Thursday, September 23: Again, “it’s a lovely day for the birds” in modern-day Beijing. At 25 degrees Celsius, with not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect day.
Jerry tells us that this morning, “we’re going to do the walking exercise,” 3-4 hours, through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square, which means the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” may stand as one of the greatest public squares on earth. It was enlarged to its present size 10 years after the Communist takeover, when the Party constructed 10 Soviet-style public buildings in 10 months, including three that dominate the square to either side: the Great Hall of the People and the museums of Chinese history and revolution. In 1976, Mao’s mausoleum was added in the center. Chairman Mao was the first Chairman of the People’s Republic of China.
I have read that the Square leaves most Westerners cold, but today, with a sky the color of cornflower and the rainbow of gardens erected temporarily for the 7-day National Holiday beginning October 1, the square is quite lovely. Splashes of red are everywhere, from flags to a long video display that alternates Chinese characters on a bright red background and dancers waving serpentine banners. Jerry says the Chinese people will flock to this square for the National Holiday; it is a pilgrimage spot for many citizens who want to show their respect to the government. Thus, the Square is all spiffed up for this upcoming celebration. I think in the dead of winter, it could be a bleak and forbidding place.
I am in awe to finally be standing in this place and to feel the history and immensity of it. It’s difficult to conjure up any violence occurring here on this lovely day with these gardens, the red flags, the peaceful atmosphere and the sparse crowd.
Jerry tells us a little about the meaning of the Chinese flag. The red background symbolizes revolution, the single star represents the Communist Party, and the 4 small stars represent the commoners who support the Party.
We leave Tiananmen Square and head toward the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao’s picture hangs on the gate to the entrance of the Forbidden City, which was once the Imperial Palace. Mao Zedong led the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976. Very controversial, he is often revered by the Chinese for transforming the country from an agrarian society to a major world power. On the other side, he was also responsible for destructive policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, bringing famine and damaging the culture and economy of China. Under his policies and political purges, it is estimated that 40-70 million people died.
We walk into the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of Qing dynasty. Its 980 buildings were built from 1406-1420 and the complex covers 7.8 million square feet. For nearly 500 years, it served as the home for emperors and their families (including concubines and eunuchs) and the political center of Chinese government. It was home to 24 emperors, 14 from the Ming dynasty and 10 from the Qing dynasty. In 1912, Puyi, the last emperor of China was abdicated, and the Forbidden City ceased to be the center of politics in China.
I love many of the names of the palaces and halls: The Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the Hall of Union, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. I especially love the Palace of Pure Affection and the Pavilion for Listening to Cicadas. I think I need to sit for a long time in the Hall of Mental Cultivation. There is much symbolism in every detail of the imperial city, Jerry tells us: 1) Yellow is the color of the emperor so almost all roofs are of yellow glazed tiles; 2) the main halls of the Outer and Inner Courts are arranged in groups of three, representing heaven, while the residences of the Inner Courts are in groups of six, representing earth. Symbolism is ubiquitous, but too long and complicated and outside the scope of this work. 🙂
The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. UNESCO lists it as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Apparently, many imperial treasures were taken out of the Forbidden City during the Japanese invasion and the subsequent civil war, beginning in 1931. Currently, I’m reading a fascinating modern-day novel about the thousands of treasures, especially porcelains, that were whisked out of the country, most of which ended up in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. It’s called A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones. This book has great descriptions of Beijing, including the Forbidden City and Houhai Lake, where we go tomorrow on our free day. I highly recommend it!
The grounds are immense and meant to impress. They do. Except for the lack of greenery throughout the complex. Otherwise, the buildings are beautiful and colorfully painted. Huge expanses of stone cover the ground. We wander around, taking photos and listening to Jerry’s stories. In one, Jerry tells how eunuchs would roll up a naked concubine in a carpet and carry it to the emperor. The eunuchs would stand outside the door and when they heard a cough, they knew the emperor was done and they would come to collect the concubine.
Apparently, when emperors changed, concubines that never bore a son were sacrificed. Some concubines might only be with the emperor once in their entire lives. What a privileged life! The city had special buildings for concubines and eunuchs. Originally 46 acres, the Ming dynasty expanded it to 76 acres. In the outer court, the emperor met with foreign dignitaries.
Jerry asks if we know what the Chinese call foreigners; he says the “respecting words” are lao wat, or “old foreigner.” But in Beijing, people call foreigners “Big Nose.”
Jerry tells us that in 1978 China instituted the one child per family policy. However, any minority group can have 2 babies. If you have a Ph.D. or Doctorate, you can have 2 babies. Or if you are the single child in a family, you can have 2 babies. Jerry’s birth year was 1980; his family are Manchurians, so his parents could have 2 babies. If people want to have more than 1 baby, they can apply for baby tickets, thus getting the government’s permission to have more babies. Two years ago the price for a baby ticket was $15,000 USD. Under the one birth policy, if you happen to have twins, it’s no problem. If you have one child and it dies, you can have another. But if you get pregnant with an extra child without the government’s permission, that baby becomes what they call a “black baby”: the child will have no I.D. card, no social security, no pension and cannot attend public schools.
The thing that is missing most of all from the Forbidden City is greenery. The space is drab and expansive and maybe imposing, but it’s not warm and welcoming like the Summer Palace is. However, at the far end of the Forbidden City are the gardens, which are quite lovely with their artistic arrangement of rocks and twisted trees surrounding beautifully painted pavilions.
After leaving the Forbidden City, we head to a tea ceremony. Since there are 33 of us, we sit at a long conference room-type table. It’s definitely not cozy. Again, an experience which should be quite lovely is ruined by the sheer size of our group.
Later, though our itinerary said we would be taken to the Silk Market, the tour guide changed the plan and took us instead to the Yashow Market. This looks like many of the cheap tacky markets in Seoul or in Daegu, South Korea and I know immediately I am not interested. It’s a huge enclosed multi-level warehouse type of building with stalls selling sporting goods, clothing, and cheap knock-offs. I HATE this kind of shopping, as I do in Korea. I immediately go in search of something else to do and find a coffee shop where I sit outdoors under an umbrella and sip a vanilla latte. Later, a couple from our group comes to join me. When I get up to find a bathroom, I ask them to save my seat. However, when I come back, a group of Russians has taken my seat and the girl of the couple isn’t even apologetic about letting them take it. I’m pissed because now I have nowhere to sit. I wander around a bit outdoors and then, too late, see a manicure/pedicure place where I try to go in for a manicure. However, the place is too busy and though they promise they will do it, my time runs out and I have to leave before they can deliver. Oh well, a wasted afternoon, at least in my book.
Later we have a dinner of Mongolian barbeque, which is pretty good. Some Chinese singers perform and some lady in a fancy costume comes up and puts a royal blue scarf around my neck, which she says I can keep.
Finally, in the evening, we go to The Legend of Kung Fu, “the most exciting Kung fu show in the world,” at the Red Theatre. I beg to differ. The story is of a boy in an ancient temple who practices Kung Fu and Zen, becomes a master, and finally reaches the sacred goal of enlightenment. Since we have already seen the acrobats who were flying (with the help of cables attached to their waists), I am hoping to see something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is a nice show, but underwhelming.