China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 11 (v.1) - Beijing

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 299

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Beijing
Beijing, meaning ‘nothern capital’, is a big place. In the greater municipality of Beijing, there are some seventeen million people. And even with those seventeen million people, it is still only the second largest city in China; Shanghai being slightly bigger. However, Shanghai’s recent rise to prominence is based on commerce, and Beijing has been far larger and most of its far longer history. In fact, Beijing is thought to have been the world’s largest city from 1425 to 1650 and from 1710 to 1825.
The municipality of Beijing today covers an area the size of Belgium. I know Belgium’s quite a small country, but there is still something quite frightening about a city that’s the same size as a country.
Capital cities are normally where I prefer to be, as they usually contain both the best and the worst that any country has to offer. However, I must admit, Beijing failed to impress me.
If I had to choose one word to describe the place, it would be ‘grey.’ From the weather, to the buildings and even the ‘sights’ themselves, it all seemed mournfully grey.Perhaps that was just the mood I was in at the time: some people go through life with rose-tinted glasses, but I have grey-tinted glasses, and often drag myself through a two-dimensional black and white world while others frolic in 3D Technicolor. However, it would be dishonest of me to ‘wax lyrical’ about a place that that did not live up to my expectations.
The train from Xian took a long time to get from the suburbs to the centre, as one might expect from a city that has just completed its sixth ring road, and we passed row after row of tower blocks, each one as faceless as the last. It felt like the railway carriage window was a film projection on a loop, with the same shot over and over again.
I have read the Beijing used to be even grimmer, but the city government has spent years sprucing it up in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Heaven only knows what is used to look like.
Even Tiananmen Square was a disappointment, but almost certainly because I had expected so much of it. I had expected something equivalent to Red Square in Moscow, where a sense of history seems to seep from every cobblestone, but Tiananmen Square just seemed to be a vast slab of concrete. It may be the world’s largest open air apace in any city, covering some 100 hectares, but it felt rather like an enormous empty car park, like a football pitch without grass, like a desert of concrete.
Today’s Tiananmen Square is a monument to Mao; four times larger than the original square, dating from 1651, and covered in grey concrete in 1958, it stands as a testament to communism’s love of size over beauty.
It was from Tiananmen Square that Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1948, and for Mao’s funeral, a million people crammed themselves into the square. A million people; I cannot imagine so many people in one place at one time, let alone in one square, gigantic as it is. Many mourners were crushed to death in the streets around it, trying to enter or leave. Even in death, Mao brought death.
Tiananmen normally enters the western mind as the place where the democracy protesters were brought to heel in 1989, and learned how fragile a thing the seeds of democracy can be. The image of the protester standing in front of the tank on Tiananmen Square is one of those images that once you’ve seen, you never forget.
It is symbolic, I feel, of the struggle of the individual against the state, of the one against the many, and perhaps even of man against machine. It is also a rather depressing reminder of how hopeless that struggle is, and how the state subjugates and might prevails.
“Power,” Mao famously proclaimed, “grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and it was the barrel gun of a tank that wielded power that day in 1989, and that holds it still.
There were no tanks on the day I visited Tiananmen. However, there were troops of Chinese tour groups waddling all over it; each group wearing a different colour baseball cap, and led by tour guide leaders waving small rectangular flags.
They were all armed with tiny quacking electronic megaphones, leading their pack around the square, like a mother duck leads its chicks, in a V-formation. Near the centre of the square, things got too crowded for a classic V-formation, and the tour groups took on the air of penguins; huddled into each other for protection against the cold wind, all looking in this Antarctica of Tiananmen for somewhere to lay their eggs before Winter set in and the snow started to fall.
The overcast sky was the same colour as the paving slabs, and everything looked so grey.
Even the enormous Great Hall of the People, home to the rubber-stamp parliament, a classic communist architectural structure, demonstrating size over substance, failed to arouse my interest.
I had a morbid dsire to see Mao’s embalmed corpse in his Mausoleum, partly to check he was actually dead, and partly to add to the list of embalmed communist leaders I’ve filed by. However, the queues were enormous; both the queue to see him and the queue to check your rucksack before you saw him, so I didn’t bother.
The contrast between the massive lines of devotees for Mao and the couple of hundred tourists and aging die-hard communists who had gone to see Lenin when I ‘visited’ him was striking. Indeed, I have heard that Lenin may even be removed from Red Square and sent to somewhere anonymous in his native Petersburg. First he lost the name ‘Leningrad’ to its founder, Peter the Great, and now he might even lose his mausoleum.
