Heavy History and Strange Present: The Beijing One (My China P. 1)

On the last day, I visit his mausoleum.

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He’d been staring at me this whole time, that portrait hung from the gates of the Forbidden City. I knew it was there, but seeing it in person gave me a kind-of reverse Mona Lisa: it’s so much bigger than I imagined. His watery eyes, that somber expression twisting, slightly, into a smile. The face of a man with a graveyard’s worth of secrets. Mao outside the place that became his home, the place that’d been home to seven hundred years of emperor’s before him.

And then I go to where he lives now, on the other side of Tiananmen. The marble pillars, flanked by statues of the workers’ triumph. The six rows of fences, the marching guards, the three different security gates. Ushered past them, as a hush falls on the visitors around me, and we’re directed to the carnation stands. I’m the only white person in the entire line, and almost everyone else makes sure to buy a flower. After a couple murals of Mao looking out over blue skies or other heavenly symbols, we move into the silent room.

He’s gotten tiny. His legs seem barely bigger than my lower arm, underneath that green quilt. His cheeks still have that heavy-flesh jowl to them. Waxy. He seems to be on the point of crying. Is he fake? Would it matter? We shuffle through; carnations are placed, everyone bows.

Here’s one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century. Wreathed and worshipped.

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Standing in Tiannamen sums up my feelings towards Beijing, that mix of awe and fear at the same time. A vertigo. I mean, right here across from me is the grandest, and probably most beautiful palace, in the world—blue skies and red tiles, a procession of fountains shooting along the walls. And Mao.

For a second I see an emperor—many emperors—emerging from the north tower to face the bowed masses. In golden robes he raises his arms. Then I see the students, three different years of them, marching towards those gates demanding change. The red books. The tanks. Suddenly I’m feeling sick, and a guard’s yelling at me that I’ve been standing there too long. I gotta get out of here.

Beijing’s a powerful place when you know the history. In one way it makes everything more vivid: here’s the well Dowager Cixi drowned Guangxu’s concubine after everything went south, Game of Thrones style; the bell tower from where the guards would have watched the Qing break past the city walls and make themselves emperors; the steps to the temple of Heaven where even the emperors must’ve felt small.

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But it also makes me all the more aware of what we’ve lost. As late as the 1950’s, despite the constant invasions and overthrows and warlords, Beijing still looked like what it had always been: four walls protecting a city of temples and palaces, bicycles and books. But then the red rain, all that’s old is bourgeois and therefore evil, and in the span of ten years (particularly ’66, at the height of the cultural revolution), Mao managed to wipe clean the last 2000. As much as I braced myself for it, it was still rather heartbreaking to see.

And now I’m the city’s middle and I can’t get a feel for anything. Cars speed the ringroad. Guards stand on towers. Great, Soviet-style marble buildings ring the square, towers with red stars in the distance. Yelling tourists, louder tour-guides. And I couldn’t convince myself this was a city. It felt like a pastiche of monuments, fences, and then, farther away, apartment blocks.

Filtering through. How do you get a foothold in a city where it constantly feels you’re not welcome, not wanted? Okay fine, take your pictures and leave.

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I spent my time there always on a constant slow-simmer of frustration, thanks to the slow, crowded, strangly planned metro system, the line cutting, the stares, and the near-constancy of the yelling/honking. I still can’t believe how loud tour-guides are in these temples, these places where solitude and thoughtfulness were intended when it was built.

And then I see something so beautiful it makes it all worth it. Take the Temple of Heaven. Along the garden path I’m getting pushed through with the other people, a lady’s sumbrella constantly jabbing me in the jaw. Reaching the central pavilion, the noise rises like a storm, I can feel the crowd, tensing around me. Oh God, here we go.

And then I stand at its steps, and its beauty is overwhelming. Designed according to perfect eights running through the whole park, the temple is seen along the long stone path. Follow the marble staircase, where dragons fight and phoenixes soar above misty ridges, the temple Grander, greater than anything I’d seen in Japan. This change comes on so quick, I can literally feel my mood flush through me—the anger and stress unclenching as I get lost in the golden birds under the awning. Peer into the atrium, pillars pushing up into the darkness, a dragon, hanging from the ceiling, looks at me.

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What was I angry about again? Then a tour guide throws a megaphone at your ear and damnit: this may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, but I’ve got to get out of here.

Beijing catches you in a whirlpool of emotions like this constantly, and nowhere is this more overwhelming than at its core. I knew I’d love the Forbidden City. Stepping under the shadow made by its walls, I felt like I’d already come this way before. It all felt so familiar: the bronze lions standing guard, the stone bridges, palace after palace, all their red roofs. For a moment, looking at the silver gate from across the river, I could have been the only one there. This didn’t need to be 2016. And China was everything I wanted it to be.

The guards, the crowds, came back. To actually get a look inside any of these palaces, you need to push past a crowd that’s hell-bent on getting towards the gate. Everyone held their phones towards the darkness, snapping and moving their heads so rapidly that they almost could’ve been bowing down to the ghosts of old leaders.

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And I was just like them—harder they pushed in, harder I pushed back. Cursing under my breath. Having a thirst spread through my body like a drought. An hour in my head was aching and my hands were heavy. There are so many vases and scrolls and old furniture, and what was I supposed to make of it? Cloistered in these walls.

I stand on the top square of the middle ring, the center of Beijing. Uniforms are at every corner. A teenage boy is yelling at his father and kicking dust at their feet. Red stars on the top of all the buildings just past the walls. An old woman, shaking her head my way. The dragon outlined in the marble staircase. And this right here’s the future. I get a nausea with the coming inertia. And then, just as quickly, I feel nothing at all; nothing, ‘cept maybe this vague, creeping dread.

