Having grown up in “Mediterranean” San Francisco and then lived in Singapore nearly a decade, winter is something of a novelty to me. This is still true even after six years in Beijing. I don’t much like the desiccating cold or walking around in a cloud of my own skin flakes like the human sno-globe, but I enjoy the occasional snowfalls and the frozen lakes. One of my favorite Beijing experiences was a morning champagne brunch followed by a slightly drunken careen across frozen Qianhai on one of those ice bicycles that have the twin advantages of high speed and a dangerous illusion of steerability. I was double riding with my then colleague, Dennis. I can’t remember which one of us was steering. I do remember that we were thought of as ruffians and idiots. The latter was certainly true, and it’s only through the intervention of some higher power that we didn’t end up drowning under the ice or impaled on one of those little ski-poles that the kids use to prod their slow-poke sled chairs along.
Anyway, the point is, winter: Make the most of it. Now that my son is two and learning to appreciate idiotic behavior I look forward to further snowbound adventures. Although if he does anything like Dennis and I did, he will of course be grounded until global warming ensures that any further such hijinks become impractical.
There is a dark side to these wondrous winter scenes, however. As comes the freezing, so, inevitably, must come the thaw. The thaw has the effect of releasing the animal corpses that have been entombed in the ice all winter. Usually this means fish, and there is nothing like a stroll past a thawing Beijing lake to dazzle you with a lesson in the variety and size of the fish living (or, more accurately, that had lived) in these unpromising sludge ponds. Furthermore, there is always the one currentless doldrum where all the disgorged corpses accumulate.
I was reminded of this during a stroll around Tuanjiehu Park yesterday, my first visit to any of the frozen lakes this winter. Last year Zachary was really still a baby, and his public emergence in anything less than a crocheted NASA spacesuit was an invitation to admonishment from the aunties of Beijing. They are well-meaning, but deep inside they truly believe that foreigners are incompetent at raising children. After all, if we were better at it, there would be more of us. With Zachary much more in the “small boy” category this year, his emergence in inclement weather leads to less scolding and clucking.
As always, the park was festive. There was a Chinese oom-pah band (exactly as euphonious as it sounds) leading a massive sing-along inside the front gate, and the usual collection of small singing groups, lone-wolf erhu-ists, and children gnawing on that culinary hallmark of the Chinese fairground, unnaturally-colored mystery meat on-a-stick. God bless Beijing. Summer or winter, people here know how to use a public park.
The lake that is the dominant feature of Tuanjiehu park was still mostly frozen over. Most of it was slick and gorgeous and only mildly spoiled by a dusting of rubbish half frozen into the ice. But there was one spot, near the pleasure boat docks where in summer you can rent a leaky electric boat and spray cadmium-laced water at friends and family members, that had collected an entire fish market’s worth of moldering corpses. It is an image that will haunt me if ever we take Zach to the water-park on the island in the center of the lake.
At least it was only fish, which you kind of expect even in an urban Beijing lake. Four or five years ago, at exactly this time of year, Imagethief went on a walk past Houhai and Qianhai with the former Asiapundit, Myrick. He was in town from Shanghai to cover the National People’s Congress for the wire service he was working for at the time, and had never really had a look around the city. One of my dominant memories of that walk is the surprising number of turtle corpses we spotted on the ice, recognizable even at a distance as lonely, black humps surrounded by crows.
These turtles are not naturally occuring. Well, these are artificial lakes, so nothing in them is “naturally occurring”. But as far as I know, there is no year-round population of turtles in these lakes. Rather, many of them had been released into the lakes by Beijingers. The dead giveaway is that a number of them were still attached to little “turtle leashes” of string and sticks.
There is a ritual in Chinese Buddhism –放生 or fangsheng– by which one can earn merit by releasing a captive animal. Merit earns you a more advantageous seat on the wheel of karma, and helps ensure your eventual reincarnation a further rung up the ladder toward nirvana rather than a further step down toward cockroach or lemur or whatever your idea of bad is. Forgive the loose explanation, I’m shaky on my Buddhism. But you get the idea.
I see a lot of this ritual at Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year). This isn’t surprising. Spring Festival is heavy on themes of renewal and remembrance, and the temples do good business both in carnal temple fairs (see mystery meat on-a-stick, above) and in spiritual matters. The Chinese, as in so many spheres, have applied their commercial nous to the fangsheng ritual, and you can often buy birds for release at the fairs. The birds are trained to return to their keepers, which has the double advantage of enabling punters to feel meritorious while ensuring that the bird guy protects his capital stock. Everybody wins. Arguably even the bird, which is a good score in Beijing.
The idea of fangsheng, however, is to save an animal that is facing imminent death. Under this definition, the captive bird on the temple fair fangsheng circuit may not completely qualify, and, depending upon how strictly you interpret the scriptures, your merit may vary. Sufficient for the relaxed devotee, but perhaps not for the more orthodox. Also, the temple fairs only run a week or so, and there’s never a bird-release guy around when you need one, and so on. Sometimes, a creative solution is called for. This turns out to be the pet-store (or, more often, animal market) or supermarket turtle. Turtles are cheap. Turtles are substantial enough to matter, karmicly speaking. Turtles don’t test your resolve, like freeing that cockroach you found behind the dumpling-skin flour might.
So people buy and release turtles. Except, with Spring Festival actually falling in a Beijing mid-winter, they release turtles into icy lakes where they promptly freeze to death. The sun then warms their dark shells and the corpses slowly sink into the ice, visible only as dark humps that will be revealed again during the spring thaw. Imagethief is no religious expert, and will defer to someone who is, but to me this seems dubiously meritorious at best. Maybe the turtle moves up the karmic ladder (it starts at a low bar). You won’t.
Turtles aren’t the only animal that catch a hard one during this season. Frogs draw a crappy lot in China at the best of times. In 2007 Imagethief lived in Shanghai in an apartment that backed onto the local wet market. The frog seller set up shop in front of our rear gate. The frog seller’s total shopfront consisted of a bucket of live frogs, hand-held scales, a pair of kitchen shears and some plastic bags. When someone wanted to buy some frogs, the frog seller would use the kitchen shears to decapitate the frogs, and then weigh and package the rest for the customers. Over the course of an afternoon, a tragic pile of frog heads would accumulate. In summer, this would rapidly become a tragic and smelly pile of frog heads. Imagethief used to keep frogs as pets, so this was always a little traumatic for me, like a pile of kitten heads might be to a more normal person.
Market frogs don’t do any better in Beijing than in Shanghai, so saving a frog from the kitchen shears seems as though it could be both cheap and meritorious, a combination designed to excite the thrifty Buddhist. But this goes wrong in winter as well. Mrs. Imagethief was once going for a winter jog by the Tonghuihe canal, near our house, when she saw a family releasing frogs. The frogs got about one kick and then froze more or less instantaneously. You’d think people would catch on after the first couple of frogs, but as anyone who works in business or government knows, processes tend to take on a life of their own. These people released lots of frogs. They all froze.
When the family left, some canal workmen who had been watching from nearby immediately scooped out the frozen frogs and took them home to cook. So, genius, how does the merit allocate on that one?