In the league of communist dictators, Mao is still streets ahead. Unlike Lenin, Stalin and the other once great communist leaders in Russia, Mao has never been officially discredited and is still a hero of the Party and the people in China. His portrait still hands over the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, and he is still an object of veneration to many. His star is fading, of course, especially in the Special Economic Zones and the megacities, but he has not been officially disgraced.
This is, in my opinion, a great injustice, as Mao killed more than the 20th century’s other two great dictators, Hitler and Stalin, combined. For example, his ‘Great Leap Forward’, which was supposed to transform China into a first world economy almost overnight, only succeeded in causing a famine that may have killed a hundred million people. It also destroyed industry, and was more of a great leap into the abyss than anything else.
But Mao is not held to account for these crimes against humanity; at least, not in China.
The official party line is the 70 per cent of what Mao did was good, and 30 per cent was bad. The 30 per cent that was bad is never really clarified.
His catastrophic mistakes, let alone his megalomania and paranoia, are rarely mentioned by the communist controlled media, and Mao’s remains an official hero. Perhaps the Party feels that his image and their own are so irrevocably linked that to tarnish one would be to tarnish the other as well. The Party needs to give the people a hero, and Mao is allowed to continue to occupy that role posthumously. Dead, at least, there is a limit to how much harm the middle class son of a money-lending kulak can do.
The official history of China during the Mao years blames natural calamities for the ‘serious food shortages’ (i.e. famine), and obscure references are made to excesses of revolutionary zeal to explain the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, which are usually blamed on Mao’s wife and the other Gang of Four.
Although Mao’s embalmed corpse was not going to be on our agenda, we had no problems entering the Forbidden City, pleasure dome of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The price was 10 dollars, but a century ago, the price would have been decapitation, or the loss of my testicles, since only eunuchs, concubines and the Emperor were allowed.
The ‘Son of Heaven’ no longer exists, so I was safe from the chopping block, but I did fear for my life at times, swept away as I sometimes was by warring tour groups; colliding, decoupling and apparently indifferent to the collateral damage inflicted on one lone ‘big nose’, finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Forbidden City is apparently the largest surviving palace complex in the world and boasts nearly a thousand buildings, but practically none of them can actually be entered, but you can peer into many of their dark interiors from a railing at the front entrance, and I think I made out a throne or two.
To win even this meagre prize, however, you really do have to fight like a warrior. Around each front door, a surging mass of Chinese tourists push, elbow and snarl at each other for prime position. They fight first to get to the door, and then they fight to stay there. A weak, weasel-bodied westerner like me has little hope, especially since crowds bring out the rabbit in me. A crowd, I have always felt, is just a mob waiting to happen.
However, I was carried on the wave of a tour group or two past some of the doors. I held my camera above the throng, pointed inside the building and took some of the worst photographs of my life. I was more preoccupied in wondering if my health insurance policy covered being trod underfoot.
The Forbidden City was home to twenty-four Emperors, including the Last Emperor, Puyi.He became Emperor at two, and was brought to the Forbidden City, where an army of eunuchs treated him like a God when he was growing up, which is not the healthiest way to bring up a child.
Deposed at the age of six, briefly reinstated, deposed again, and later used as a puppet emperor by the Japanese, his life truly was tumultuous. Perhaps saddest of all was the ending, when the one-time Son of Heaven spent his last days suffering minor persecutions from the Red Guards one more victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The Forbidden City, like so much else in China, is so well-known that we all carry a mental image of it in our heads. It is a complex of temples, squares, courtyards, and gates; all guarded by prides of stone lions, but by this stage, I must admit, ‘temple fatigue’ was beginning to set in, and I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have.
I was saddened to discover that the Forbidden City that stands today isn’t that old; most of it being only about 150 years old. The various palaces were repeatedly damaged and rebuild, or simply raised to the ground by an emperor so he could build something else in its place.
Often buildings were burnt to the ground by powerful court eunuchs, eager to get rich on kickbacks they would receive in awarding the reconstruction contracts. All power breeds corruption.
In hindsight, I wish I had spent a great deal more time in the Forbidden City because we only saw a small part of it, and most of that was seen over the heads of gaggling tour groups.
I wish we had gone there very early in the morning and got a real sense of the beauty of the place, and the power that emanated from here for hundreds of years, from 1420 until poor Puyi was finally evicted at the end of World War 2, even though power had effectively switched to ‘foreign devils’ from 1860, and the Second Opium War, when Anglo-French forces occupied the Forbidden City to protect the rights of international traders to turn the Chinese into impoverished drug addicts.
For most of its history, however, the Forbidden City was the centre of the world’s mostpowerful nation, and I wished I’d seen more of it.