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This level of displacement would be a constant refrain here; that something’s missing, leaving me dried out and with a dusty taste. Is it being a foreigner? Is there some things here I’m never gonna understand? I’m trespassing on something I’ll never really understand: I’ve spent two years studying China and maybe I’ll never really get this place.

On the last night I went to the bar district, alone, because metro closes at 11 (11! I said multiple times, appalled) and no one else was crazy/committed enough to get out there when kicking back at the hostel was so much more relaxing, fun. I had to find some kind of life. But the Chinese, or at least the Beijingers, don’t seem to drink nearly as much as Japanese or Koreans, and these pretty lake-side bars filled with bad, flashy karaoke stages, emptied out by one. And I was running home, looking into these high black apartments, feeling more lonely than I’d ever been in rural Japan. An emptiness in my chest that somehow manages to be heavy. Red houses, black windows, the fences.

For all the conflicting feelings I’ve had here, the near-lack of feeling is what I’m taking with me the most. The fear mixed up with it. Is it the fear of a westerner who sees this new China that’s, in many ways, unapproachable? Or is it the trauma, still so recent, here I’m feeling? The cultural-historical blackout from the last hundred years.

Of course I don’t have an answer for that. Probably never will. Modern Beijing will, in many ways, always be out of my reach.

For a second, though, maybe I did get it, exploring the ___ hutongs. Squeezed between the Forbidden city to the south and new development to the north, the neighborhood is considered the last glimpse of old Beijing. A city in the city, where roads curve in uneven lines and alleys end randomly, where temples are squeezed between landromats, and public toilets are on every corner. The real forbidden city.

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They’re playing Mahjong when you arrive, they’re playing Mahjong when you leave. Stacks of white tiles while they joke and smoke and spit. Handbags open to dry on the line. This lady’s got her hair curled up in a curly scrunch exactly like my aunt does it, and I can’t stop staring while I bounce in and out of the dead ends of their square. Sometimes the alleys end, sometimes they lead for hours, getting caught in the maze and dust and Confucian statues staring from darkened awnings. I’m gulping down a hangover while eating cantaloupe out of the bag I bought from that lady just last corner.

It’s strange I felt so connected to the place that’s probably the hardest for me to be a part of. In modern Beijing, I’m invited to clubs for free, flashing that invisible Westerner Card to drink my water-weight worth of Grey Goose. Here, no matter how much Chinese I’d master, I’d never get a seat at that Mahjong table. But it’s life, and for that afternoon, I understood what Beijing means to these people who’d seen the city through its darkest days.

Like finding a park I thought was the Lamma Temple, but was actually just a quiet space between new developments where older Beijingers go to play music. Harps and the faint singing of Chinese opera filters through the walled pavilions and streams. While I’m watching them, an old man beckons me over. He speaks perfect English and, in his damp undershirt, has these wild eyes– eyes of a man who’s seen miracles in his lifetime.

When he hears I’m from Canada, he plays me some tune too old for me to recognize. So he tries again with an American tune: a sing-song banjo tune, him slapping his leg while roaring out “My wife’s from Alabama, she’s got a cranky leg!” He says he likes Canadians, that we’re nice people. Always been nice to China. The Japanese? “They’re so crafty. We Chinese, we’re so nice to them, going to Japan and giving them so much money.” But the future? The future looks good to China. “They won’t be so crafty and so confident much longer,” he says with a smile like I’m in on the joke with him.

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I’m electrified by this conversation (this kind of openness on opinions? I’m definitely not in Japan anymore!), but also saddened and scared. I was on the verge of mentioning I’d spent a year of my life in that crafty place, though I’m glad I stopped myself. And does that make true understanding impossible here? Never completely empathizing with this amazing, smart old man who probably has a library’s worth of stories he could tell me.

So I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so consciously, visually, apart from. The canyons that separate me from understanding what this monster of a city really is. If I hadn’t gone to the Great Wall, maybe I wouldn’t really know what I’m doing here. That I’d never come to even a window of understanding.

But c’mon, like I wasn’t going to the Great Wall.

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We took the trek out to the Jingshanlin portion, an area that falls in the perfect level between remote (but not impossibly so) and upkept (but not Disneyland). We managed to get an unnumbered bus which miraculously took us where we needed to go, and we were essentially the only tourists there. On a totally clear, blue day. I know. To anyone who’s done Beijing, those two things seem almost impossible: lacking both the people and the smog. And we got to make the wall our own.

Unlike the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall doesn’t hit you with the wow right away. It’s a bunch of bricks, successfully put together a bunch of times. It takes an hour to get. Walking up 45 degree ascents, as the bricks start to get more dilapidated, then looking back to see the line of where you walked, curling off into the distant mountains. I’m in history. In myth too: stories of barbarians and soldiers, princesses and dragons run through my head.

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And when it’s just me, I can understand it in the way that feels right to me. Security cameras might be posted from every tower, but there’s no picture of Mao here telling you, in its implicit silence, what to think or believe. I get, in my own selfish way, the China I’d dreamed of all this time.

You stare past the northern mountains and try to pretend this is still Manchuria, still the land unknown. But just below a freeway’s been cut through the mountain. And as frustrating as it is to have your view disturbed by the cars, you can’t ignore just how impressive it is that this mountain range manages a five lane highway through the middle.

And it’s then I realize. As much as the Great Wall is something out of the past like the rest, it’s also, for me, that missing link between the now and then. In the 16th Century, China managed to change the landscape on a gargantuan scale: seen from space, it reshaped nature around it. When you’re up on there, nature defying feats like the 3 Gorges Damn or Shanghai’s skyline doesn’t seem so at odds with China before. Those winding, buckling walls drawing off into the hazy distance are the connection. For now.

I was up there and I knew I’m exactly where I need to be. There’s so much here for me to discover.

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