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China's Hutongs: Beyond the Bamboo Curtain

I had gone to a hutong, one of the many alleys behind The Forbidden City to find a piece of jade. Professor Giu Guangzu was there to buy a singing canary.

There were hundreds of them, each in its cage, trilling away; a cacophony of sound which the professor seemed able to distinguish. He would cock his high-domed forehead and close his eyes before a cage, listening intently for a moment. Then, with a shake of his head, he would move on to the next cage.

A bird has ying and yang, he explained softly. Ying and yang are the two internal forces that govern most Chinese lives.

As well as canaries and jade from as far away as Magnolia, the shop was a Mecca for the medical products that ensures those forces remained in harmony.

There were jars filled with powder of pearls; swallowed, the powder ensured tranquillity, I was assured by the professor.