Monday, September 12, 2005

Tiananmen Square ....the media didn't get it 50 years ago...

Yesterday, off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City...and then again in the evening as our search for Peking Duck led us to a restaurant that was, indeed, the best Peking duck I have ever had in my life.

Tiananmen Square is huge. I cannot convey the sense of hugeness of the place.

A conventional theory about Tiananmen square is that it was built this way to allow easy defense of state buildings (like e.g., in Warsaw). That may or may not be true, but what is undoubtedly also true is that if defense was all they were after when they built this stuff, they would have done it differently- it's quite a walk to get from one place to the other. The place is certainly too big for humans -especially walking humans. Ergonomics and the easy flow of pedestrians from point A to point B was not an overriding design concern of Tiananmen square.

No, there was something else afoot, and you can catch a hint of that in the massiveness of the "Great Hall of the People" off to the side of Tiananmen square. The purpose of this design is political. This (that is in the square) is where Mao held mass rallies, with untold (or, uh, I forgot how many) hundreds of thousands of people in Mao suits chanting political slogans in unision.

"Hundreds of thousands of people in Mao suits chanting political slogans in unision" is exactly the image of the "Communist Chinese" that was reported to the Western media throughout the 50s-80s. This image also conveyed with it the meme of "everyone thinking identically," "everyone behaving in an organized manner," and so forth. One can imagine the Western reporter being cloistered in a hotel such as this one (trying to find radical Chinese cuisine -heck, at least broiled snake- is something beyond the skill set of the concierge, evidently) seeing the images in Tiananmen sqaure, and writing back about "what a threat" Communism was.

But it was based on a completely nonsensical notion of how Chinese behave.This country has probably always been, on a rubber-meets-the-road personal level, the closest thing to anarchy I've ever witnessed. It just seems like the national psyche is to engage first, with enthusiasm, and without necessarily paying attention. So Mao's Tiananmen square, I suspect, was his and his regime's attempt to herd cats. Lots of cats.

He wasn't the first, either; the same principle of grandeur on an otherwise unimaginable scale was the notion of the Forbidden City; in fact, Tiananmen Square in being where it is, is Mao's critique on the forbidden city; rather than centralizing attention on a palace, attention is "centered" on the diffused "bigness" of the huge concrete plain that is bordered by the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People, Mao's tomb, and the Forbidden city. Whereas there was in the forbidden city a balanced dichotomy (with attempts at "harmonization," but still a dichotomy) between "where the people were" and "where the emperor was," in Tiananmen Square, except for the part in the forbidden city that holds Mao's picture, (which is small actually- tiny from much of the concrete plain)attention is mostly diffuse; Mao's picture, regardless of whatever you can say, just isn't as preopossessing and awe inspiring (at least to this westerner)as the big place immediately north where the emperor used to live.

The media reported the crowds, the slogans, and didn't really see what this was all about. It was about a government declaring its legitimacy in stone and architecture and function. But it wasn't a comprehensive experience of the Chinese people- probably everybody in China got that; and our media?

Well, if you want to see that go back and read the papers from those times at your local library, if there is indeed a local library near you that hasn't been privatized yet.

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