Group Email Update, June, 30, 2009:
Today I started out by walking around the hutong behind my hotel, taking pictures. It is always fascinating to see how other people spend their daily lives. Then we went to somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time…Tiananmen Square.
We started out by visiting Chairman Mao’s Masoleum. Mao is “reportedly” embalmed and lies there in a crystal coffin, Lenin and Ho Chi Mihn style. I say “reportedly” because the Beijing urban legend says that the Vietnamese botched the job and it is a wax figure instead. The Chinese and the Russians were not on good terms when Mao died, so they couldn’t get the process from the experts. You wait in an almost continually moving line for about and hour. Then you go through security, being sure not to be “scantily clad” (you need to have sleeves), no “slippers” (aka flip flops), take off your hat, and turn that darn cell phone off (I commend the Chinese on that one!). Also, you cannot have a camera. Having a camera is VERY bad. There are no pictures of Mao lying in state in the Mausoleum that I am aware of. You go through a security check, then more lines, then you go into the entrance hall. You are greeted by a white marble statue of the Great Helmsman himself, sitting in a chair. In front and all around him are flowers, brought by the Chinese visiting the site. They go and place their flowers and many bow. Then you split into two lines and make your way to Mao’s room. As you get closer, the weight of the place presses down on you. This is a very serious place for the Chinese citizens who have come to pay their respects. The majority of those in line around me were of the older generation. Everything is very quiet, but there is an almost frantic press of warm bodies trying to catch a glimpse of the communist hero. He is covered by a large Chinese flag, his face spotlighted under a glowing light. You only see him for maybe two minutes, because the line is constantly moved along by Masoleum staff. As you exit the viewing room, you are greeted not 15 feet away by…a giftshop. I found that example of capitalism at it’s finest rather ironic…
After meeting Mao, we hung out in the square itself. It was very interested to watch the people and get a chance to talk to the Chinese in the square (our assignment). Many were there on vacation and had visited the square multiple times. It was an amazing place to visit. The square holds only (!) 600,000 people. Mao originally wanted 1 billion to fit in the square. Westerners have a completely different view of the square than Chinese citizens. If you want to talk more about that when I get home, I’d be happy. Since being here, I have learned a lot about the long history of the square itself. It has been here for a VERY long time.
After having lunch near the square, we went to the Forbidden City. It was pretty cool and somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. It was interesting to learn more about the life of the Emperor and his family.
Late in the afternoon, we had the chance to sit and talk with Yu Hua, a famous Chinese author. The comment was made that he is like a rock star here. He wrote To Live, Chronicles of a Blood Merchant, Brothers and more. We had a fantastic time with him and then I got to sit and have a Peking Duck dinner with him at THE resturant for Peking Duck. Chairman Mao said that his resturant must always exist and Nixon had duck with him there. It is a very nice place! We had a conversation with him about Tibet and it was very interesting to get his perspective on the issue. His main comment that I really liked was him telling us to go read books with multiple perspectives on the subject so we can form our own opinion. It was a great history lesson on the Chinese perspective. You should Google Yu Hua if you haven’t heard of him. He recently did an interview on NPR that you can listen to.
Now I’m back at the hotel and I have to go back to fly to Xi’an tomorrow. I don’t know what (or if any) kind of internet we will have there, so I will write when I can. I hope you are enjoying your summer!