us to eat at restaurants serving different cuisines – not that we needed much persuasion － and he even brought us out to eat! Our meals also gave us the chance to eat with some local students from Beida, and I quickly found out that sharing a plate of food was not a common practice in China! Lastly, the class also introduced me to a famous Peking University Professor called Fei Xiao Tong （费孝通）, whose book on rural China I liked so much I even bought a Chinese copy to attempt to read.
Outside of the academics, we were not short of the usual touristy exploits. One highlight was a rather bold experience at the night market in Wang Fu Jing, where we tried lamb’s testicles, fried starfish, and roasted silkworm. Another was a non-highlight. On the fateful Saturday we picked to visit the Great Wall, we were impeded by what we later found out was the heaviest rainfall in Beijing for sixty years. Naturally, we could see but a mere five metres from the wall. Undeterred, we booked a hostel at a different section the next day. Braving a cancelled train service (due to the rain) and a tout who pretended to be a public transport officer, we got on the bus to Badaling to see the sunset on what was perhaps the clearest day we experienced in Beijing. We rounded the weekend trip off with horse-riding on some grassland plains and a visit to the well-known Longqing Gorge (龙庆峡).
The most impressive thing, however, is that Beijing, Beida, and China have so much more to offer. I cannot wait to come back!