The morning sun finally brought me some respite from the jet-lag. At 6 am my body finally decided it was ready to go to sleep and I managed to rest for a few hours. Usually four hours of sleep would get me just about to a zombie level of alertness, but as the excitement of visiting China kicked in, I was ready to explore the city.
I like my first encounters with a city to be on foot. I enjoy strolling around the streets, just absorbing the place I’m in. Slowly. Allowing its energy to take over. Beijing was going to be no different.
After leaving the hotel, I decided to follow the street in front of it (secretly hoping it would eventually lead me to a place where I could give in to my caffeine addiction). The streets of Beijing felt a bit dusty in the heat of the day. The wide roads seemed surprisingly empty, with occasional cyclists cheerfully pedaling through the shade cast by refreshing green of the trees. We passed a family hailing a cab outside of the entrance to a restaurant decorated in incomprehensible yet beautiful regular features of the Chinese characters. Here and there an elderly person slowly shuffled their feet down the uneven pavement. Listless vendors, hiding from the sun, were selling beautifully wrapped steamed snacks and tea eggs floating in the dark sauce. That morning Beijing’s sleepy energy seemed to be matching mine.
After a considerable stroll in the unbearable heat, my husband and I decided to stop by a modern looking noodle bar. In the absence of cafes, we hoped this place filled with Chinese youth would perhaps have an English menu or someone who could help us translate our need for caffeine into some semi-clear communication. Coming to China we knew language may be an issue, but we probably underestimated just how difficult it might be to find an English speaker on the streets of Beijing.
Inside the clean space sparsely filled with tall white and blond wood furniture, a woman at the counter pointed at the digital menu next to two cute, chubby figurines of a Maneki-neko, happily waving at the visitors. This lucky charm has become widely associated with China and is often known as the Chinese waving cat, even though the talisman is actually of Japanese origin and symbolises the “beckoning cat” which according to some folktales has brough good fortune to an impoverished vendor who gave it shelter. The figurines’ position is often important, with the raised left paw often found in restaurants and bars due to the belief that it brings luck in business.
We picked two most breakfast like items from the menu on the screen and sat outside, breathing in Beijing’s slow busyness and the faint remains of smog. Our espressos arrived, followed shortly by the golden crusted deep fried mung bean dough and a sesame rice one. The crunchy coating was hot. Its bluntness revealing the fading taste of oil it was friend in. After just one bite however, it turned out to be the mere canvas for the thick dark paste inside. Its sweetness nicely contrasting with the absence of flavour on the little crusty pocket surrounding it.
Having eaten and people watched to a satisfactory level, it was time to make a move. We walked back to our hotel and asked the receptionist about a cab to Tiananmen Square. We had only one day in Beijing before heading to Shanghai and it wouldn’t be until two weeks later that we would be visiting this city again for three days on the way back home. If there was one thing I really wanted to see in Beijing was the place that saw the history being made.
It was here that the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. It was also here that 40 years later that same Republic got hundreds of its people massacred. What is now known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in the West (and refered to as the “June 4th Incident” in China) took place in 1989 in order to forcibly suppres the protests of Chinese students who, ironically, called for democracy and freedom of speech. The peaceful protesters were silenced with tanks and assault rifles. Their youthful hope crushed by ruthless reality. The “Gate of Heavenly Peace” brought nothing but sorrow to its people.
I wanted to stand where it all happened. I expected to feel the pain of history the way you do when you stand in front of the pile of human hair in Auschwitz and the devastating reality hits you with full force. But it wasn’t like that at all.
First, I wasn’t even sure whether we have reached Tiananmen square until I saw the iconic face of Mao watchfully trumphing over the gate to the Forbidden City. The square looks inconspicuous thanks to the two lively arteries cutting through it. The cars speeding up and down, passing the square in a seemingly complete oblivion to the bloodshed that took place there less than 30 years ago. China is a funny creature. It’s like a pedestrian who witnesses an acident, but looks the other way round to stay away from the trouble. You can judge his social interia, but it’s probably a learnt helpessness that has taught him to look down and carry on. A self preservation instinct. China is good at not seeing what it doesn’t want to see. This selective memory being especially evident in hundreds of selfies and group photos taken with Mao. His round, rosy cheeks – totally instagramable. Only the old woman in elaborate ethnic clothes not taking out her camera.
