Wednesday, June 18, 2008

China Report #1 - The Forbidden City

Entryway to the Past Is Also Connection to Today’s China

As you may have read below, my wife Diane and I recently visited China. Because that nation is increasingly having an impact on the world and the US economy, it's a country and a people worth knowing more about. Having experienced some of China's most famous sites, as well as back roads, I thought I’d offer a few posts on what we saw and what insights it might suggest - as well as my traveler rankings and other info.

China is a massive nation of 1.3 billion people, melding regional differences, dialects, religions, rich, poor, urban, rural and much more. And, a lot is changing there as the country modernizes, diversifies its economy and grows. However, one thing that has literally brought the Chinese together over the centuries were its Imperial Dynasties. Ming, Qing, Tang, Qin and other houses ruled over the area of the world called China for centuries. This was done mostly through force, but in the end - even through difficult times - this bound the country together. During these times, the primary symbol for this power...of the nation really...has been the palace where the emperors lived - The Forbidden City in Beijing.

As a testament to that symbol’s enduring power to bring people together and offer them a sense of nation, the entrance to The Forbidden City at Tienanmen Square continues to be a gathering place even in today's Communist Party run People's Republic of China - and despite big changes in economic classes. For example, while we were in China, this place served as a gathering ground for thousands of Chinese to meet and mourn following the massive 7.9 earthquake that shook western China on May 31. These were not staged events, and certainly the Chinese government gets nervous when large numbers of people gather in Tienanmen Square. But it still happened.

Another example was the 1989 protest when students gathered in Tienanmen Square just in front of The Forbidden City in a massive sit-in to express their desire for a more open and free society. Did they do this in coffee houses? Did they stage a march? No, they instinctively gathered - and stayed as long as possible despite soldiers and tanks - in front of the oldest, most grand example of their nation's past glory.

As we toured the city this May on an overcast and windy day, it started me thinking about the power of symbols in a society - Chinese society.

One thing you'll notice when you go to The Forbidden city is that it's a seemingly endless succession of courtyards and buildings as you make your way from the outer walls to the inner sanctum. Each of these barriers has entryways. Some big, some small, some gilded and decorated, some restored, some showing the resignation of the ages.

This evolved my musing on symbols into thinking of The Forbidden City as a metaphor - as one big entryway. An entryway to understand the essence of what Chinese feel about being Chinese. To walk through the city and see the huge parade grounds, to see the massive throne room, armory, canals and building after colorful building, you could see why Chinese take pride in their history and traditional culture. With all that wealth and power concentrated into one place and enjoyed by so few people, you could also see why a nationwide Communist revolution happened there in 1950. So, two sides of the Chinese psyche laid clear simply by strolling through the entryways and passing over the grounds.

Another thing about the Forbidden City - the emperor could never leave the premises. So, in the end, the entryways are one-way passages. As grand and opulent as The Forbidden City is, and as unlimited as his powers were, the emperor was his lineage, by history and by tradition. There was no way to truly get out except death.

That graduated my thinking again...are the Chinese today trapped by their history? Clearly they are trying to break out of their isolationist past by opening their economy, hosting the Olympics, slowing their population growth and becoming a bigger player on the world stage. But the drag of history is heavy. The truth is that the country is still reliant on others for natural resources, still has a huge population in poverty, is still relatively weak military compared to the other major powers, still has major human rights problems and still operates a top-down, authoritarian government. Will they be able to overcome these barriers and escape the trap of history?

By the time we finished our tour, I concluded that The Forbidden City was not only a symbol of the nation, a metaphor for the Chinese psyche and a proxy for a society perhaps trapped by history, but that it was all those things and much more. In short, The Forbidden City and the surrounding Tienanmen Square are China. Sure, there are a lot of diversity in the country of more than a billion people, but I think day well spent at The Forbidden City educates a person on the essence of China's past, helps explain its present and offers a connection to its future. For those of you who have or will someday be in Beijing, go see it.

Site Ratings:
  • Historical importance: 10
  • Thought provoking: 9
  • Architecture: 8
  • Physical workout: 4 (just walking, mostly flat)
  • People watching: 6 (people from all over China and adventerous westerners)
  • Cool factor: 7 (not cool like The Fonz, but cool that you're there)
  • Food on site: 7 (surprisingly good - cookies, sandwiches, espresso, cold beverages and more on offer)
  • Toilets: 5 (not great, but plentiful)
  • Interest for kids: 3 (just my guess, we don't have kids, but we didn't see many and those we did looked bored)

Movie to watch to see this site:

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