Monday, June 22, 2009

Tiananmen and Forbidden City

The Duke Study in China (DSIC) program has planned group excursions every weekend. Last Saturday, we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Two facts significantly diminished my and, I'm quite certain, many others' enjoyment of the sightseeing:

1. We had to leave the dorm at 8:15 a.m.. Later than class, I know, but it hardly felt that way after getting back from Sanlitun (interesting neighborhood, relevant post soon to come) at an hour I probably shouldn't publish publicly.
2. Blazing 的要命 (literally: of wanting death). As you can likely deduce, this useful adverbial phrase (part of the new grammar this week) indicates excessiveness. Not the news: it can also get very hot in Houston. But weaving among hordes of tourists for 5 hours without stepping once into air conditioning is not a favorite activity of mine there either.

That said, visiting these sites was definitely a fascinating experience.

First stop:
the new National Center for the Performing Arts
(It's been criticized as an egg in boiling water,
but I thought it was pretty cool.)

Tiananmen Square:
For me, Tiananmen was the biggest surprise of the day. (Well, maybe second to the cheese-flavored ice cream I bought at the entrance to the Forbidden City.) It was simultaneously larger and less impressive than what I had imagined based on images in textbooks and news stories. In other words, its approximately 100 acres make it the largest city square in the world, but the streets and buildings that flank it, with a few exceptions, did not seem particularly grand or architecturally interesting, especially considering the size of the place. (Although I am sure that those of you more knowledgeable about Beijing than me could better appreciate the significance of nearby features.)

Another surprise was the lack of much resemblance to any kind of social center for locals. Many of the people we walked past in the square were speaking foreign languages, mostly English, and the Chinese in the square were either tour guides or snack/water/photograph vendors. I assume this social sterility is related to the vastness of the square, which lacks benches or adjacent cafes. Another culprit may have be the security check required for entry. While perhaps necessary for the maintenance of public order on the 20th anniversary of the 1989 protests (about which online information is blocked by the government), a security check would probably be an inconvenience for groups of Chinese friends looking to hang out at Tiananmen.

Forbidden City:
Massive. According to Wikipedia, the complex covers 7,800,000 square feet. The buildings range from private residences for separate wives to an ornate palace the emperor entered for only a few minutes to clear his mind before important meetings to imperial gardens. First thought: it must have been pretty sweet to rule as emperor of China. Then, when our tour guide informed us that the emperor had to rise at 5:00 for meetings, I started to pity the old guy.

In general, gigantic. Huge. I was exhausted just from walking through once, one way. The buildings themselves were very institutional and monolithic, not as charming or varied or elegant as I would imagine the emperor of China would want his private residence to be. On the other hand, I'm sure the place would still fetch a hefty sum on the market, especially at Beijing's rapidly rising real estate prices.

with Madison and Dahlia

the complex from a nearby hill
(Performing Arts Center near horizon on the right)

who needs security cameras when you have 15 layers of bricks
to prevent would-be assassins from tunneling in?