"If the heart is bright the wonderful will appear" – of shards, temples and the cycle of life

Of shards…

There’s a shop in in Beijing just down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment called the Shard Box Store.  It is crammed with little boxes in rosewood and silver, inlaid with shards of antique porcelain, handmade silver bracelets set with porcelain fragments and necklaces and earrings in white jade and gemstones. I spoke to Mr. Hu the son of the founder of the store, a darling of a man with reasonably good English who would have chatted a quiet Tuesday morning away.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) keeping antique porcelain at home was illegal and owning such “bourgeois” items could mean the death penalty. So many collectors just broke their porcelain and threw it away. Tens of thousand of pieces of priceless porcelain were destroyed. Just after the Revolution ended Mr. Hu’s father, quite literally, began picking up the pieces with a dream of bringing them to life again. He collected broken pieces of antique porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasty and began to fashion them into boxes. Around 1983 the first Shard Box was created and now his shop is more than a collection of antique porcelain, it’s a collection of Chinese history. An untold story lies in each unique piece.

From the Shard Box Shop

The peach tree design on the shard box on the right above symbolises the gift of long life and is traditionally given by a daughter to her mother. I gave it to my mother on return from Beijing as she was celebrating a “significant” birthday.
The juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere in Beijing. The previous day, after a trip down to the south east of central Beijing on the pristine subway, we spent the morning at the Temple of Heaven.
Beijing Subway Station

Riding the Subway

Just a few steps away from the roar of traffic and the bustling urban streetscape lies this vast park laid out in obsessively straight lines and with all the grandeur that befits a place designed for the emperors who visited there during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties to pray for a good harvest.
Where once there were Emperors now there are Bureaucrats – sign on a Government building near Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven is striking in its scale and symmetry with its octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and the wonderful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the glorious dark blue roof tiles representing the heavens. We entered from the south gate so that we got the perspective that would have greeted arriving emperors as they processed from “earth” to “heaven”, albeit with some noisy tour groups in our line of vision – no ordinary mortals were allowed in while the Emperors passed through. We left through the shaded arcade where successive generations of Chinese continue to play cards, mahjong, dance and sing in the early afternoon.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Detail of roof tiles

For all its grandeur I couldn’t quite get enthused about the concept of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven administering earthly matters on behalf of the heavens.  No essence of spirituality lingers in the place. And yet the idea of a ceremony performed on the Earthly Mount at the winter solstice, which had to be absolutely perfect in its execution lest it be a bad omen for the coming year, resonated with our own Newgrange.
Instead it was the Lama Temple that captured my heart. This Tibetan Buddhist monastery, one of the largest in China is an achingly beautiful and soothing spot in the heart of the city. We wandered into it late in the afternoon from the nerve-jangling traffic outside, just as the tourists drifted away and those that remained were pilgrims burning incense to the Buddhas – the Buddhas of the present, past and future in the Hall of Harmony and Peace and the tall Maitreya Buddha in the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses. There was something seductive, peaceful and spiritual in the dimming light as the golden Buddhas, some happy and playful, some serene, kept watch over their devotees and I found myself praying to the Buddhist ancestors of our unborn grandchild whose existence we had just learned of the previous day.
Lama Temple looms serenely over evening traffic

Pilgrims pray at Lama Temple in the fading evening light

Evoking the smell of incense

The mysterious beauty of the Buddha

No smoking indeed!

So serene…

Afterwards we wandered across several blocks of the city to meet Shane and his Enter the Panda business partner Dave before dinner. We walked past enormous shopping plazas and the Beijing Bentley store wondering what vehicles the kids playing outside would grow up to use.
Beijing Bentley
Bentleys, bikes or smart cars for these Beijing kids?

Dave took us to all to a Macau Hotpot restaurant for dinner. Hotpot is yet another great Chinese tradition – food for sharing, you just choose the stock poured into your own individual cooking pot bubbling at your table and decide what meat, fish, vegetables and seasonings you want to plunge into it. Intrinsically healthy it was light and tasty and a perfect way to meet the other half of Enter the Panda and his lovely girlfriend.
Table laden down for Macau Hotpot – those blue things are the dreaded preserved eggs!

… and the cycle of life….
Just before we arrived in Beijing , Shane and Shan started a window garden to grow their own chillies. He sent me these photos yesterday. Even the Beijing smog cannot inhibit new growth.
Chinese basil reaching for the light

Shane and Shan’s first crop of chillies

Last Saturday, the day the article on Shananigans appeared in the Irish Times Food File, coincided with the second anniversary of Shane and Shan’s first meeting. Shan’s anniversary gift to Shane was the first scan of their unborn child, the first of a new generation in our family.

“If the heart is bright, the wonderful will appear” – inscription over the Future Buddha in Lama Temple 


  • The Shard Box Store I visited is at No. 2 Jiangtai Rd., Chaoyang District, Beijing
  • Temple of Heaven is close to the subway stop at Tiantandongmen
  • Lama Temple is close to the subway stop at Yonghegong