I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Beijing twice. The Chinese capital has so many layers of history, politics, and conflict. The city is a beast, an incredibly pushy and crowded nucleus in which personal space is a coveted luxury. Beijing cyclists have to be particularly careful on the edges of the city’s wide avenues: cars, trucks, and buses are all competing in one big race and the right of way isn’t observed here. I had to remember this when crossing the roads.
A bus tour took me to Tiananmen Square, a big plaza where so many skirmishes, uprisings, and revolutions began. The event that came to my mind was the pro-democracy rally in 1989. Just about everyone in Beijing who is old enough can recall the iconic image of the “tank man,” the nameless individual who stood in front a convoy of tanks the day after the massacre. Nobody knows who he was or even if he’s alive. During my visit in 2006 I didn’t fail to notice the police officers and soldiers in the square, ready to pounce on any serious demonstrator who dared to challenge the regime, still intent on clinging to power.
The Forbidden City commanded my respect. For centuries, all the political power in China was concentrated in this imperial complex. This was the home of Chinese emperors, their empresses, eunuchs and concubines. To think of the decadent lives they lived within those walls! It’s hard to imagine the wealth of those ancient monarchs.
The Great Wall of China isn’t a single entity; in fact, it’s a collection of walls built over the course of many dynasties. The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to keep those pesky invaders from Mongolia and points further north out of China, so he conscripted thousands of men – soldiers, criminals, and peasants – to build the wall. Not an easy task, by any means. I was in awe of this feat of defensive engineering. To see photos of the Great Wall of China is one thing; it’s quite another to actually walk on it. Ironically, it’s drawing foreign tourists to China instead of keeping them out. Perhaps Chinese rulers planned it that way!