Beijing Cultural Adventures

Beijing is China's cultural capital. In this excerpt from Adventure Guide: China, writer Simon Foster explores the array of cultural adventures available in the capital city, from traditional tai chi to more modern options such as wine-tasting.
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Food and Drink
Eating and drinking is something taken very seriously in China and, while you may feel you know what to expect, based on Chinese restaurants around the globe, think again. Most overseas Chinese restaurant dishes are only loosely based on Cantonese cooking, one of the four major styles, and specialization in each one of these runs deeper than you could imagine, with some chefs spending decades perfecting just one dish. Thus part of exploring China should definitely involve exploring its cuisine; not only is it mouth-wateringly tasty, but it is such a fundamental part of life here that it gives real insight into the nature of the country. Food is such an important facet of the culture that a basic greeting like "ni chi baole ma?" which is used to mean "how are you?" translates as "have you eaten yet?" China's new economy is based on business deals cut over extravagant banquets and all the major festivals have associated snacks or dishes.

Learn Chinese Cooking
Learn traditional Chinese dishes (especially Cantonese and Szechuanese), where else but in a hutong house at 3 Shajing Hutong, Nanluoguxiang. Call Chunyi on 010-8401-4788 or e-mail to arrange a lesson. Classes cost ¥150 per person and run from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm.

Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous that chopsticks are hardly a new thing in the West, but do you know how they came into being 3,000 years ago? Originally much larger versions were used to stir and remove food during cooking (and these can still be seen), but over time they were refined into the chopsticks we know today. The Chinese name, kuaizi, translates as quick (or nimble) sticks and that's exactly what they are, enabling the diner to eat comfortably using only one hand. It is normal to hold them with your right hand, which avoids clashing elbows at circular tables, and the best leverage is gained from holding them two-thirds of the way up. The bottom stick should remain immobile while the top one is held like a pen to manipulate the food. Don't worry too much about your ability (or lack thereof) with chopsticks as you'll be forgiven your faux pas. But there are a couple of things you should avoid doing. Passing food with chopsticks or sticking them vertically into your bowl will cause offence as these actions are associated with funeral rites. To indicate that you've finished eating, simply rest your chopsticks horizontally across the top of your bowl.

Restaurants tend to offer plastic, metal or ceramic chopsticks, and most canteens will provide disposable wooden ones, which causes hundreds of trees to be cut down daily. The cheapest places might only have washed wooden versions, so if you plan on eating in a lot of these places (and want to help the environment) it's worth carrying your own pair.

Beijing's putonghua dialect is the language the rest of the country speaks and the capital is therefore one of the best places to study Chinese. Added to this, the number of expats and foreign students means that there are a plethora of study options, from full-blown university courses to private lessons and even places where you learn through traditional artistic activities. The listings below offers short-term courses and are thus suitable if you won't be spending too long in Beijing.

Ai Kun Sheng (+135-5248-0411), at 3E in the Linda Tower, due south of Liufang subway (exit B), offers a unique way to learn the language while partaking in traditional Chinese activities such as calligraphy, tai chi and traditional Chinese painting. A one-week course involving 20 hours of training costs from ¥2000.

Global Village (+010-6253-7737), near Wudaokou light rail station, is an international chain which offers private lessons or ¥240 for 20 hours in a group class.

My Chinese (+010-6417-9553, is conveniently located at Room 8203, Baoliyuan Building, Gongti Bei Lu in Chaoyang. Along with conventional Mandarin lessons they also offer painting and calligraphy classes.

Published: 21 Jul 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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