The unForbidden City

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Tiananmen Square is hot, crowded and surprisingly filthy on a hazy, Saturday afternoon in July, devoid of any sign or sentiment to tell what happened here at 5:40 am on June 4, 1989, when the tanks rolled in. Neither should one expect any outward emotion, let alone a monument.

The Communist Party of China refers to the Tiananmen Square Massacre only as "political turmoil" and concedes a mere 23 deaths, against the Chinese Red Cross estimate of 2600. Other estimates are as high as 5000. The actual numbers are a state secret, and even Google's Chinese service censors information about the massacre. We may never know how many students, workers and soldiers were killed and injured during the uprising and the purges, arrests and summary executions that followed.

It's certainly not a topic of conversation out of doors, says our guide, Dave, as we speed along in an air-conditioned bus down Beijing's main drag on the way to the square. Tiananmen may be the most heavily monitored square in the world, with video cameras embedded in lampposts and patrols of uniformed and plain-clothed policemen.

The security doesn't slow commerce though, and there are hawkers everywhere, peddling everything from water and ice cream to copies of Mao "Little Red Book" and watches showing the Chairman, his right arm waving in time on the watch face.

Across a six lane boulevard is Tiananmen Gate (c.1417), a squat, imperial building that bears the giant portrait of Mao and is potent symbol not just of Beijing but also of China. Amid the traffic and smog and noise the building commands attention, and thousands of foreigners and Chinese mill about, gawking and taking pictures with Mao. The haze drifts down from a milky white sky and taints the view, though, and every few years the portrait is replaced as air pollution takes it's toll on the hand-painted canvas.

Behind Tiananmen Gate is the Forbidden City, the largest palace complex on earth, covering 720,000 square metres of plazas, temples, gardens and, reputedly, 9999 rooms. And walls. So many walls. So many to keep out.

The paving stones were laid double thick in opposing layers to prevent assassins from burrowing up into the grounds. There are no trees. Bronze urns, as large as up-turned dumpsters, stand as decoration, too heavy to be carted off by the occasional conquering army. The City has an air of majesty and loneliness.

Our guide is posting a marathon pace, his blue flag raised on a telescoping aluminum pole and flailing in the middle distance. It's hard not to feel like herded cats, rushing through a thousand years of history at a half-jog.

At the back of the city is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the emperor worked and lived with his empress, concubines, eunuchs and servants. Here the Forbidden City becomes more life-sized and much more appealing, the giant plaza and temples giving way to small alleyways and hidden yards of the imperial quarters.

It's all very interesting but also surprisingly dusty and lifeless, despite the pulse of modern Beijing and the throng of tourists. Behind thick, dirty Plexiglas the palace rooms and antechambers appear gloomy under a patina of decades of dust and neglect.

If there is majesty in the buildings it's not in the brick, the furniture, the pen and parchment on the empress's desk, but rather in the stories of those who lived here before the shorts and sandals crew arrived. There sat the Dragon Lady, Empress Xiaoqin Xian, China's Queen Victoria, who rose from slave to empress and ruled for 47 years until her death in 1908.

And Emperor Jiaqing (1521-1567), a brutal and self-aggrandizing king who chose to live outside the Forbidden City to escape his responsibilities. For his cruelty Jiaqing was the target of assassination by his own concubines, a plot that failed, resulting in the execution of not only the concubines but also their families.

Here was Lady Yehenara, a concubine who, in 1856, gave birth to a son, the heir of Emperor Xianfeng, who was 14-years-old at the time and died five years later under mysterious circumstances. But today, deep inside the Forbidden City, history is written on weathered plaques and under decaying buildings and layers of dust. Dave's blue flag waves ahead and it's time to move on.

In the early evening we take in an acrobatic show at the Chaoyang Theatre, Beijing's premier acrobatics theatre. Contortionists twist their bodies at uncanny angles and in unison like some perverted synchronized swimming show; acrobats balance on tables at the top of ladders perched on top of shoulders; leap backwards onto giant rubber balls; jump through hoops slightly larger than dinner plates; ride one on top of the other and a dozen in all on one bicycle; climb to the top of a ladder perched on a dangerously loose tight rope.

Very impressive stuff, but begs not only the question how, but why? As if to answer the question the bicyclists take a dramatic and unchoreographed spill as the driver loses control. It's not the only accident of the performance and one easy to forgive. The performers do this show several times a day, and to keep their weight down the girls are encouraged not to eat.

As the curtain falls--and after tepid applause--the audience rises and heads for the exit, even before the performers have taken their first bow. So much for appreciation of the arts. We in the peanut gallery, in the last row at the back of the hall, give the stage a standing ovation.

It's been a day of history and culture and that's all well and good but it's high time for a beer. Twenty years ago the word nightlife wasn't used in Beijing; there simply wasn't any. Tonight we've found our way to Sanlitun, one of the city's first and "oldest" bar streets, a narrow, alley-like road brightly lit by lanterns and streetlights and the glow of the bars.

At a building site across the street a bare-chested, potbellied construction worker pours cement by the beam of a giant spotlight. It's just before midnight on a Saturday night. Somewhere off in the distance a jackhammer adds to the symphony of car horns, conversations and blaring music.

Our day is done, and we've exchanged the blue flag for green bottles of Tsing Tao, and settle into the scene; the street vendors hawking cigarettes and curios, the bar staff trying to rope in some of the steady traffic of expats, tourists and Chinese strolling down the sidewalk.

Sitting amongst the commotion and soaking it all up, at a table of new and interesting people, struggling to be heard over the din of a Saturday night out in Beijing, it's hard not to feel self-indulgent, content, and very welcome in communist China.
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