PAULOWNIA BY THE BARRACKS
Beijing, 19 April 2014
When my wife and I first arrived here, we lived in an apartment on the 31st floor of a high-rise. We soon noticed that we could hear regular shouting somewhere in the distance. We consulted with each other. What could we be hearing? Initially, I thought we were witnessing a spontaneous popular demonstration, and I scanned the horizon for signs of smoke, tear gas, armoured police, or other evidence of mayhem. But there was none, and no news on BBC or CNN to this effect. And the shouting was coming regularly, a couple of times a day. My wife then suggested that there must be a stadium somewhere around us and what we were hearing were the fans cheering on their team. But upon further investigation we concluded that the closest stadium was too far away for us to be hearing the shouting. And anyway, as I said, the shouting was quite regular, not just at the weekends or in the evening, which is what you might expect if a stadium was the source of the shouting.
We eventually solved the mystery. But before I tell you what it was all about, I need to take a step back and explain one thing. All of the embassies around here have guards, young lads who from the look of them were probably planting rice not that long ago. Here’s a couple standing tall and proud in front of the UK embassy
Something you quickly learn to do if you live around the embassies is to get out of the way when the change of the guard is taking place. Several times a day you will see a platoon of guards marching along the pavements
with individual guards peeling off when they reach their assigned embassy. Nothing stops them, not even the traffic. One of the lads will march off into the road and stop the traffic, and the platoon marches over, looking neither left nor right.
Of course, since, as we all know, every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s third law), it comes as no surprise that soon after a platoon has marched in one direction, a platoon comes marching back in the opposite direction, consisting of the lads who have been relieved.
And where do they march to? The answer to this question brings us back to our mystery shouting. They are marching back to their barracks. We discovered that we had a barracks discretely tucked away near our apartment. And the noise we were hearing was the lads being led through some sort of periodic cheering exercise, no doubt to build up their soldierly virtues. What do they shout, I wonder? “Death to the capitalist pigs”? “Long live the Politburo”? “Beijing-3, Shanghai-0”? Whatever it is, their lusty voices floated up to us loud and clear on the 31st floor.
I just said that the barracks is discretely located. One of the things that helps it maintain this discretion is a screen of trees along the inside of the barracks wall which lean gracefully out over the pavement, giving the whole a feeling of a courtyard of a normal housing estate. Some of the trees in question are Paulownias, and at this time of the year, when they are in flower, they are magnificent.
I throw in for good measure a photo which my wife took of a road we stumbled across just this morning. It was flanked on both sides by Paulownias, all in flower at the moment and, my wife tells me, smelling heavenly (I smelled nothing; the pollution must be getting to my olfactory organs)
As usual, I did a bit of research on the tree before writing this post and discovered that it was so named by a Dutch botanist, Siebold, in honour of the-then Queen of the Netherlands, Anna Paulowna, daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia. The choice of name was not very apt for this lovely tree; the queen was by all accounts rather full of herself. She was arrogant and distant towards the public, she valued pomp, etiquette, and formal ceremonies and rituals, and she felt she had married beneath herself, her husband being a mere kinglet while she was the daughter of a great emperor.
Not at all the kind of person I like. I suppose Siebold was sucking up to royalty by naming the tree after her. But I don’t need to suck up to royalty, so instead I will use its Chinese name, tongmu. Because, apart from anything else, like the wisteria, the magnolia, the weeping willow, the persimmon, and the gingko, about all of which I have written recently, the Paulownia is Chinese – this is getting to be a bit of a habit, this discovering that plants I had come to know and love in Europe are actually Chinese immigrants. It’s also getting to be a habit to discover that the route of immigration was via Japan; it seems that this is where Siebold discovered the plant and brought it back to Europe.
The tongmu is sometimes called the foxglove tree because the flowers, both in their bell-like shape (or finger-glove shape) and in their clustering effect look like foxgloves:
This happy resemblance allows me to conclude with the thought that despite appearances to the contrary the botanical flow has not been all one way. Plants have flowed from Europe to China. This was brought home to me just now when I noticed foxgloves planted – for advertising effect only, I think – in front of a shop at the South Village mall down the road at Sanlitun
The foxglove is native to western and southwestern Europe, western and central Asia, northwestern Africa, and Australasia (the last I find odd; there must be a story in there: how did foxgloves end up being native in Australia?)
Guards at UK embassy: http://cdn.24.co.za/files/Cms/General/d/2362/ac78b462d715435cb3207a3c45bb415a.jpg [in http://www.news24.com/Multimedia/World/Margaret-Thatcher-remembered-20130409%5D
Guards marching along pavement: our photo
Guards marching across the road: our photo
Paulownia in flower in front of the barracks-1: our photo
Paulownia in flower in front of the barracks-2: our photo
Paulownia in flower in front of the barracks-3: our photo
Paulownia along the road: our photo
Anna Paulowna: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fc/Jan_Baptist_van_der_Hulst_-_Koning_Willem_II_en_familie.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Pavlovna_of_Russia%5D
Paulownia flower: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/1-rare-foxglove-tree-paulownia-tomentosa-blooms-valerie-garner.jpg [in http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-rare-foxglove-tree-paulownia-tomentosa-blooms-valerie-garner.html%5D
Foxglove flower: http://www.plants4less.co.uk/ekmps/shops/plants4less/images/digitalis-purpurea-woodland-foxgloves-purple-225-p.jpg [in http://www.plants4less.co.uk/digitalis-purpurea-woodland-foxgloves-purple-225-p.asp%5D
Foxglove flower in Sanlitun: our photo