The following day, we paid a visit to the Great Wall. We were determined to do this alone and to avoid doing it as part of a tour group. I’ve always disliked tour groups, as all of my loyal five readers will already know, and I have a particular dislike for Chinese tour groups: partly because I don’t like being told where to go, what to do and how long to spend doing to; partly because I can’t bear the battery-powered mini-megaphones the tour guides here use, whether they need to or not; and partly because I simply don’t like groups. I know it is a shocking thing to say, but I just do not like being in a large group of people: Parties, football matches; open-air concerts; I don’t like any of them. I never have, and I probably never will. As to why, I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s all part of the misanthropy that is me.
But to return to the event at hand, not going as a tour group proved to be impossible. The drivers of bus number 937 simply would not let us get on, and the more we tried, the more vigorously they waved us away to a nearby bus station.
Once there, we were quickly ushered into a nearby coach. I still thought it might simply be a public bus service, since all the other passengers were Chinese, but my hopes were dashed when the bus pulled away and a yellow electronic megaphone came out of the tour guide’s bag. The bus was already on a motorway by now, so there really was no escape.
The over-excited and all too enthusiastic guide began blabbering into his megaphone, and he kept it up all day, careful not to let a moment’s silence allow any form of conscious thought. My only consolation was that this running commentary was only in Chinese, which somehow make it more bearable, and when the batteries wore down on her megaphone later on, almost ignorable.
The tour went on all day, from 10am to 7pm, but only about two hours were spend at what we had actually gone to see, The Great Wall. The rest of the trip was wasted on shopping breaks, restaurant breaks, toilet breaks, and some more shopping breaks.
Many compulsory shopping trips were cleverly disguised as something else, such as the ‘educational’ visit to the ‘Alternative Chinese Medicine Institute for Well-Being and Inner Harmony,’ which was supposedly an introduction and explanation of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine, but at the time my notes reveal that I considered it to be just “an excuse to flog over-priced roots to the witless”.
We managed to escape the lecture/sales pitch on the grounds that we wouldn’t have understood a word of it, and were allowed to leave the group and play in the courtyard instead. On the way there, we passed a cigarette stand, which made me chuckle; a cigarette shop in a health food store.
While the lecture went on, Sandra was treated to my own lecture in the courtyard on the superiority of Western to Chinese medicine. She listened patiently, staring into the distance and humming to herself, while I smoked a couple of cancer sticks under the non-smoking sign in the courtyard.
No-smoking signs are where many Chinese men choose to smoke, indicating a healthy disrespect for authority.
And, of course, there were other ‘attractions’ to be enjoyed. One I actually did enjoy, much to my own surprise, was a wax museum depicting important ‘historical’ scenes from the Ming dynasties. There was a rather salacious and even blood-thirsty aspect to many of the exhibits. If you had asked a thirteen-year old boy what they would like to see in a wax museum, this is exactly what they would ask for. I didn’t take any notes, but I remember the scenes: Emperor Ming the Merciless interrogating and personally beating General Treacherous; Emperor Sex Maniac consorting with common prostitutes; savage barbarians slaughter Emperor Hapless.
On the down side, we were just one tour group in an army of tour groups; all being shepherded hither and thither, and each tour guide repeatedly raising the volume on his megaphone to be heard above the general din.
Eventually we reached the Great Wall. Well, sort of. I hate to be the one to break this to you, dear reader, but the Great Wall does not exist. It simply isn’t there anymore. Time, that great Destroyer of Worlds and Walls, has reduced it to rubble. Not only is it a myth that it can be seen from space, it can’t even be seen from the land.
“But how can this be?” I hear you cry, “I’ve seen it on TV”. What we see on TV, I’m afraid, is a replica of what was once the Great Wall. Parts of the Wall have been rebuilt to resemble the wall that once was, but it is a recreation, a copy. Any beyond the tourist-friendly recreation, the rest of the Wall has fallen into ruins.
In fact, even the name ‘The Great Wall’ is something of a misnomer, indicating through he use of the definite article ‘The’ that there was only ever one wall. In reality, there have been many walls, built and rebuilt from the 6th century BCE to the 16th; the first of them built by the very First Emperor, Qin, but little remains of any of them.
More than the wall itself, it was the bleak and mountainous scenery around the wall that grabbed my attention. The Wall, of course, was built to keep the Mongols and the other nomadic tribes out of China. So, it was constructed at the mountains that separate the fertile farmland of China from the Steppe, where farming is impossible. In other words, it was built where agriculture ceases and nomadism begins; a barrier between mankind’s hunter-gatherer past and his farming present; worlds which like matter and anti-matter, needed to be kept apart.
