Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Sunday, October 21, 2007
The China Chronicles - Tianamen Square
I slept well until about 6:00 AM when an unholy sound woke me up. I thought a goose was running around the garden six stories below me, and then I realized it was someone grunting. My friend had warned me about this, but nothing can accurately describe the sound that emanated from such a small man. Every morning, in his Mao jacket and cloth slippers, he did his morning exercises and Tai Chi, and cleared his throat - LOUDLY and repeatedly.
Here he is:

Goose Man.
After a breakfast of juice, yummy thick yogurt covered with mangos and flax seed, we were out and off to meet a tour guide for a guided tour of Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. My friend walks at a pace that most normal people have to jog to keep up with, weaving through the crowded sidewalks as if everyone else is walking in slow motion.

The crush of people on the streets is not unlike NYC, it's just that everyone is shorter than you are and speaks an incomprehensible language. We entered the subway and proceeded down into an even greater crush of people. And by crush - I mean CRUSH. The Chinese have absolutely no sense of personal space. When you pack that many people into a city, you grow up shoulder to shoulder, and brushing through crowds and pushing as many people as possible into a space in which we would normally have half as many people or less, is just the way it is. Including the concept of standing in line - they have no concept of this. At all. They simply crush towards an opening to gain entry. Whether it's a ticket window, subway car, or just walking across the street, it's everyman for themselves. In preparation for the Olympics, the government officials have even labeled the 11th of every month as "Queuing Day" to get people in the habit of actually forming a line. I don't think it's going to be very successful.

I got my ticket and was swept into a crush of people jostling for a train that was approaching. The door opened, and instead of politely waiting for people to disembark before getting on - they simply surged forward en masse and engulfed the door. As my friend pushed her way into the car, I was in danger of getting left behind because I was just standing there politely waiting my turn. She turned around and yelled at me to get on, so I just stepped forward and got caught in the wave. It was like getting body passed at a college football game. At one point, I'm not sure my feet were actually in contact with the floor. They didn't have professional "packers" who press people into the cars like Tokyo at rush hour, but it was definitely packed person on person, body pressed on body. Luckily, we didn't have to go far, and the car disgorged us at Tiananmen Square, where we emerged onto a busy street and headed to the local KFC to meet our group.

KFC is unbelievably popular here. Next to Starbuck's, they are the most common Western franchise around. They are making a fortune off the Chinese. It's actually considered a decent restaurant here - not just as fast food. Outback Steakhouse is also wildly popular - go figure. However, KFC now has some competition, because the newest addition to Beijing was just around the corner from our apartment.

Chinese Hooters

Although I wonder where they will find enough Chinese girls with the "talent" to work here.

It was a bright, cool, sunny day with a light breeze, but the smog was so thick, it's as if a white haze hangs over everything and it's difficult to see long distances clearly. Perhaps that's why Tianamen Square didn't seem as huge as I expected it to be for being the largest public space in the world at some 440,000 square meters. Another reason could be that they were setting up these enormous flower displays to mark the upcoming Harvest Festival and the National Holiday the following week:


There were street vendors everywhere hawking Olympic hats, kites, and just about anything else you could think of. The kites were very pretty though:


We walked along the western edge of the square, past the Great Hall of the People.

The Hall of the People

Erected in 1959, this is the site of the China National People's Congress meetings which have been going on this past week, and end today. Meetings which have resulted in the fact that no new social reforms are forthcoming in China anytime soon. It will be business as usual.

We headed past all the floral displays to perhaps the most iconic landmark in Tiananmen Square, Tiananmen Tower.


Initially built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.- 1644 A.D.), the Square is the front door of the Forbidden City. The most important use of it in the past was to ceremoniously declare to the common people who became the emperor and who became the empress. Until 1911 when the last feudal kingdom was over, no one could enter the Tower except for the royal family and aristocrats.

Now, it not only serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City, perhaps THE largest tourist attraction in China, it is also famous for its iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. What I didn't know is that this portrait, which is 6 meters high and 5 meters wide, is an actual painting and is replaced periodically. The current reproduction is the fourth edition of Mao's portrait that has hung at the historic spot since Mao founded new China in 1949. The artist who originally painted it is now in his seventies and gets up every day to repaint another portrait of Mao so that they have them in reserve for future use. Talk about living Groundhog Day.

In May of this year, the portrait was damaged by a protester and replaced with a new one.

The Big Man Himself

Despite leading the country in a series of violent political movements that led to millions being purged or killed and the economy moribund, Mao is still revered by many in China and is seen as a symbol of its strength and unity. This portrait is the heart of Communist China.

Next - the Forbidden City.
posted by Broadsheet @ 9:43 AM  
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