Ancient Beijing welcomes the Prestons
I suppose if you had asked me a few years ago, one of the most intruiging places I would want to visit in China would be Tian'anmen Square. As a teacher of US History, that's probably an honest one. But I have always been one who got great insights from "walking the ground" at famous places. Whether it's Ford's Theatre, Gettysburg, or the Conciergerie in Paris, walking the ground of historic places is important.
Jack picked us up at 9:00 and we were whisked on a short 15 minute trip to the center of the city. Beijing is constructed like a bi-section of a tree stump. There are concentric rings around the city. Residents know what kind of businesses, housing, offices, etc. reside in each ring. The farthest ring right now is the sixth. Our guide, and enterprising and ambitious young man, lives outside the sixth ring. It takes him over an hour each day to commute, using public transportation, to get to "work." (Today, that means meeting us inside the first ring) The ancient city buildings are inside the first ring. But Tian'anmen is more than that.
I realized the importance of different events in recent history when I looked all around and saw what was just outside of Tian'anmen: The Great Hall of the People, where the party representatives meet once a year and future planning for the PRC is discussed and planned, and the Mausoleum that holds the remains of Chairman Mao Zedong. Also, there is a memorial that is constantly staffed by Army guards and young party members/students. The memorial honors those who died fighting the Japanese in WWII, but ALSO those who died after the war to defeat the Kuomingtang under Chiang Kai-Shek to secure the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. This is the PRC's holy ground, and while it's an awesome place to be and experience, you can understand why the government would see any disturbance of this area as unacceptable.
Large flat screen TV displays show patriotic clips and encourage the people to "come together and move forward" for the country. Other high government offices are in the area. It's the PRC's version of the Washington Mall, but less personal than ours with the exception of the Mausoleum of the Chairman. Lines are always long there, and people are willing to tolerate that in order to quickly file by the Leader's well-preserved remains. We decided that was not on our list for the girls' to experience.
We took one of the underground pedestrian passageways to get to the Forbidden City, complete with the picture of Chairman Mao. His picture is replaced once a year, on October 1st - China's National Day, and we headed into the first of many courtyards to get inside the palaces of the emperors of China. The crowds were part Fourth of July, part Disneyland, part Empire State Building. I think the Chinese are understandably proud of their heritage as one of the world's great civilization, and are trying to see how that can more seamlessly connect them to the present and future.
As we passed through courtyard after courtyard, Jack filled us in on the peccadilloes of the emperor system, particularly under the Manchus at the end, and how the Forbidden City was set up to accommodate some of those "necessary" quirks and protocol. Much of this territory is familiar to those who have watched Bertolucci's famous film, "The Last Emperor." Pu Yi is seen as a tragic figure by today's Chinese, not as an "enemy of the people." Interesting, considering his time of collaboration with the Japanese in Manchukuo during WWII.
We were regaled with information that helped explain a lot of the seemingly random figures and architecture: none of it is random, it all has a purpose. The purpose might be to protect the emperor, keep his rank above all else, allow his to visit concubines and skip the empress, and other important matter of state.
The number nine is considered important, and many step combinations, figures carved, items on the grounds, have nine or multiples thereof in them. I have become recently aware that the Chinese remain curiously superstitious about many things. Many of our drivers have little ornaments, "gods", or other "spiritual" boost to them during their day. Religion may be underground, but their belief in something other than the material world remains undiminished.
Our driver in Hefei had a god who brings good fortune (money) to the worshipper. We proved it wrong.
When leaving the Forbidden City, we went to a local restaurant, and finally found Chinese food that EVERYONE liked, even the girls. And it was very reasonable. Again, Chinese eat socially. Several dishes are ordered, and you pound away at it ,putting some of many of the dishes on your plate. You dont really play, "and what would YOU like for dinner." Again, Jack scores!
Right after dinner, we went to another "factory." These are the government owned businesses that sell different things that they feel certain tourists will want to see how it is done, then take a pick from the product to get something to take home. This one was not going to be in our range as it was a pearl factory. While fascinating and full of beautiful items, we are not J. R. Ewing and family. Thanks, but no thanks.
We completed our day by heading to the Temple of Heaven. This had originally been the Temple of Earth and Heaven. The Chinese are into "balance" with things. Ying and Yang, earth and fire, heaven and earth, etc. etc. For years, it had been the Temple of Earth and Heaven. One emperor thought that was out of balance and he built a temple of earth in another area of the city. This temple then became just the "Temple of Heaven". It would come into play when praying for rain for crops, counter storms, drought, etc. It also is quite beautiful as all the tiles went from a mix of yellow (a color of "power") to blue (a color of heaven). They rebuilt the temple in record time and for the last several hundreds years, this is what it is.
Today, it was, as it evidently often is, jammed on the steps leading to the main structure, loaded with mostly older folks playing cards! It was fascinating to see the different games, and kinds of "characters" that were here. It was noisy, vibrant, and hilarious. It was fun to see this side of the Chinese people.
Nines abounded in the temple, and the girls were impressed with the inlay of dragons around the tiles and the deep blue of the tiles surrounding that legendary animal. Later, we went to an outside building where sacrifices were done. Jack told us he would never stand in the area where this was done. I leaned as much from his unwillingness to stand where sacrifices were done as anything. As a young person, Jack claims to have not tie to religion, and yet his generation has rejected all open religion in China. Much to ponder considering some of my back posts on this subject.
We all were feeling the impact of so much walking and climbing that day that Jack wrapped things up around 5:00 and we headed back to the hotel. We made our way to the shopping center again and had a meal at Pizza Hut. We passed on the rice and seafood dishes and had two medium pizzas. Bruce had a black cow that was underwhelming, but my peach iced tea was wonderful and had real fresh peach slices in the bottom. Nothing artificial there!
We headed downstairs after dinner and picked up a hard-case piece of luggage to bring back the "extras" we had been acquiring and headed back to get in our nightly swim, and hit the sack.
Tomorrow would be another big day - The Great Wall of China!
PS...I want to play a little game with you, the reader. How many of these "no-nos" can you identify?