New Years eve and day have become blurs in my mind, which is strange, considering that they were two of the more interesting and certainly busier days that we spent in Beijing. On the last day of 2009, we set off as a group to visit both Tian’anmen square and the Forbidden City,perhaps the two most notable tourist sites (both domestic and international) within Beijing proper. It was a gorgeous day, but by far the coldest of any that we encountered, and not ideal for the amount of time that we would be spending outside. These two days held a huge amount of activity, so I’m going to break them up into a few posts. Off to the square!
After many years of reading and hearing about the legendary Tian nman square, I can safely say that seeing it in person blows away any hearsay account of its size. Our guide, Ronald, told us that it was twice as large as Red Square in Moscow, making it the largest in the world by a solid margin. It was built, he explained, using large rectangular paving stones around 1×3 feet in size, the idea being that each one would designate a spot for a person to stand. There are more than 500,000 of these stones. Like I said, big.
There is a definite tension that exists at Tian’anmen. For the 21 years that have followed the 1989 democracy demonstrations and subsequent massacre, the Chinese government has held Tian’anmen under constant watch, on some occasions bordering on lock-down. What started as an attempt to crush a large student demonstration completely backfired on the party. Not only did they catch years of negative press from all corners of the world, they effectively established Tian’anmen as a symbol for the domestic struggle of a Chinese public in search of greater rights. This square was no longer simply representing the democracy movement; it had become a staging ground for Chinese looking to gain immediate attention (if you are interested, you can look into the Falun Gong movement. For fear of later censorship issues, I won’t post a link).
These tensions that exist are visible in a few different ways. The first things that grabbed my attention were the large fence encircling the entire square and the security checkpoint that we needed to pass through prior to entering. It was not dissimilar to a security checkpoint at any number of airports, though it seemed that these guards were significantly more relaxed than any of the TSA officials I have had the pleasure of meeting. While we were standing in line waiting to pass through the tunnel that contained the checkpoint, a girl next to me nudged my shoulder, whispering a question in a not entirely joking manner. “I guess its not a good idea to ask them about their thoughts on democracy, right?”.
I have heard it said that there is no such thing as a bad question. This is not true. I quietly shuffled a few people ahead of the girl, picturing the helicopters and white vans that might already be racing to collect us. It seemed unlikely that there was much threat in whispering such taboos, but then again we were a group of Americans standing on line to enter Tian’anmen, the ground zero of China’s political sensitivity. Standing among a mixture of Chinese tourists that I didn’t know, it seemed best to separate myself from classic stupidity. In these places, it is always possible that someone is listening.
In addition to the obvious checkpoint, there were several other objects and events that caught my attention. The first, and perhaps least surprising, was the incredible number of cameras that were attached almost vine-like to the sides of every pole and lamppost. Not a single spot was out of view of a lens. This did not concern me in the least, but it was no less a reminder that it would be a difficult place to remain invisible. At one point, I witnessed a Chinese man having his bag taken apart by a group of police. I was not this mini-interrogation that grabbed my attention, but instead and awareness of a group of fellow students that started to gawk at the process. This is not a great thing to do in any situation involving the law, but it was only when one student decided to take a picture that a police officer strode over and told them quite firmly that they needed to leave. Toward the end of the time that we spent within the square, our mini group wanted to take a photo together, with the Gate of Heavenly Peace as the backdrop. We had a banner with our group name and the name of the trip, but Ronald was told quite firmly by someone in uniform that he was not allowed to unroll it. There is a definite fear that people will unroll banners containing political or religious slogans in opposition to the practices of the government.
Finally coming to the end of the square, we entered a similar tunnel to that by which we had entered, and coming out on the opposite side of the road I found myself standing in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, above its center entrance hanging the legendary portrait of Mao Zedong. I knew that at some point we would visit this spot, but standing in front of the painting of the Chairman brought on a feeling that still surprised me. After several years of study, many, many books and pictures later, and with a solid knowledge of the history of the Communist party in China, seeing this painting firsthand brought about a greater sense of the reality of all that I had studied. Prior to this visit, I had no doubt that I would find the picture hanging on this wall (and will probably continue to do so for many years to come), but up until this moment, it had been nothing more than an image in a text.