Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Evening at Tiananmen

It was a cool evening and pleasant as I wove my way through the construction on Chengfu Rd. The friends I might have wanted to eat dinner with were away or busy or not answering their phones, and the prospect of writing an essay on one of three equally uninteresting topics was enough to get me out of my room fast. The idea had come into my head——who knows from where——that instead of getting dinner I should visit Tiananmen Square, and almost without realizing it I found myself on my way to the train station.

To get to the Square I would have to change trains twice, but Beijing's subways are clean and modern, at least by comparison with New York's, and the trip was much less of an ordeal than I had been warned riding the Beijing metro could be. As with everything about Beijing, the most impressive thing is the size: to change trains at Xizhimen, I had walk through a seemingly endless series of tunnels and passages and covered walkways, including a massive underground hall inexplicably designed in the style of an Egyptian temple. On all but the oldest line, subway announcements were made in both Chinese and English, and the whole thing felt strangely familiar, but it's hard to imagine that the delightful sign warning me not to hold the doors open with my hand could appear in New York.

When I arrived at Tiananmen West Station, I was greeted by all the minorities of China, who apparently are surpassed in their delight over Beijing's Olympics only by Wanglaoji Tea. Olympic-themed advertisements are everywhere on the Beijing subway (A video ad informed me that Snickers was the official supplier of chocolate to the Games). But this one's as good as it gets. It's a commercial advertisement that perfectly represents the party line of China's 56 races in harmony, and despite the fact that Wanglaoji is not an Olympic sponsor——the Olympic logo is nowhere on the poster, nor are the Games directly mentioned——it manages to get in on the hype of the posters all around it. The ad is a perfect fusion of politics and commercial opportunism, and may be the best summary of this country's approach to the Games that I've seen yet.

When I came up from the subway, I found out I had just missed the end of the flag-lowering ceremony. As I came onto the Square, the last soldiers were marching away from the flagpole, and the crowds of tourists and this was a Monday were slowly dispersing. But Tiananmen Square is impressive enough even without pomp and circumstance. The Great Hall of the People is designed on such a gargantuan scale that I could only tell its size by looking at the workers sweeping water off the steps with branches. In the middle of the Square is Mao's tomb, and against the fog I could make out remnants of the ancient fortifications that had survived his urban planning schemes.

As I took this shot, an elderly man passed by me, explaining to his grandson that Tiananmen Square was where Mao first proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China. The car in the foreground pulled up while I was fiddling unsuccessfully with the focus, and where once Mao decried capitalism and the United States to masses of Red Guards, an impeccably-dressed businessman stepped out of a Chevy and took his own pictures.

请勿入内: Do Not Enter.

Everyone talks about how China has changed, but at least on a Monday night, the Forbidden City is as forbidden as ever.

Before I got back on the subway, I took a brief detour to Zhongnanhai, the Forbidden City of the New China, where the chiefs of the Communist Party do whatever it is they do. The Forbidden City next door distracts a lot of attention from Zhongnanhai, which is probably not unintentional, but this is where the government of China really happens:

And lastly, this lame little clip which I made to prove that I went to Tiananmen, but mainly to test the video function of my camera:

(Some of these pictures have been touched up considerably; the lighting conditions on Tiananmen Square Monday night were awful.)


tanya said...

Is there any difference between writing chinese characters vertically or horizontally? Is one preferred for typing and the other for writing?

Also, I find it entirely unacceptable that I seem to be one of the only people commenting on this blog. So if anyone else happens to read this comment, I demand that we show Kevin some appreciation for his delightful storytelling and at least appear interested by leaving a small comment.


Kevin said...

Ancient Chinese was almost always written vertically, but these days vertical writing is only really used for calligraphy and signs.

And I appreciate your concern for the blog, but I'm fairly sure a few other people are reading it, or at least looking at the pictures.