I expected Tiananmen Square to be flooded with nationalist iconography. Unless selfie sticks are the new symbol of the People's Republic of China, it wasn't. The square was flooded with tourists — most of them Chinese — taking pictures of themselves, and taking pictures of each other, and taking pictures of each other taking pictures of themselves, and only occasionally taking pictures of the visage of Mao on the Tiananmen Gate. The most visible flags were the miniature ones a few of the Chinese tourists brandished. These were not treated with any great reverence; I saw an elderly woman swat her husband with one.
Mao's presence was most powerfully felt through the long line to view his body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall — "longer than the line for the Matterhorn," as my son put it. Our guide — a thirtyish man of impeccable English and clear affinity for Western culture — said that Mao's resting place is a very popular destination for the Chinese. His parents' generation view Mao "like a god," he said solemnly, while his view Mao as a great leader and national father. Many rural Chinese come to pay their respects to him, like a pilgrimage. Elaina — whose timing and sense of protocol will make her a diplomat in the fourth Trump administration — chose this moment to whip out her guidebook and aggressively display a picture of Mao's body to the group, visibly discomfiting our guide. It's like that, living with her.
I did see a young man wearing the red-starred hat of the People's Liberation Army. But he was wearing it with a Converse t-shirt, so any communist message was somewhat diminished. It occurred to me that we're likely to interpret national symbols worn by other people more seriously than we interpret our own. When someone wears an American flag t-shirt, you don't assume that he's a strong supporter of free speech or due process, or that he supported the Gulf War, or that he has particular views about the War on Terror. It's a cultural symbol as well as a national one. We don't assume that the twerps wearing Che t-shirts on American college campuses support jailing homosexuals or executing dissidents without trail — excepting the twerps at Oberlin, maybe. But we seem to assume that people in other countries wear symbols out of a specific and deliberate support for the policies associated with them. It's not necessarily so.
If nationalist symbols were relatively restrained, signs of the security state were everywhere. The immense square had posts every 50 yards or so, and those posts are covered in cameras.
Their likely purpose isn't to ferret out terrorism, but to allow an instant response to unlawful demonstrations — which is to say, demonstrations.
The square had more fenced-off areas and more soldiers than I remember from 2007. Our guide, too, admitted it had changed — as a boy he flew kites there with his parents, something that wouldn't happen now. But despite the omnipresent cameras, it wasn't a grim place. The tourists were more excited than reverent. A Chinese toddler in split pants rode his grandfather's shoulders, shrieking with laughter, little hands scrabbling at the craggy face for purchase. Stylish girls took selfies in front of soldiers, and frivolously-haired boys ogled the girls. I had heard that the soldiers don't like their pictures being taken, but this was not in evidence. Frankly I found it difficult to be too intimidated by them; they were so uniformly skinny, like a pre-super-serum Steve Rogers. Even the cops were skinny, which is simply unsettling to an American used to meatier law enforcement. The rest of China, though, was well on its way towards American proportions — I was often not the largest guy in the room, and big bellies, bared to the heat by hiked-up t-shirts in that unselfconscious Chinese way, were common.
Next we walked to the adjacent Forbidden City, traditional home of the emperor. The City is gigantic, a feat by any measure, but there's a sameness to it — one huge plaza after another, one large traditional rectangular building after another, all in nearly identical style: plain red walls and incredibly intricate roofs and rooflines.
The colorful rooflines helped conceal the omnipresent cameras:
The most interesting part of the City was probably the realpolitik reflected in its design — 180 acres in service of one dude and his crew and his stuff. The front buildings are devoted to the operation of the vast state; the rear buildings (including an area closed off to everyone but the emperor, women, and eunuchs) were for living. Our guides — perhaps because "politically correct" means something serious and potentially deadline in China, not just linguistic squeamishness — were not discomfited in explaining eunuchs to the nine-to-twelve-year-old-girls in our group. They explained the riot of symbolism spread around the place. There are dragons facing in, to remind the emperor not to spend too much time away, and to return to help lead the state, and dragons facing out, to remind emperors to get out once in a while and not forget the people. Apparently this was an issue; at least one emperor didn't leave the grounds for 20 years. Maybe stop sending in concubines? Just thinking out loud here.
Next up, hutongs and Chinese housing policy.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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