Beijing: Emperors and Communists

July 16

Beijing is one of the most storied capitals around. Most recently, it’s been the home of the government we all associate China with—the China Communist Party (CCP).

But before that was the Kuomingtang and prior to that was the more storybook age of emperors and dynasties. (Many are familiar with the Ming Dynasty 1300’s-1600’s)—as in, I just bought an antique Ming vase.

We can go on. Before these dynasties the Mongols had er under control in the 1200’s. They wrested it from other previous Chinese dynasties dating as far back as the BC’s. You get the idea. Beijing isn’t a modern creation, and it hasn’t been a stable one, either. If time-lapse video was available, you’d have a great appreciation for the changes and depth that each block beholds.

So in this post, I take slices of the city–the most famous slices, perhaps–and pivot them to reveal the depth behind these structures and the city as a whole.

Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be fun. I promise!

Remember the singers and musicians from my last post? They were in the Temple of Heaven Park. And it was here that those Ming, and later, Qing dynasty emperors would come to pray for bountiful harvests. Back then, China was much more openly religious and these sacred structures weren’t for commoners like you and I. (Unless I have some readers with Chinese Emperor blood.)

One of these sacred places.

Repainted, giving you the idea of how cool it looked.

The innards:

We hear about these emperors, and we have this disconnection with them, almost like they’re other worldly. “Wow, an emperor.” A fairy tale. But they weren’t out of this world—just across the world, ruling and existing somewhere far off. Where? Right here, standing on this very floor, sitting on this very chair.

I got a kick out of connecting with this place in these earlier times. But truth be told, it was only about 100 years ago when the emperors saw their last days. My, how things change fast! Nonetheless, these spaces were used by emperors from much earlier times as well, increasing the distance of the connection.

But enough of the Temple of Heaven. Time for the big action: Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square is adjacent south of the Forbidden City. It’s a more recent development, actually, being widened and having new structures erected around it by the CCP in the middle of last century. But south of it, two old, large gates tie the whole complex together. They, too, are aligned north and south:

The further south gate: Arrow Tower.

And as seen in the picture, the space between the two gates is now used as a busy roadway; subway lines also lie beneath these surfaces. Modernity and classicism come together all over in Beijing.

On the other(north) side of this road:

The massive, Zheng Yang Gate

To be sure, these gates just by themselves are full of wall-talking history. Some of the interesting stuff involves the West. French and English forces actually controlled the city for a while in the early 1900’s. The rebellion against such invasion took place at these gates.

Then back north of these two lies the famous Tiananmen Square. Remember this shot?

This was from 1989. Anti-government demonstrations. (The tanks are pro-government)

Tiananmen square has been the location of immense pro and anti-government activity. It’s a pivot point for China and a location that demonstrates the changes over the years and the way these changes look overlapped today.

I mentioned the road splitting the two gates. At Tiananmen square, a centuries-old space denoting an age of emperors, was face-lifted in soviet-era styling. Once Mao passed away, his mausoleum was built:

Mausoleum on the right

It’s not the best picture, but I like what it says. The rear structure is the old gate. The middle is Mao’s Mausoleum, and the foreground is the open, Tiananmen square. I took this shot because I was struck by the many layers of China, right here.

One can do their homework and identify the Chinese of today as a communist people enjoying limited freedoms, a disinterest in religion, and an exuberance for their leadership. But communist China is just one small slice of history. Those who really do their homework are rewarded with the understanding that China is something bigger–a history, a culture, an era. The dynasties and governments have just dressed and decorated the spirit and being.

Looking at it this way, you see that today’s government is just a glue, a tool, an organization, used by that which is China—not the other way around. Whether Taoist, Buddhist, Atheist, Communist, Democracy, or even colony, that which is “Chinese” is bigger than any political or social or religious hat.

Then turning around, I saw the latest hat:

CCP is 90

And here’s their guy:

Mao and another example of the layering: a recent facade built on the existing Ming dynasty structure. This is the entrance to the Forbidden City.

The city was built right along with the Temple of Heaven. As such, it’s an exclusive residence for the emperor and his crew. For 500 years it was off limits. When the dynasties fell, the gates opened. Today, it’s a busy tourist spot, but it’s no trap. It’s an awesome collection of architecture and museums.

Here’s some pics:

This place is huge. We saw maybe half of it in the 4 hours we were there.

We? Well, I made a friend:

This young gentleman personified the kind of extraordinary kindness that I’ve experienced at times in China. I was walking Tiananmen Square, not really sure where I was going and asking other tourists. He approached and asked if he could walk with me, that he could show me around. I hesitated for a sec, wondering if I wanted a stranger with me the whole day. But my second thought was, “why not?”. Zhong Hua was great company and super helpful.

Some more Forbidden pictures:

I dug the untouched buildings.

Back in the garden

Being here, one gains a great perspective, a swath of a view that sees much of what went on and how much things have changed. Here I was, walking on the once-exclusive stones that emperors had walked. And here was everyone else and their uncle, as mild mannered and care free as if it was a town square. They likely are all descendants of those commoners who toiled in the hillsides and fields, off limits to what went on in these walls.

This kind of history loudly declares the large factors at work directing the sways of humanity. It’s humbling; it’s freeing.

to new plateaus,



Posted by on July 16, 2011 in Culture, Society, Travel


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2 responses to “Beijing: Emperors and Communists

  1. Twigy

    July 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Wow, love the old architecture, amazing!!!
    B, you are lucky to meet a nice Chinese guy, but just keep an eye on everything. Xoxo

  2. SF Fan

    July 19, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Kinda makes you realize just how young our country is, huh Brandon? We’re infants compared to grizzled old China.
    Keep your reports a-comin’. I’m enjoying the vicarious travel experience.
    Marco! Polo!