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 Monday, 23 September 2019
Beijing, China: Mao and Then PDF Print E-mail
Written by Roderick Eime   
Thursday, 24 August 2006

Mao and Then.

Many pasts catching up with China.

Few countries have a history to match China, and few are changing as fast. Roderick Eime tramps Beijing from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square and finds the past overlaid by an exciting, dynamic future.

"You are walking ..puff.. on the world's longest .. puff, puff...cemetery," said Miranda, our guide, as we heaved and wheezed up the near vertical inclines of China's Great Wall. She was talking about the horrendous toll of slave workers who perished during the building of the world's longest man-made structure that snakes across the Chinese landscape and, just at this moment, seemed more like a mountain than anything built by hand.

Once intended to keep nomads and plunderers out, this modern archaeological "mecca" has found a new role: as a central attraction for literally millions of tourists from all over the world. It's a wonder the delicate construction is still standing after the combined tramping of millions of pairs of feet. Then again, it's made from compacted earth - perhaps we are contributing to the restoration?

After over an hour of virtual mountaineering up the restored and preserved stone ramparts, running the gauntlet of hawkers and trinket merchants, we arrive at the end of the preserved structure, to look out over a trail of rubble stretching off into the distance. The mist enshrouding the far horizon adds to the mystique and the view is nothing short of spectacular. Heck, we've earned it!

This section of the wall at Badaling is one of the closest to Beijing, a mere bus ride from the burgeoning metropolis and ancient capital. Its location at the highest point of  the precipitous Guan'gou gorge made it a prime strategic point and many of the restaurants and souvenir shops have taken over storehouses and barracks built for the soldiers garrisoned here. These days it's resisting - or rather not resisting - a rather different invasion, with a vast expanse of tarmac parking hundreds of tour buses, each of which disgorges its cargo of clamberers into the mustering yard before setting them off to hike the rough cobblestones of history. If this seething mass of humanity isn't to your taste this is not the part of the wall to visit: there are at least four other major stretches in good repair, all within easy reach of Beijing. What you can't do is just head off and hope to find a patch of wall to yourself. Barely a quarter of its 4000-mile length even still resembles a wall: huge stretches are just rubble, with all the bigger stones serving new roles in nearby roads and houses.

Built primarily to keep marauding Mongols at bay, the Great Wall of China didn't just spring up overnight like an ancient Iron Curtain. It is actually composed of at least five distinct sections built over a period of some 1500 years, beginning some 700 years before the birth of Christ. An eclectic mix of Emperors and Dynasties built their own stretches of wall over the centuries and it wasn't until the great Ming Dynasty(1368-1644) that it appeared as one cohesive unit, joined, fortified and reinforced to withstand the increasingly tenacious Mongols.

Like so many walls of history it ultimately failed. Like the locked door theory, walls can only deter, not prohibit those who really want to enter. The great Mao Zadong had great sections of it demolished as part of his project to re-write history but President Richard "Tricky" Nixon's walk along a section of wall in his visit of 1972 marked a new breach in China's defences. So it stands today, or what's left of it, as a symbol of mute defiance against the onslaught of the irrepressible world.

Back in Beijing the comical contradictions of the 21st Century capital stand out for all to see. Plastered above the entrance to the ancient Forbidden City is the omnipresent face of Chairman Mao. I'm not sure if his apparently benevolent demeanour is intended to welcome visitors or remind them that his powerful influence remains long after his death. Step through the huge, ominous gates into the hidden realm of the ancient Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace of both Ming and Qing dynasties, dating back to 1410 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. With 800 buildings and more than 8,000 rooms, this was home to 24 generations of emperors, along with their extended families and countless courtesans, slaves and courtiers. Commoners weren't allowed in and the royals rarely left, living ritualised lives from birth to death within its exclusive limits. It's a grand and imposing place but many of its riches were spirited away in 1947 by Chiang Kai-shek and are now in Taipei - something still keenly resented in China.

Though the imperial rulers and their chattels are long gone from Beijing, Mao is still very much around, lying in repose like some Madame Tussaud's exhibit, in an enormous mausoleum at the other end of Tiananmen Square. Queues of respectful mourners and curious tourists alike file past all day long - stopping for two hours at midday for the late great man to enjoy a posthumous siesta - to see if the venerable Chairman is in fact really dead. Tiny bouquets of bright flowers are left for his pleasure, before the solemn shufflers exit into the Great Hall of Memorabilia. Then, in a burst of confused capitalism, all manner of objects emblazoned with his substantial profile are available for sale.

Outside in the vast plaza of Tiananmen Square, ornate kites fly in graceful formation around the towering central obelisk that celebrates the heroes of the Revolution and marks the site where Mao himself proclaimed the New China in 1949. This Gate of Heavenly Peace (tian'anmen) was built by the busy and influential Mings in the 15th Century and further upgraded by the Qings in the 17th Century. Virtually destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion, its current form is pure Mao. Ironically, the man who so scorned the history and traditions of ancient China and did his utmost to erase much of it still felt this central plaza was the natural place for his political rallies and grandiose revolutionary announcements.

Still a centrepiece of Chinese history, it will forever be remembered as the site of the fateful and tragic end to the pro-democracy rallies on June 4, 1989. These day's it's far quieter, and even the police seemed approachable, though I didn't feel inclined to take too many chances.

The city of Beijing is being rapidly rebuilt to host the 2008 Olympics and now is your last chance to explore the quaint hutongs, the narrow alleyways dating back to the 13th century that used to make up almost all of the city but are now disappearing fast. It is still possible to go on pedicab rides of hutong districts and even to be invited in to a local family for a sit-down meal and a chat about times gone by, but these days the historic areas are increasingly being cleared to make way for the gleaming marble and glass shrines of the Retail Revolution, high-rise apartments and a new wave of skyscrapers.

Beijing is a vast, bewildering and at times intimidating city, but with a friendly and approachable atmosphere. I'd expected teeming bicycles threading past piles of garbage but that wasn't the city I found: Beijing seemed supermodern and highly developed, with only patches of history still shining through, looking increasingly to its new role as a world economic superpower at the heart of the capitalist movement. Go now to see China's capital before it is altered beyond recognition by this new cultural revolution.

The author travelled as a guest of Helen Wongs Tours

Helen and her team have been taking tours to China for thirty years. Choose from short city visits to comprehensive explorations. Qantas now flies direct to Beijing three times per week but expects that service to increase closer to the 2008 Olympics.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 08 August 2010 )
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