Under the watchful eye of the chairman, crowds of Chinese tourists enter the crimson walls of the Forbidden City. This Imperial Palace served as the home and political arena of the emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty which came to an end in 1912. It was that year that after long period of unrest, a decision was made for the child emperor Puyi to abdicate, bringing the Imperial China to its end. The unorganised warlord factionalism that soon followed, made the country vulnerable and opened a way fo the Japanese who invaded China in the 1930s, creating a puppet state governed by emperor Puyi. It was a difficult and hopeless time for the Chinese, who were treated appalingly by the invaders. The cruelty of those times, from the hands of the Japanese as well as the home-grown warlords, probably can shed some more light as to the ease with which Mao’s communist slogans swiped the nation off its feet. In 1945 the Chinese just regained their independence. What they didn’t know was that bit by bit they would lose it again.
In 1949 the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang is officially ended with Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. He does that at the Tiananmen, by the entrance to the Forbidden City – a former home and political centre of the imperial China.
Beijing means the “Northern Capital”, a name which accentuates the difference between Nanjing, i.e. “South Capital”, which was China’s former ruling city. This same place however used to be known as Shuntian, and called Beiping (meaning “Northern Peace”) beforehand. Just as the area evolved, so did its names – allowing the city multiple rebirths. New name, new life. There’s something hopefull in this fluidity, a certain magic to Chinese language’s ability to change the reality.
Learning about the Chinese language was like discovering different China. What on surface seems rough and sounds a little sharp, turns out to be full of beauty and subtle meanings. I have always enjoyed pondering the ways in which language shapes our minds and culture. For example, in Chinese, there is no concept of plural noun the way it exists in the European languages. The difference between plural and singular is not as clear from the noun itself, but rather infered from the context of the sentence. Furthermore, with the Chinese being a tonal language, the correct meaning of the word is deduced from the pitch, or the tone, used to pronounce it. Interestingly, when Beijing is uttered with a different tone, it turns into “background”. I find something poetic about this difference. Perhaps this duality holds the key to understanding the nature of this place.
The “Forbidden” part of the Forbidden City, refers to the fact that nobody was allowed to enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. The name in Chinese refers to the North Star which in traditional Chinese astrology was the heavenly abode of the Celestial Emperor. The “Forbidden City” was to reflect that the palace complex was the residence of terrestrial counterpart. When its construction began in 1406, the layout was to mirror the palaces in Nanjing, the former capital. Morever, the building plans were made in accordance with the feng shui, a Chinese philosophical system of harmony with the surrounding environment.
The sense of harmony prevails around the place complex. The gates with lyrical names like “Manifest Virtue”, lead us through a series of wide squares adorned with sculptures in front of simple yet beautifuly decorated buildings covered with traditional, elaborately carved rooftops over colorful ceilings. Everything full of meaning, placed in a well thought out manner. Intimidating in its grandeure, yet humble in its simplicity.
After few hours of walking unhurriedly around surprisingly spacious palace grounds and having sufficiently enjoyed the shade of its garden, it was time to leave the Forbidden City. We got out on the side of the Jingshan Park, and decided to walk around the area, curious as to where our feet would take us. We followed the grey pavement alongside the grey road to grey alleyways enwraped in grey walls of the surrounding buildings. Few tea breaks and many kilometers later, we found ourselves lost in the jungle of Chinese hutongs. From the land of skyscrappers and wide multiways, we were suddenly transported to the monochrome world of narrow alleyways. The uniform ash-coloured brick walls were guarding the privacy of their inhabitants. Only the occassionally parked motorcycle or a bike, alongside drying clothes fluttering gently in the soft wind revealed the place is not abandoned.
There was something diferent about this place. Like encountering a secret you were not meant to be privy to. The hutong neighbourhood was so different to the tall blocks of houses dotting the Beijing skyline. It felt like a timetravel. It was only later that I realized how lucky we were coming across this area.
Hutongs, traditional alleys formed of square courtyard houses known as siheyuan, have been demolished en masse over the last few decades to make space for the “bigger and better” China. Walking past the vermilion entrance gates, hiding from the sun under sloping rooftops, I knew I was trespassing on the world that wasn’t mine to understand. The screen walls protecting the residents not only from curious gaze and evil spirits, but also from the world that despite rapid growth many Chinese did not seem to be ready for. Just like the thick walls between me and the real life of hutongs, there was an invisible barrier between tourists and people of Beijing. In the jungle of characters I wasn’t able to decipher, lost in translation, I had to resort to the parts of China I was welcome to see. Yes to a Peking duck, no to a political debate. For the first time in a while I felt forced to being a tourist rather than a traveler. But it was only my first day in China and I was determined to peek behind the walls. As soon as I finished that Peking duck that is.