Beijing is the capital of modern China, and of all the cities in the PRC, none (except maybe Shanghai) exemplify China’s leap into the new world quite like Beijing. The city is a fusion of modern architectural leviathans, such as the 2008 olympic stadium the Bird’s Nest, with the equally striking hallmarks of traditional Chinese culture, the Forbidden City, and of course, the Great Wall of China.
Tiananmen Square was addition to the elite sites of world history that we’ve visited, and like the others, it was special in its own way. The Tiananmen square protest and the ensuing violence has earned its place among the significant events of the world. Having learned about this event in class, and having seen pictures of the carnage, it was so much more meaningful when we saw the proud painting of Mao at the front of the square, and the total absence of acknowledgement of the events that had occured. In Boston, we have landmarks that signal the site of the “Boston Massacre” a death of five in which the actions taken by the authority were more justified and the situation was more muddled. According to the reporters present at the scene, estimates of casualties start at 200 and climb well into the thousands. There is not a statue, a sign, a single acknowledgement of one of the most significant events in the history of the PRC since it was officially founded in 1949 – because it doesn’t reflect positively on the Chinese government. For the first time, our tour guide clammed up.
“You know Tankman,” I began, “the man with the shopping bags?”
The smile faded from Kelly’s (our tour guide) face. ‘The picture?” she asked, and I saw the recognition in her eyes.
“Yeah, exactly.” I said. Then, gesturing to streets surrounding the vast square, “Where did that happen?”
“I don’t know anything,” Kelly, normally extremely cheerful, said abruptly. She quickly moved on.
Believe it or not, this was the first time something like this happened on our trip. I think it was important, because our trip consisted of the very best of China, but no country is without its problems. This moment reminded us that China is not a country where freedom of speech is tolerated, at least not to the extent which it is in the United States.
The Great Wall was an incredible sight. Everyone has seen a picture of it at some point, a marvel of human effort snaking through a sloping, beautiful landscape. The wall was incredible to see in person, it was like suddenly zooming into the famous postcard view, seeing insects crawl across the stone, being able to reach out and touch the cracks in the thousand year old rock. The climb was very steep in some places, and the hubbub of many languages, labored but excited breathing, clicking cameras, and Naomi Jaynes complaining (in this case promising threats of violence on the inventor of stairs) filled the air. Ashira, Gabi and I trekked from tower to tower, enjoying the landscape and getting in some cardio. We were in awe of what was accomplished without the use of modern machinery.
We saw the outside of the Bird’s Nest, and for me this was a really significant experience. The first time in my life I heard the word “China” was in the context of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. First impressions being first impressions, in the future whenever I heard “China” what came to mind was the Bird’s Nest olympic stadium, the hulking but somehow elegant twisting mass of steel that I had seen on the television screen when I was just seven years old. To say that I realized I was in China when seeing the stadium in person would be wrong. That I had realized attop the Shanghai tower, in front of the Terracotta Warriors, and on the Great Wall. What standing before the Bird’s Nest reminded me was how far I had come. The human brain can adapt very easily, and sometimes that makes it harder to realize how much you have changed, how much you have learned, how much you have grown – in my case both physically and literally. In front of the Bird’s Nest I remembered how little I had known about China, and how much I knew now. I realized how much I had learned about Chinese culture, the amazing people I had come to know through this experience, and realized that there was a time when I had not had them. I realized how much my Chinese had improved, and how much my horizons had been widened.
I didn’t have a culturally sheltered upbringing (being Argentine-American, I was sure I had escaped a great deal of ethnocentrism) but even so China turned my principles upside down and helped me realize that morals, cultural concepts of good and bad are a matter of perspective and human construct. This can be a frightening existential realization, and it was for me, at first. This makes sense. Humans are social creatures, and as such concepts of personal identity are built upon and supported by the society and norms that we live with. When one sees how unstable and malleable these concepts are, it becomes clear that it is actually the collective people, a body of individuals, that are the bedrock for the temporary and varying ideas that we see as permanent principles that existed before man, that which guides us. It is a startling realization that it is us who guide it. This can be terrifying. Concepts of God or gods, of equality, of morality, may outlive the death of one person, or one billion- but they cannot outlive the death of all people. However scary, this realization is accompanied by the knowledge of the effect you have on the world. You are free to live your life the way you want to, and no one can tell you they know better. This is part of what I took away from my experience in China, and it really changed me as a person, and I can only guess at how differently I’ll live my life going forward because of it.