Wednesday, 12 January 2011

中华人民共和国 / Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó / China

Despite being a child of the technological age I've been defeated by China's internet censorship and the temperamental server-jumping workaround, and as such can't post any other photos than the 4 below. Aside from finally getting around to visiting Tian'anmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Chairman himself, most of what I've been doing is pretty un-Beijing-specific so I was going to let the photos speak for themselves... Ah well.

There's a metaphor in here somewhere - Dear Leader Mao obscured by National Flag in the pursuit of perfect symmetry.

Very cold guards patrol everywhere, and you need a security check just to enter the public square - the World's biggest

Mao Zedong's giant portrait hung on the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace', the entrance to the Imperial City

So, Tian'anmen Square was the windiest and coldest day for a long while which may have contributed to its underwhelming impact. Not as big as I'd believed, though apparently 4 times bigger than Red Square, it's presided over more by 2 huge screens playing proud Chinese moments (some would say Nationalist propaganda) than Mao's kindly face. It takes some hard thinking to draw up images of the events of 1989 - the famous Tank protest occurred on the incongruously named 'Eternal Peace Street' crossing the north of the square. To the east the National Museum of China, closed for expansion to make it the biggest in the world - nothing's worth having unless it's the biggest. To the west is the Great Hall of the People, from wherein China is ruled by the Communist Party. South lies a huge building housing Mao's preserved body which sees a constant procession of adoring Chinese and curious foreigners, and north is the centre of old Beijing, the Forbidden City.

Like so many places, the grandeur and history of the 600-year-old home of Emperors and Empresses and government past is hard to appreciate or visualise through hoards of shouting, happy snapping, flag following, identically dressed tourists, though it is at least positive to see so many domestic tourists - China's burgeoning as a 'socialist market economy' (or maybe just capitalism without democracy) is a long way from the imagined reality of a 'communist country', and people seem constrained by the more Western ties of money, status and 'success' than state oppression, though that in itself is likely a sign of the State's success in control...

The architecture of the walled city and its nearly 1000 rooms is incredible, but the real interest comes in taking a broader look at the 21st Century city created around it. The old City Walls are now Beijing's busy 2nd Ring Road, punctuated by place names ending in men, meaning gate: sites of the old entrances into the city. The city's hutong (ancient alleyways) - the ones that found enough favour to escape the painting of , meaning 'demolish' - are now bursting with cool independent clothes shops, cafes and bars, some in the old siheyuan courtyard homes dating back 2000 years. These are overlooked by the Drum and Bell Towers which sounded out the time (using a drum and a bell) over the same hutong centuries ago.

The city is nothing like I expected - it's huge and busy but without the chaotic, hemmed-in feeling of Hong Kong. The streets are wide and skyscrapers relatively few so on a sunny morning it feels more like riding through a town than one of the biggest cities on earth. As for China itself, I've only seen 7 of its 22 provinces - 6 from a train window and only a narrow spectrum of Beijing itself - all I do know is just how much I don't know. Spending all my time with a native has opened a lot of doors that would otherwise have remained closed, but in this case more into the life of China's more outgoing and broadminded or Western-born or educated mixed-heritage citizens, rather than gaining any insight into the seething mass of the 1,300,000,000 population. What I've missed out on in true everyday experience has been made up for with fun - snowboarding 45 minutes from the city at Nanshan; ice skating on Beijing's old canal network; drinking with the city's more affluent inhabitants in overpriced boutique bars and dancing to international DJs in the ex-home of a 20th century warlord's government...

Reluctantly that is coming to an end as my visa expires on the 19th - the fastest 30 days of my life - so the next update will be from the hopefully more internet-lenient shores of Japan following a 2 day boat ride from Tianjin. I've met some incredibly lovely, interesting people here and I hope on my next 30 days in the country (date TBA) I can combine that with seeing some more of China's varied landscapes and meeting more of its varied people.


  1. Glad you have managed to post a blog
    Well worth the struggle, very interesting!
    Look forward to hearing how Japan compares
    Enjoy the train!!

  2. One of my friends told me:some missing culture, etiquette you can not find in modern China, you will find in Japan.It is what i believe as well.

    Travelling the world requires a lot of courage-- you are already one of the brave men in the world.

    Understanding the culture and mix with local requires even more courage to open yourself and temporarily leave your own backgroud behind. It is how we grow up and how we all gain the experience.

    it will be more meaningful than just seeing the landscape of the country -- as same as how you distinguish yourself from tourist, as an traveler.

    Have fun in Japan