A Sociological Autobiography: 53 – Exploring Beijing

By | August 26, 2015

Breakfast on Saturday 18 August was not rushed, although it seemed so. Maybe my capacity for crispy bacon had diminished. Jason prattled on, even serenading us. He was educated, intelligent and interesting, especially when telling us about this/his China in transition, about which he knew more than he felt safe in letting on and about which he was clearly ambivalent. He saw ‘capitalist’ prospects for himself that he could not have anticipated even a few years before; and yet he felt the passing of worthy (communist) entitlements.

The first stop of the day was at a Jade factory. I splashed out on a game of Chinese chess (which I have not touched since). Our next halt was more energizing – the tomb of the thirteenth Ming emperor located 25 kilometres outside Beijing. It was austere: no artifacts. What struck me most was the scale and ruthlessness of the vast and clandestine building programme of which the tomb was the kernel, the whole project costing the equivalent of two years of Land Tax for the whole of China. What egoism! And what a case-study of institutionalized imperial charisma. When the builders and craftsmen had completed their work they were all poisoned, so nobody who knew the details or whereabouts of the tomb survived; only coded instructions remained.

The Great Wall of China, at its most resplendent in the 16th century, long after its beginnings 2000 years earlier, has long occupied a special place in the collective imagination. The coach pulled up beside a heavily reconstructed section of the Wall, which occasioned some concern. The challenge Jason gave us was to walk to the summit of this section (‘you will be Mao’s heroes’). In the event a handful of us made it despite numerous dashed hoped: each summit seemed inevitably to herald yet another trek. Five of us made it and were immensely proud of ourselves. The photographs show us embarrassingly sweat-stained, ravaged and pink.

It was early evening before we reached the Rainbow Hotel. Our sub-group of six opted for a restaurant across the road, with mixed results. The waitress was sullen and unhelpful and there was no appeasing her. As if sensing and resenting my reading of her mood, she tipped into my soup bowl – at the third attempt – what appeared to be a chicken’s foot. I imagined it might have been a delicacy, but … Out of the corner of my eye I witnessed our waitress being sternly lectured by her supervisor.

Again I went walking late, this time venturing further towards the centre of Beijing. A few locals were still trading, others stood in knots on the street corners, playing games or gossiping. The back streets were the liveliest. In parts of China hairdressing establishments provide cover for brothels. I idly wondered if one would have to be Chinese to be guaranteed a decent haircut?

On Sunday 19 August Annette and I opted out of the group’s morning tour to the Summer Palace in favour of a wander under our own steam and an excursion to the Forbidden City. We found our way, circuitously, to Tiananmen Square, pausing to check out a local hutong or to inspect the shops and stalls. Beijing is s Mongol city, although the Mongol conquest of China initiated by Genghis Khan was only completed in the era of his grandson, Kublai Khan. The Mongols dug deep wells and horse-troughs (in Mongolian hut or hot). To safeguard their homes and ensure privacy, the indigenous peoples erected walls around the small spaces between their dwellings, reconstituting them as courtyards. It was this close tangle of hutongs that we did our best to inspect, although the ‘ghost walls’ constructed to face their entrances almost invariably frustrated us. Fortunately we could see down into some from the vantage point of our hotel living area. There was a whiff of community despite the poverty. Jason had been reared in just such an environment. The contrast between Beijing’s US-style ‘downtown’ and these ‘hovels’ was immense. But such contrasts are of course no less marked in American cities: I thought of Atlanta’s affluent downtown compared with its wooden shacks housing the poorer blacks (and ‘white trash’) to its south

The evening’s entertainment was pre-booked: a coach trip to a show by Chinese acrobats for $20 per head. It was fantastic, if worrying: the feats accomplished by pathologically pliant young girls was astonishing, a mix of high tumbling, extraordinary balance and contortion. Sitting next to Eva, I quizzed her about her past, uncovering a degree in history and economics, more than a hint of loneliness, and growing disillusionment with a freelance career without security.

Back in the environs of the hotel, my old friend Ken had spotted a bar down an unlit alleyway. This led to an eventful evening. He walked ahead, our group trailing in his wake. When he beckoned us in I assumed all those ahead of me, had realized it was a brothel masquerading as a bar. Maybe I had done enough research on sex work to be able to identify sex workers more efficiently than others in our party. But we were inside now and the ‘barman’ was seating us at a table and plying us with bottled beer. A dozen scantily clad girls were watching TV without enthusiasm (the sheer tedium of sex work is often underestimated). Two gay/bisexual women were kissing at the bar; one then apparently slapped the other, but I missed that. We drank up and left uneventfully.

Monday 20 August was our final full day. Once more Annette and I skipped a guided tour, which incorporated a rickshaw ride to the shopping precincts; nor were we the only dissidents. We sauntered to Tiananmen Square, determined to make it to the Forbidden City. When the Ming Empire moved its base to Beijing in 1421 its emperors took up residence in this ‘city within a city’. Given the permanent, bold and colourful impact of the Ming Empire on Beijing, I was curious to know how it slotted into China’s history. Fortunately I had packed Thompson’s ‘The Emergence of the Global Political Economy’. Things became clearer. Chinese world superiority coincided with the rule of the Northern and Southern Sung, stretching from the 10th into the 13th centuries. The dynasty of the Southern Sung, noted for its active encouragement of maritime commercial trade, eventually collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion in 1279. It was of course well after this time, in 1368, that the Ming displaced the Mongol invaders. What was distinctive about the Ming emperors was that they turned their backs on many Sung-Mongol practices. In a mood to avoid further conflict and to consolidate after their battles against the Mongols, the early Ming emperors suppressed private trade and through a series of prohibitions between 1371 and 1452 actually eliminated all legal coastal shipping (giving a boost to smugglers in the process). They had their successes before yielding to the Manchu dynasty in 1644 – ironically accomplished through their famed naval power – but the Chinese economy was never to recover from the Ming strategy of withdrawal from trade and zones of conflict.

It was the third Ming emperor, Yongle, who ordered the building of the Forbidden City. Between 1409 and 1420, 200,000 people were pressed into service. It was to be the home not for a mortal king but for the Son of Heaven, a divinely-appointed intermediary between heaven (yang) and earth (yin). What impresses is its sheer size. Covering 720,000 square metres, it contains 8,706 halls and rooms. Its fussy architecture seemed to have been prescribed by the life of rituals led by the emperors. I took in little detail, being more interested, as at the Ming tombs, in the sociology of and feel for the absoluteness and exclusivity of autocratic Imperial power. Here was a city within a city kept at resplendent cost for an elite family ‘against the other’.

From the 15th century we made a rapid and startling transition to the 20th. Beijing’s ‘Fifth Avenue’ opened out before us. Pedestrianized in part, this amazing street was home to a magnificent array of department stores. Finding a bookshop at last, I bought a cheap copy of the autobiography of the last emperor.

On Tuesday 21 August we made the long trip home. What a journey!




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