Sunday, 15 February 2009

Beijing and the Ebbsfleet Horse

It’s January in Beijing and I’m not wearing a coat. Or gloves. Therefore my recollections of my visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing are viewed through a prism of potential hypothermia. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it: for me, the Temple of Heaven definitely rates above the frankly dull Forbidden City with its repetition of identical buildings you can’t go into and facsimile barren stone courtyards.

Probably one of the best points is the expanse of greenery, or brownery rather in January , that surrounds the main temples. Despite being in the middle of Beijing, the park area is remarkably quiet and peaceful, at least in low season, and I’d be quite willing to pay the admission just to stroll around the tree lined avenues, where, if you’re really lucky you can actually achieve the miracle of not being able to see another person.

However, the main draw is of course the beautiful and elaborately decorated temples. The temple was designed as a place for the emperor to pray for harvests and atone for the sins of the people, and the human urgency and vulnerability of its original purpose still seem to shine through, despite the cultural void between me and that of imperial china that rendered the original complex calculations of the design meaningless to me.

The splendid altar also just seems to be begging to be used as a spectacular backdrop for a film. Obviously the designers did their job well, as it is incredibly satisfying to look at, although we were all quite disturbed by the oven nearby designed for burning the sacrificial, and unfortunately still alive, calf. By this time I had managed to reach a level of coldness where I began to wonder how much longer I would have to be outside to get frostbite, so obviously it took us what seemed like a small eternity to be able to find a taxi willing to take us back to our hostel. Once there though, I was revived by several cups of rose tea and the opportunity to peruse their bookshelves.

That evening we went out to explore the notorious Donghuamen Night Market, which sells a variety of freaky foodstuffs to tourists who want to be able to say they’ve consumed a seahorse or scorpion. The array of animals that I’d never before thought to be edible was impressive: other options includes starfish, centipedes, crickets and the penises of various creatures. The vendors were particularly keen to sell these to men, as apparently it is meant to help with virility and stamina, so my friend P was repeatedly screeched at asking if he ‘wanted pipi’. All of us managed to resist the lure of the wares, and indeed the only people I saw eating anything were a few groups of Chinese having a more staid fruit skewer snack. Given that it was getting to closing up time, and most of the stalls were still fully laden, perhaps more disturbing to the potential diner would not be what you are eating, but how long it had been festering on the stall beforehand.

The assortments of animal skewers included dog, and it is a testimony to the power of cultural taboo, that despite thinking it would be interesting to try, that I quite simply physically cannot bring myself to eat dog. Similarly, although I enjoy eating donkey: it has a delicious, full yet subtle flavour closest to beef but with a richer undertone; but horse: no way.

I was thinking about this today when I was reading various opinions about the Ebbsfleet Horse statue, commissioned as an ‘Angel of the South’ to be viewed from the Eurostar. I like it, although I wish the horse wasn’t wearing a bridle, and it does seem remarkably apposite given the somewhat pagan British view of horses. Certainly it seems more relevant to the South East than the slightly strange public art installation of talking buoys in Cardigan, Pembrokeshire, which although I’m curious to see next time I’m there, seems to be an odd choice for a historic Welsh town.

The horse references and updates the ancient British habit of carving horses into chalk landscapes and its position as something to be seen from the Eurostar train it also serves to tell those continental Europeans with the distressing habit of eating horses that they are very much in a different country now, as much a marker of cultural difference as a celebration of Britain. The place of horses in the British psyche and the power of the sacred taboo inherited from our pagan forebears is perhaps not only illustrated by our revulsion at consuming horse flesh but also in the horrific and thankfully occasional outbreaks of horse mutilation.

Inevitably given the current economic climate there was a degree of whingeing about how feckless it is to spend £2 million on a giant horse statue when it could be spent on the NHS or education, but imagine how dour and depressing Britain would be if this was the ruling viewpoint. And I might add that on many visits to my local hospital, I have definitely had my spirits lifted by looking at the penguin sculptures that decorate one of the courtyards. Besides, one article said that its head will be pointing towards the Thames Estuary which presumably means its nether regions will be directed towards France…

The link below not only gives an idea of what the gargantuan horse looks like, has a serious of amusing suggestions for other regional animals.

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