TIME ZONES: A Morning in Beijing's Ritan Park

Fishing for Lunch In an Urban Haven Out of Old China

Shui Yunxing dangles his fishing line in Ritan Park, a peaceful spot in busy Beijing's embassy district, as others offer advice. The park dates to 1530, when an emperor needed a place to pay homage to the sun.
Shui Yunxing dangles his fishing line in Ritan Park, a peaceful spot in busy Beijing's embassy district, as others offer advice. The park dates to 1530, when an emperor needed a place to pay homage to the sun. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007

BEIJING -- Shui Yunxing was the centerpiece in what looked and felt like a tableau from the annals of ancient China.

Seated on a wooden platform, he dangled his fishing line in the stagnant waters of a little lake. Motionless, his face without expression, he waited for a bite with a patience inherited from 5,000 years of history.

"Anywhere you sit, the fishing seems pretty good today," he said around 9 a.m., only an hour into his session. "I've got seven or eight already."

Morning sunlight filtered through Beijing's overcast skies, barely strong enough to reflect off the water's opaque surface. From the bank, weeping willows leaned into the scene, their branches green with the first leaves of spring. Behind them, the pink of cherry blossoms seemed shockingly bold.

A high-pitched voice rose, plaintive but unobtrusive, barely breaking into the quiet around the lake. The dry notes of a piba, China's traditional stringed instrument, vibrated along. Somebody in a little pagoda just off the water was practicing Peking Opera songs on this fine Sunday morning, background music for the timeless scene being played out by Shui and the other fishermen.

Ritan Park, a haven for the past in the middle of Beijing's mad rush to the future, started out in 1530 as a place for the emperor of the day to pay homage to the sun. In modern times, it has become a place for Beijing residents to keep in touch with the ideals of serenity and tranquil beauty that are a big part of their culture but an increasingly small part of their lives.

Located in the Chinese capital's embassy district, Ritan Park has long been surrounded by tall buildings and busy streets. Even within its walls, chic restaurants now occupy several of the most beautiful examples of traditional Chinese architecture. A German beer garden protrudes into one section of the park, and children ride bumper cars or merry-go-rounds nearby.

But at least for a while on this early morning, the small lake in one corner of the park, surrounded by a tumble of boulders and the tall willows, was a place to step back in time. It seemed far from the noisy, grasping city outside. People spoke softly as they walked along carefully tended pathways. Tai chi devotees poked and circled in silent concentration, letting only an occasional grunt escape.

Normally starchy troops from the People's Armed Police took time off from guarding embassies to lick quietly on a round of ice cream bars. And the several dozen men standing around the lake kept their voices down as they commented on fishing techniques.

Shui, 33, suddenly jerked his line. He had another fish on. A murmur rose from the spectators. Shui's luck was turning good, they noted. From eight, his catch rose to 12, then to 15 and beyond.

"That fish is particularly good eating," commented Yong Youqian, a Beijing municipal official and self-proclaimed old fishing hand who was among the kibitzers.

Yong pointed at the squirming fish that Shui was sticking into his bag. The little lake is stocked with them by the parks administration, he said, and fishermen pay a fee based on where they sit and how many pounds of fish they will carry home for lunch.

Shui, now two hours into his session, hauled in several more fish. His catch surpassed 20. Several kibitzers walked along narrow planks to get closer to his platform, the better to observe his technique. Elsewhere on the bank, someone mentioned a giant carp that had been pulled out of the water the day before. A companion suggested the secret was the short distance between the bright lure and the bait.

Shui, who did not participate in the speculation, lit a cigarette and threw his line back in, baited with an artificial gum that emits an odor said to attract the finest fish. He showed no sign of relinquishing his spot, content to remain silent and pull in his fish.

But then a waitress arrived to open the nearby Stone Boat, a cafe set up in a concrete structure built to resemble a boat floating on the lake. She pulled back the sliding doors and began cleaning the terrace where customers, mostly foreign residents of Beijing, gather to drink tea or beer on warm afternoons.

As she worked, preparing for the first arrivals, she turned on the music system. Out came the voice of a raunchy blues singer -- rich, deep and profoundly American. The Peking Opera sounds were no longer audible. The morning was nearly over before 11 a.m.

"Are you leaving?" a gray-haired observer asked his neighbor, who rose from a crouch and headed for an exit. "Yeah, me, too."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company