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Beijing: Emperors and Communists

Posted by on July 7, 2012

After a lazy Sunday in Beijing, it was time to get into the nitty-gritty and get me an eduvacation.

Beijing is one of the most storied capitals around. Its most recent chapters have been written while home to the government we all associate (and some define) with China: —the China Communist Party (CCP).

But this definition would be a mistake, because before the CCP was the Kuomingtang government; and prior to it was the more storybook ages of emperors and dynasties. Many are familiar with the Ming Dynasty 1300’s-1600’s (—as in, I just bought an antique Ming vase).

And we can keep going back.

Before these dynasties the Mongols had ‘er under control in the 1200’s. They wrested it from other previous Chinese dynasties dating as far back as the BC’s. Beijing isn’t a modern creation, and it hasn’t been a stable one, either. If time-lapse video was available, you’d have a great appreciation for the changes and depth that each block beholds.

So in this post, I take slices of the city–the most famous slices, perhaps–and pivot them to reveal the depth behind these structures and the city as a whole.

Remember the singers and musicians from my last post? They were in the Temple of Heaven Park. And it was there that those Ming, and later, Qing dynasty emperors would come to pray for bountiful harvests. Back then, China was much more openly religious and these sacred structures weren’t for commoners like you and I. (Unless I have some readers with Chinese Emperor blood in them.)

One of these sacred places.

Repainted, giving you the idea of how cool it looked.

The innards:

We hear about these emperors, and we have this disconnection with them, almost like they’’re other worldly–like a fairy tale. But they weren’’t out of this world—–just across the ocean from ours, ruling and existing right here, standing on this very floor, sitting on this very chair.

I got a kick out of connecting with this place in these earlier times, but the truth is that it was only about 100 years ago when the emperors saw their last days.

On to the big time tourist action…

Tiananmen Square is adjacent southward of the Forbidden City. It’s a more recent development, actually, being widened and having new structures erected around it by the CCP in the middle of last century. And sitting to its south, are two large structures dating back to the 1400’s:

The massive Zheng Yang Gate

And across the road to its south:

Arrow Tower

And as seen in the picture, the space between the two is now used as a busy roadway; subway lines also lie right beneath these surfaces. Modernity and classicism come together all over in Beijing.

To be sure, these structures just by themselves are full of wall-talking history. And some of this interesting stuff involves the West. French and English forces actually controlled Beijing for a while in the early 1900’s. The rebellion against such invasion took place at these monuments.

Then back north of these two lies the famous Tiananmen Square. Remember this shot?

This was from 1989. Anti-government demonstrations. (The tanks are pro-government)

Tiananmen square has been the location of immense pro and anti-government activity. It’s a pivot point for China and a location that demonstrates the changes over the years and the way these changes look overlapped today.

At Tiananmen square, a centuries-old space denoting an age of emperors was face-lifted in soviet-era styling. Once Mao passed away, his mausoleum was built:

Mausoleum on the right

It’s not the best picture, but I like what it says. The rear structure is Arrow Tower. The middle is Zheng Yang Gate. Then it’s Mao’s Mausoleum, and the foreground is the open Tiananmen square. I took this shot because I was struck by the many layers of China, right here.

One can do their homework and identify the Chinese of today as a communist people enjoying limited freedoms, a disinterest in religion, and an exuberance for their leadership. But communist China is just one small slice of history. Those who really do their homework are rewarded with the understanding that China is something bigger–a history, a culture, an era. The dynasties and governments have just dressed and decorated this spirit and being.

Looking at it this way, you see that today’s government is just a glue, a tool, an organization, used by that which is China–—not the other way around. Whether Taoist, Buddhist, Atheist, Communist, Democracy, or even colony, that which is “Chinese” is bigger than any political or social or religious hat.

Then turning around, I saw the latest hat:

CCP is 90; a birthday monument in the Square

And here’s their guy:

Mao and another example of the layering: a recent facade built on the existing Ming dynasty structure. This picture is the entrance to the Forbidden City taken from Tiananmen Square.

The “city” was built right along with the Temple of Heaven. As such, it was an exclusive residence for the emperor and his crew. For 500 years it was off limits. When the dynasties fell, the gates opened. Today, it’s a busy tourist spot, but it’s no trap. It’s an awesome collection of architecture and museums.

Here’s some pics:

This place is huge. We saw maybe half of it in the 4 hours we were there.

We? Well, I made a friend:

This young gentleman personified the kind of extraordinary kindness that I’ve experienced at times in China. I was walking Tiananmen Square, not really sure where I was going and asking other tourists. He approached to see if he could walk with me and show me around. I hesitated for a sec, wondering if I wanted a stranger with me the whole day–or if he wanted some money. But finsing out he didn’t, my second thought was, “why not?”

Zhong Hua was great company and super helpful.

Some more “forbidden” pictures:

I dug the untouched buildings.

In the garden in the rear of the complex.

What a slice through time! Here I was, walking on the once-exclusive stones that emperors had walked. And here was everyone else and their uncle, as mild mannered and care free as if it was any town square. They likely are all descendants of those commoners who toiled in the hillsides and fields, off limits to what went on in these walls.

This kind of history loudly declares the large factors at work directing the sways of humanity. It’s humbling; it’s freeing.

’til next week,


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