Ambassador Amos Nadai (fourth from left) getting a taste of traditional Chinese culture at a dumpling-making session with the locals. Courtesy of Amos Nadai
I came to Beijing six months ago with an image of China that was based on a lot of reading about China since my early childhood, on meeting with Chinese colleagues and visitors to Israel and on very few short visits to China.
I knew that China had entered the 21st century as one of the strongest economic powers and I knew that the big Chinese cities reflect the great success of this country.
And yet, during the six months of my stay in China, while wandering below the super modern towers of Beijing I was wondering where I would be able to see and experience the rural China I imagined as a child.
I spent the Spring Festival together with Israeli friends in Pingyao, Shanxi province. On the way there we stopped at Qiao's Courtyard, northeast of Pingyao in Qixian county.
The courtyard was the residential house of Qiao Zhiyong, a wealthy gentleman in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who attained his fortune in financial and commercial business in the periods of Emperor Jiaqing and Emperor Daoguang. With architectural characteristics typical of northern China, the courtyard is divided into six big yards and 20 small yards with 313 rooms and covers an area of more than 8,700 sq m.
No wonder director Zhang Yimou chose it for the location of his film Raise the Red Lantern. We walked through all the yards and enjoyed the beautiful garden. As it was late afternoon on Chinese New Year, we were alone and felt like walking back in time. We could almost hear the beautiful music composed for the film by Zhao Jiping and imagine people's life hundreds of years ago.
Upon arriving in Pingyao, I immediately realized that the atmosphere of old China is preserved in this wonderful place. We walked for three days in the small alleys and in the courtyards. We were invited to people's homes where we warmed up from the freezing cold and enjoyed their hospitality. None of us spoke fluent Chinese, but language did not create a barrier - they told us about the festival and we told them about Israel.
The atmosphere of the Chinese Spring Festival very much reminded me of our Jewish holidays. We too like to gather our families; we spend time together, invite friends and guests, eat, drink, sing traditional songs and tell stories.
Another thing that reminded me of Jewish tradition was the reference to the importance Chinese people (in olden times as today) attach to education.
In the big courtyard of the Wangs' (a rich salt merchant who built a compound of 34,450 sq m 50 km north of Pingyao in Lingshi county), we saw several courtyards that used to be the different schools for the younger generation and a museum dedicated to the civil service examinations of the period.
We also visited the Pingyao Confucius Temple. The temple has China's largest statue collection of Confucius and famous ancient Confucian scholars, and it was used as a campus for the Pingyao Middle School from 1949 until 2003.
Our best recollection from Pingyao will be associated with our accommodation. We spent four days as guests at Tianyuankui Guest House. The people there opened their house and hearts to us, made us feel at home and enjoy in a very cozy way our unforgettable 2008 Spring Festival. The dumplings we prepared together were the tastiest we will ever have.
This was not my first trip out of Beijing and it certainly will not be the last one. The combination of the special atmosphere of the Spring Festival with the colors, noises and flavors, together with the warm hospitality of the people and the long walks in the beautiful old surroundings, all made our trip to explore traditional China a great success and a very interesting and pleasant experience.
The author is Israel's ambassador to China
(China Daily by Amos Nadai February 22, 2008)