Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sightseeing Beijing - Tiananmen and National Museum

**Update: I've had a day and night to think about my post, and I think maybe I was writing so much in the moment that my perspective was a bit microscopic, and my depiction came across more critical than I intended.  The fact of the matter is, I have a relationship with China that is a morass of love and hate.  I am on the one hand so impressed with the advancement, resilience, intelligence and tenacity of the people (and similarly with how remarkably the Communist Party has shown its ability to adapt and change with the times, over and over again), and yet on the other hand I have never been to a museum of propaganda that I don't love to pick apart, even while recognizing that this is in some ways a necessity of one-party rule for a party that has managed to stay in power for nearly seven decades.

Over the weekend while we were in Beijing, we went to the national museum and Tiananmen Square.
The sense of space in this city is just unreal, especially if you're coming from dense Hong Kong where there is not one iota of room. 
Putting myself in the picture to further add to the perspective.
A pretty hazy view of Tiananmen Square from the side of the multi, multi-laned road
It's not hard to imagine the square filled with young, idealistic students, and the wide street full of tanks.  Tiananmen is such a must-see for visitors to Beijing today because of the events of 1989, and I think this space will forever be imprinted with those iconic and indelible images.

This city has changed so much (it changes so much year to year, much less over five or ten or fifteen years) and so much continues to change at a breathtaking, breakneck speed, that wandering around it now, I feel as if the city I once knew has been completely replaced.   However, when one visits a site like this, it's impossible not to realize also how intractable the Communist party is, how much power they hold, and how much in this country remains completely and utterly unchanged.  I wonder if long-term residents here, who have lived here through all of the tumultuous events and changes of the last three or five decades, pause to reflect on this in the course of their daily lives.
Beijing really knows how to build on a scale, if you know what I mean.  Walking here takes a very long time.
The streets are wide and long, the buildings are so, so big - but then they all pale in comparison to the size of the square, which makes the buildings appear small.
Mao's mausoleum - we wanted to go inside, but it's only open in September
The national museum doesn't look that big from here, right? 
Well, it is HUGE.
Here is just one set of the towering columns, only a fraction of the main entrance (and not even either wing):
 Unfortunately, and not at all unexpectedly, the interior is really full of propaganda and not much old stuff.
The main hall
You have to appreciate the irony of a museum in this capital city - needless to say, in terms of cultural artifacts this place falls far short of virtually any museum I've been in. 
We wandered a few of their exhibits, and managed to chalk up nearly 15,000 steps just wandering around the huge space.  Here, an exhibit on furniture and joinery:

There were a few exhibits on calligraphy and bronze:

Some of these bronze vessels, used primarily for storing food and drink, date 3,000 years back... and they are massive.  It's unbelievable when you pause to picture their role in such ancient history.  What was life (and the world) like so long ago?  What have these objects bore witness to that we cannot even fathom anymore?

We saw some wooden Buddhas - also of a very old vintage (the Sung dynasty).

There was an exhibit on currency, specifically old coins.  This is one of the first forms of hard currency used in China - tower-shaped and knife shaped copper and bronze coins.
Walking these exhibits, I couldn't help but feel such awe for my ancestors - they were so resilient and so smart!  How were these people doing this stuff (trading, manufacturing, creating art) thousands of years ago?  It just seems terribly advanced in light of what we are still doing today.
We then went to a fun exhibit, showcasing all of the gifts that China has received over the years from the various countries.  I thought North Korea had some stellar gifts (for example, an urn with the supreme leader's likeness engraved on it).
Nixon's gift in 1972 was prominently displayed - two swan sculptures
and there was a picture of the historic event.  I can't help but observe that Mao was rather plump for someone who instigated one of the worst famines in the world's history.
There was also a picture of Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher meeting in 1982 regarding "China's position on the question of Hong Kong."

Other gifts I enjoyed were daggers, like this one, and a very intricate urn from Cambodia.

I thought we were done by this point, but it turns out we missed the great rejuvenation hall/exhibit.  This was just one incredibly long, intricate and completely over-the-top exhibit full of flowery language and propaganda.  It's hard to believe how people can read this and just accept it and move on.
The hall was very extravagant and carefully curated.
The "history" was re-written in very stirring, patriotic, glorified superlatives.
There were some modern sculptures to depict "the scenes."
In a move very similar to the museum in Hanoi, they resurrected the gallows by which some famous revolutionaries were hung.
There was a very impressive array of rifles and automatic (semi-automatic?) rifles
The section about the Long March was limited to one small wall.  There was some rather one-sided commentary about the Kuomintang army and how they beat a hasty retreat, suffering defeat the victorious hands of the Communist party.

There was absolutely nothing, I repeat, nothing, about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.  The only concession was an acknowledgement that there were some "setbacks" in the long road of progress and that people had to "overcome hardships".   I guess it makes sense that they wouldn't officially acknowledge such a disaster - the political reality of the situation is that it is a country governed by one-party rule.  However, you have to give credit where credit is due - they really can write a lot of words that manage to say nothing. 
There was a full wall of the various flags that the Communist party considered when founding the modern day People's Republic.
And then we got into a whole science and economic and technology section, where they boasted about the huge advances in GDP and CPI and how the standard of life has changed from 1975 to present day.  Looking at the charts and pie graphs lining the walls, it must be said that the quality of life for the average citizen has shot up astronomically in a very short period of time.  It's really amazing.

I liked the mobile phone exhibit.  This makes me feel old, because I distinctly remember using many of these models, and at a time when they were considered "the newest" models.

We left the hall with one last parting shot of the actual space suit and re-entry capsule used by the Chinese astronaut on his first trip into outer space.  I am not such a hater that I'm unwilling to admit that this was cool.
Otherwise, I would say that a trip to this museum is worth it not so much for the "history" or the "artifacts" but for a glimpse into the official party line and message that the contemporary Chinese Communist party wishes to tout. 

On this trip, I had had grand plans to scale the outer limits of the Great Wall, but the weather was a rather punishing 95-100 degrees every day, so that was quickly scrapped.  We also ran out of time to explore some of the smaller hutongs and new shops that have been popping up over Beijing.  I was all keen to come back and hit up these other adventures and re-visit many sites I hadn't seen in a while, because Beijing has such amazing sites and it is a city pulsating with energy.  Transiting the city, you can almost hear the sound of the ambition beating in the hearts and minds of millions of people, each diligently pursuing improvement and advancement and change.

But then for our return flight back to Hong Kong, Michael and I found ourselves stuck in the Beijing airport for six hours due to flight delays and the typical, myopic "air traffic control" excuse that the Chinese government likes to pull out for any and all reasons, and I snapped out of my reverie and thought, "oh yeah!  That's why I hate Beijing!" and all rosy thoughts of a return trip flew out the window.  As a result, we didn't get home until well after midnight, having spent our entire day in the airport (in the lounge, but still). 

Word to the wise: never transit through any city in China unless you absolutely have to. 
So happy to finally, finally be in the sky.  Farewell, Beijing!
P.S. Six hours was sufficient time for Michael to come up with a new concoction - some crazy mix of Bailey's, Campari and Vodka that he swears is very tasty.

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