I tried to imagine the barbarian hordes sweeping over the hills on horseback and attacking the wall with their swords outstretched, with loyal imperial troops doggedly defending each inch of it tooth and nail, protecting the motherland with their lives. At its peak, the Wall is said to have had almost a million men defending it, and is thought to have cost two to three million lives to construct over the centuries.
In reality, however, it rarely happened like that. Any wall is only as good as the men defending it, and a weak man can always be found. For example, the Ming Dynasty came to an end when the wily Manchus simply send emissaries to different parts of the wall until he found a corrupt official they could bribe, a certain General Wu. Once past the wall, they stormed Beijing and the Ming were replaced by the Qing. The Qing, the last of the Dynasties went beyond the wall, subjugated Mongolia, and the wall, lacking a military purpose, fell into decline and decay.
Walls, it seems to me, and I know you are keen to know my opinion of walls, are never a good idea: From the Great Wall to the Maginot Line; from the walls that separate Israelis and Palestinians to the walls the American middle class have taken to building around their suburban castles, their ‘gated communities’. None of them offer an effective defence. The effort required to build, maintain and defend them greatly exceeds the force required to overcome them.
More worryingly, those who live behind the wall become complacent and inward looking. China itself was to become inward looking, and as the Qing royal court amused itself behind the walls of the Forbidden City, believing it had frozen time, the West progressed and moved through enlightenment and then an industrial revolution. Centuries of self-enforced isolation had left China unprepared for Western and Japanese aggression, and it has only just regained its territorial integrity with the removal of the last imperialists from Hong Kong and Macao.
If China had not retreated behind walls, if it had looked outward rather than inward and favoured change over stability, it would have found the Americas ripe for colonisation, and a divided India there for the taking. If China had industrialised first, and it was well ahead of Europe technologically speaking until the 18th century, then the world we live in today would be a very different one. Instead China hid behind ‘great’ walls.
To return to our trip, it had come to an end. We had intended to finish in Shanghai, but we just couldn’t face it. That decision has haunted us ever since, and every time we see Shanghai on the TV, we remember that we had enough time and money to go there, but didn’t.
The fact of the matter is that we had already been travelling for about four weeks, and we were tired, plain and simple. Dog tired. We longed to return home to Thailand, and to be free of hotels, tour guides and ‘sights’.
If I were to choose three words that characterize Chinese culture, they would be diligence, family and conformity. The three words which are said to most characterize Thai society, on the other hand, are ‘sanuk’ (fun) ‘sabai’ (comfortable) and ‘saduak’ (convenient). I wanted to return to that Thai world. Now back in Europe, I would settle for either world, since the three words that best describe my life here in Paris are ‘work’, ‘bills’ and ‘taxes’.
But to return to China one more time, even if only in prose, my last memory is sitting in Beijing’s new shiny airport, and wondering what the 21st century had in store for China; wondering if it would be China’s century.
I concluded that it would be, and announced this to Sandra, who listened patiently, as always, as I rambled on, teasing my theories out.
It is tempting to believe that Western military, economic and cultural dominance in the world is permanent; that history is an evolutionary process and that the western concepts of free markets, liberalism and individuality have defeated all other ideas and all other societies; that these ideas and systems are now set in stone; immutable and victorious.
This is simply not the case. In historical terms, the 200 years of Western dominance are probably just a historical blip; the ‘fortunate’ result of industrialising and colonising first, while China slept.
For most of the history of civilization, however, it has been China which led the way: The centralized state, gunpowder and printing, among many others, are all Chinese inventions.
I had seen such drive, such energy and such determination in China over the four-week holiday, as well as during the year that I lived there, that it seemed to me unthinkable that an aging, disjointed and dysfunctional Western World could possibly compete with China in the future.
And if that doesn’t convince you, just look at the numbers. There are 1.3 billion Chinese, far more people than in America and Europe combined; their economy grows at 10% a year, three to four times the growth rate of western economies; the workshop of the world is now China, while we in the West have forgotten how to make anything.
I could go on with page after page of facts and figures, but the truth is so obvious there does not seem much point in denying it. The West is doomed.
We are the last, dear reader; the last generation of Westerners to rule the world, and our days are numbered. In the politically correct world we live in, it is not acceptable to claim that one culture is superior to another, and I do not claim that Western culture is superior to Chinese culture, but it does make me sad to think that Western culture, my culture, is on the wane, and that its glory days are behind it.
The return of China to global dominance is just a matter of time. As to what kind of China it will be, I do not know. I doubt it will be democratic, I fear it will be nationalistic, and I know it will be powerful.
The Dragon is awake and she’s coming out of its lair.
All Hail the Mighty Han.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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