Wednesday, June 20, 2007

All that is gold does not glitter...

The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are amazing places. Truly they capture the grandeur and decay of Imperial Chinese civilization, indicating both how advanced and how repressive (given the social system the architecture embodies) the empire must have been.

We approach the Forbidden City by first crossing the exterior moat. It is low, revealing the piping for the fountain system that now lives there. “The moat’s low, we can storm the walls,” jokes Dave. I ask him how much the emperors would’ve paid to make water shoot into the sky without letting outsiders see the mechanism. He thinks it would take a large fortune. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and magic can keep one’s palace out of the hands of invaders.

Immediately after entering the initial walls, Kina speaks. “There are stores over there. I want to go!” Of all I see today in Beijing, to me the most hopeful sign is the ubiquity of commerce. On Tiananmen Square, not less than two-dozen people tried to sell me something. Within every wall of the Forbidden City lurks no longer courtiers and concubines but now gift shops and coffee bars. The government can erase Tiananmen from the minds of the Chinese people; nothing can erase the human tendency to truck, barter, and exchange.

While the kids get waters and peruse the trinkets, I survey the first courtyard. It is wide and flat, lacking any shade or object. The stone paving on the ground is still the original, Zhou says, making it almost 600 years old. Why can’t ODOT build something that lasts more than a year, I ponder.

But I have little time to think. There is a military drill attracting a crowd. Row upon row of Chinese troops executes some series of… martial arts? Tai chi? I cannot place it. Then Dave helps us understand.

“They’re practicing crowd control,” he says wryly.

And he’s right. Each swings in such a way to strike a person in the gut, knock them over the back of the head once prone, and then move to the next protester. The troops indicate, in a not-so-subtle manner, what would happen to us if we got a little out of line.

All the same, I flip them the bird when none of my companions sees. The soldiers also don’t see. This is probably a good thing.

As we pass through the second wall, Andrea remarks on a library we visited on our last day in Ningbo. It was far more beautiful, she thinks, than this place, however grand it might be. I agree, but as I look around, I realize why. The walls, the moat, the flat, open courtyard. This place was not built for beauty; it was built for power. And it was very, very well designed. Dave and I frequently exchange comments on how defensible this or that position is, how the imperial guard would have used this or that tactic given the palace’s layout.

While walking, Zhou teaches us little facts about the Forbidden City and its customs. The center road of the compound, for example, is only for the emperor himself. At one point we walk on it. “Walk as an emperor!” Zhou exclaims. I do, but I do not feel more imperial. Zhou teaches us the meaning of the use of different colors. Blue, she says without irony, is for the heavens. I want to ask her if she’s looked up recently, but decide against it. We pass through the Gate of Moral Standards. Dave exclaims that Congress couldn’t pass through it without Heaven striking them down. I think about the rocks in my pocket, 600-year-old pieces of Chinese history. Heaven does not strike me; do the emperors approve my conduct?

The farther in we go, the more two things happen. First, we see much more renovation. The government prepares Beijing and all its history for the 2008 Olympics; the Forbidden City must get a makeover. Second, Andrea begins exclaiming, “this is so beautiful!” And she’s right. Everything is beautiful. The buildings, the tree groves, the small house built upon an artificial mountain in the middle of the compound (for the emperor and his concubines to climb up, and then for them to sit “and exercise”, says Zhou. Right. Exercise.). We have past the part of the City dedicated to projecting power; we have entered the part of the City dedicated to enjoying it.

But the Forbidden City is not China. It was China, and some of the ideas embodied in this building still reside in the minds of the Chinese. But this building and its contents are dead. Unchanging. Dead trees are propped up with painted lumber. Empty buildings lie full of covered artifacts. The scaffolding of the renovators mislead. It looks like growth, like life—the new paint, the reforged roofs. But it isn’t. It’s preservation, but each new coat of paint embalms the last. It's entombment. It is the last touches of a mortician, lovingly preserving an ancestor who will never live again.

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