The birdmen of Beijing
Updated: 2012-04-20 07:56
By Christopher Cherry (China Daily)
An elderly man looks after his birds. Keeping birds remains a popular habit among many people. [Provided to China Daily]
Old men and their birds compete for the skies
The small bird hovers high up in the air, flapping impatiently. An elderly man puts a metal tube to his lips, tilts his head back, and spits hard. The bird swoops low, banking hard left, its sharp yellow beak snapping shut with a percussive "tink". The sound pleases the man, and he offers an outstretched palm. After a brief flourish of balletic twists, the bird arcs back to land softly in the center, where it deposits a small plastic ball. The old man caresses its neck and reaches into his pocket for a well-earned treat.
Bai spends nearly all of his days in the open space between Beijing's Drum and Bell Towers, playing catch with his birds, or sitting and chatting with other "birdmen" who share his passion.
"I only stay at home if it snows," he says, glancing at the skies as if a sudden flurry is about to curtail his fun. "But the birds get even more restless there than I do."
The man, known only as Bai, is a retiree who has been training birds to fetch for two years now. "We old people don't have very much to do," he says, pulling a cigarette from a crumpled pack. "I quickly got bored listening to the radio all day."
He is standing beside a row of perches on which a dozen identical birds sit. One begins to squawk and squabble with a neighbor. Bai reaches over to chide it with a firm tap on the head, which only causes the rest to screech in protest.
"Keeping birds is also very peaceful," Bai smiles. "Good for the health."
These birds, with their distinctive yellow beaks, are called "wutong birds" (梧桐鸟 wútóngniǎo), and are caught from the wild. They are subsequently sold in markets in Beijing for 70 yuan ($11, 8 euros) to 80 yuan, and can be trained to catch within a week.
Trainers begin by tossing seeds into the air, with a hungry bird eager to play. Seeds are then swapped for small plastic balls, big enough to prevent choking, and these are thrown gradually higher and higher. The birds receive food treats for every successful retrieve.
As with any pastime, bragging rights are important, and the men like to boast about whose pet can soar the highest. The camaraderie of the birdmen, interrupted by regular bouts of gentle mocking and playful insults, seems to be a crucial part of what draws each of them back, day after day.
Another man lets out a sigh and interjects. "All Old Bai knows is how to eat and shit in a toilet," he blusters, and the other birdmen fall into laughter. "There is a Manchu man that sometimes comes here with his birds, but usually he plays somewhere near the National Stadium. He knows much more about history than we do."
As light fades and a slight chill descends, the men attach birds to perches and perches to bicycles. Slowly they disappear into the warren-like alleyways that make up Old Beijing.
Lian Chengye is shouting at the trees. "Come down! Get back! No food for you!" His wutong bird stands on a branch, whistling and nodding its head in mocking metronome.
These men like to bring their birds to a dusty concrete square north of the National Stadium, normally referred to as the "Bird's Nest" for its striking lattice framework, which provides a fitting backdrop.
"Bird's nests are lucky in Chinese folklore," Lian says, flicking his eyes toward the vast structure. "They wanted to bring luck to the Olympics."
Another man tuts loudly in disagreement, "That's not it. It was built like that because foreigners think all Chinese like to eat bird's nest soup. It was designed by foreigners, don't you know?" As different theories are posited the men begin to squabble.
Sixty-one-year-old Lian is of Manchu origin, one of the 56 designated ethnic groups in China, and has a compelling backstory.
"My ancestors were originally brought to Beijing by the Qing emperors," he recounts, stepping away unnoticed from the discussion over stadium design. "They were nobles. My grandfather was in charge of the garments the imperial family wore to weddings and funerals. My father used to get free rice every year from the emperor Pu Yi, right up until the Republicans came."
Like Lian's forefathers, the wutong birds also hail from the Manchu heartlands of China's northeast, though they migrate southwards to escape the brutal winter months. It was on one such journey, Lian claims, that they got their name.
"Empress Dowager Cixi was resting in the Forbidden City when one landed on a tree outside her window. The bird began to sing and she became captivated, summoning attendants to ask what it was called. They really had no idea. One of them, not wanting to lose face, quickly looked at the tree and saw that it was a wutong. So that's what he said, and that became the name."
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) of Cixi's time, the families of Manchu nobles who had helped vanquish the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were arranged under eight banners, and occupied the alleys surrounding the Forbidden City (such as those near the Drum Tower) as additional protection for the monarch inside.
They were not allowed to work as this was considered undignified, or more likely, counter to the emperor's requirement they remained battle-ready. They therefore spent a great deal of time sitting awaiting orders.
A large number began to idle away their days collecting and playing with birds. Some took it to an obsessive level, fussing over ornate cage designs and arguing over whose bird sang the best - so much so that the image of a robed Manchu clutching his birdcage became something of a disdainful stereotype among the Han majority, who increasingly came to resent their effete conquerors.
Indeed, in the Mandarin language, to call someone a niaoren (鸟人) or "birdman" became a derisory insult, indicating a wretched person of no worth (the phrase is still used as a pejorative today, though its evolution is open to dispute).
Soon, the Han Chinese of the time were forced to adopt some of the cultural tropes of the Manchus, such as the long "queue" ponytails, which men were obligated to grow on pain of death. However, as with other "foreign" conquerors of China (notably Kublai Khan), it was the Manchus who were largely assimilated by the dominant culture of the Han, appropriating much of their heritage and traditions.
Today, for Lian, little remains of the Manchu legacy. "I don't even know how to speak Manchurian," he says. "I suppose for me, playing with these birds is a way to connect with my culture. They must be in my blood. I remember my father doing this when I was a boy, and so I guess they also connect me to him."
Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com
The World of Chinese