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Spring Break in Beijing with the Honors Program

Posted Thu., March 14, 2013

Spring Break provided dozens of students with a variety of unique academic trips. Psychology students went to a conference in New York with Dr. Oldenburg. Fr. Killian led Campus Ministry’s Benedictine Pilgrimage to Rome during this very exciting time for the Church. Students from the McKenna School traveled to Chile to study the management of a number of international companies under the direction of Dr. Quinlivan and Dr. Kunkle. And, Honors Program students traveled to Beijing with Ms. Bennellick, Dr. Leiner, and me. Students on the Honors Program trip are studying the China of the 21st Century: Past and Future. They are examining the connection between China’s traditional culture and everyday life in the rapidly developing economic power. Readings include Country Driving by Peter Hessler, selected stories from Call to Arms by Lu Xun, and the Analects of Confucius. This is truly a rapidly changing county. Although I was there only ten months ago, I noticed new buildings, new subway lines, increased traffic and decreased air quality.  

Forbidden City 

In Beijing we visited the most popular tourist sites – the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Lama Temple, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately a political meeting closed Tiananmen Square to visitors and heightened security. The military presence was daunting. Pictured above is the Forbidden City taken on our first day on tour. Note the clear skies – conditions that would not last through the week.

Student at Great WallThe saying in China is that you cannot be considered a hero until you visit the Great Wall. Fifteen Bearcats made the trek on Tuesday of Spring Break week. Some textbooks still repeat the myth that the Great Wall is visible from space with the naked eye. While this is not true, the Great Wall lives up to its name when you see it from the Earth. The Wall might be aptly renamed the Great Staircase. The section we hiked was a mile long and a 1000 foot climb. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that no two steps are the same height. Nonetheless most of us made it to the top and back down in the two hours we were allotted. I will admit to limping around Beijing for the next few days.

We also toured a traditional Beijing neighborhood called a Hutong. Residences of the Hutong form a close-knit community. They live in modest single floor dwellings with rooms enclosing an open central courtyard. Individual homes do not have plumbing so a common bathroom is shared by many families. Tsinghua UniversityNarrow alleyways run through the neighborhood meeting with major roads at the end of the Hutong. At the end of the week we also visited the High School Associated with Beijing Normal University and Tsinghua University. Today, Beijing Normal University includes the buildings built by Saint Vincent as part of Fu Jen University – the first Catholic University in China. The High School was coincidently the high school attended by Lu Xun the early 20th century author whose short stories the students are reading for the Honors course. A classroom at the High School honors the author and includes his complete works. At Tsinghua University, the group met with Saint Vincent grads, Jillian Janflone and Emerson Duym , and participated in an English language class. Jillian and Emerson live in Beijing and teach for the Heibei Institute which prepares Chinese students to attend College in the United States including Saint Vincent. Currently three students from the Institute are at Saint Vincent. The picture to the left shows Jillian, Emerson, their Tsinghua students, and the Saint Vincent students in front of the west gate of Tsinghua University.

On our free afternoon students had a choice to trek with me to the Beijing Ancient Astronomical Observatory or shop at a market. While most went to the market two of us made the two mile walk to the old city wall and paid homage at the longest active observatory in history. Buddhist monks, Chinese, Muslim, and Jesuit astronomers observed the heavens from this location from approximately the year 500 to 1929. For 20 yuan (approximately $3.00) we had the Observatory and all the exhibits essentially to ourselves. The 500 year old brass instruments on the top of the wall are the actual instruments used to accurately map the sky. Chinese astronomers predicted eclipses, recorded sunspots before the telescope was invented, and reported supernova that Europeans failed to notice during medieval times.  

Beijing Ancient Observatory 

As you can see from the picture from the observatory above, toward the end of the week the infamous air pollution of Beijing made its appearance. Although we did not have to wear masks all the time, we had them as a precaution. Two of the negative impacts of rapid economic growth that we experienced were the poor air quality that reached hazardous levels a couple times and the traffic which slowed to a crawl during rush hours. Nonetheless the rich culture and welcoming people of Beijing made the most lasting impressions. The night before we left students joined with locals in Jianzi – a Chinese version of Hacky Sack played with a badminton-like bird. Nothing can match the experience of visiting the people and culture that you are studying. The acts of touching the ancient stones of the Great Wall, visiting the largest Buddha carved from a single tree-trunk at the Lama Temple, standing on the center of the universe at the Temple of Heaven, and eating, talking, writing, and playing with the residence of the city connects you to the place with a bond impossible to fully reproduce with text, pictures, or video. On the plane ride home everyone felt that they would return again someday. When we do, much will undoubtedly change, but I suspect the heart and soul of the people of this ancient and yet thoroughly modern city will remain the same.  

 Group Photo - China - Leavng 




Your blog is a great synopsis of our experiences in Beijing. One thing that really stood out in my mind while visiting Beijing was the great contrasts between the social classes. Next to a traditional market where poor merchants haggle and plead with passersby to buy something there is a 6 story mall with beautiful stores and set prices where people come in. On the street you might see a brand new Lamborghini drive past a man on a severely rusty bicycle. This perhaps is also a clash with Chinese culture and Western culture.
Posted by: Nicholas Higgins at March 15, 2013 8:04pm
Thank you Dr. John for your unique prospective of China today. When I was at SVC in the early 1950's, I never imagined that such a trip could be made during my lifetime.
Posted by: Mike Smetanka at March 18, 2013 12:02am
This is really great, Dr.Smetanka! Such a great summary of the great time we had. I am so glad I had the opportunity to participate in this trip. I really liked that we got to visit a high school and university as well. That was pretty neat.
Posted by: Alexis Oropallo at March 24, 2013 2:38pm
Of all the trips any of that SV plans, THIS should be one of the first few that immediately comes to mind. It is a trip that comes only once in a lifetime to most people, and at an incredibly cheap rate with excellent service.
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