I visited Beijing for the first time when I was thirteen. I was travelling with my family and two others; we had all gone to India together the year before, and would go to Egypt the next. We were quite the crew, a team of five parents and six middle school kids – two boys and four girls, in total. We had lots of fun. Though I got to visit most of the key Beijing sites during that trip, however, I knew that I had to find a way to go back during SAS. At thirteen, I was too young to fully grasp what I was seeing. So, I emailed the travel agent who had organized our trip to China way back when, and he put together a whirlwind of a day for myself and eight of my friends (Sam, Olivia, Morgan, Kate, Melissa, Kerry, Meredith, and Mary) so that we could cover all of the necessary Beijing bases in as little time as possible. To give you a brief summary of my day there, on February 5th I:
- Shotgunned a beer on the Great Wall of China (at circa 10:30am) – this is a thing that people do, don’t ask me why. My friend who is an expert on China confirmed that it is indeed an established life bucket list item, on the universal life bucket list that should exist (maybe I will put one together after this trip)
- Descended from the Great Wall by riding a toboggan on wheels down a giant metal slide
- Got a tour of Tiananmen Square from a man (travel agent/tour guide mentioned above) who was present at the massacre in 1989 – more on this below
- Roamed the Forbidden City
- Went to an acrobatics show and witnessed some pretty crazy/questionable things that would DEFINITELY be illegal in the US. Including eight motorcycles driving full-speed in a small spherical metal cage
- Ate Peking duck at one of the best Peking duck restaurants in Beijing (and therefore in the world, since in case you didn’t know Peking means Beijing); it was soooooooooooooo so so so good.
Ok, now that you have an outline I want to talk about Tiananmen Square and the Chinese government and what I learned from Barry, our tour guide. I took a Chinese history class in high school, but I don’t remember a lot of what I learned despite it being a fascinating topic. As a brief overview, what I’ve relearned is that China, in Imperial times (when it had emperors who made up dynasties and were incredibly powerful), considered itself to be the center of the world. It had ample resources and had no need or desire to trade with other countries. Great Britain (as well as other European powers), however, had other ideas, and essentially forced China to open up trading ports to them. The British traded the one thing they had which China did not have – opium – and this eventually led to two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). In the end, the British got the better end of the stick (as they pretty much always did… except in America) and largely damaged China’s economy and power. They also got Hong Kong in the process (which they had into the late 20th century, when they decided to politely hand it back to China). Anyway, China’s Imperial system quickly fell apart, and the Republic of China was established in 1912. Mao Zedong later (in 1949) established the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party of China (the CPC), which is still in power today. Mao did a lot of questionable things to try to bring China back up to speed with the rest of the world, and actively destroyed traditional Chinese culture in the process. One of the main goals of his Cultural Revolution (launched in 1966), in fact, was to get rid of the “four olds,” or any elements remaining of the Imperial era (his reasoning: back then, a small group of elites held all of the power. Which Mao wasn’t into. Ironic since that’s exactly what the CPC is doing now). Mao also murdered and imprisoned what is reckoned to be millions of Chinese people (though no one knows the exact number); many also perished in the Great Starvation, which was brought on by Mao’s Great Leap Forward (his second Five-year plan, launched in 1958). Deng Xiaoping was one of Mao’s successors, and it was under his chairmanship that the famous Tiananmen Square massacre happened. Anyway, please Google all of this to fill in the gaps. There is so much more to it, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about China to even try to teach anyone about it; I’m just trying to provide some context for what I am about to write.
So, we were casually strolling through Tiananmen Square. Well, maybe not casually strolling – Tiananmen Square is a pretty eerie place. It is considered the heart of China, and is a huge, beautifully paved, open square, bordered by the Chinese National Museum and Mao’s enormous mausoleum to the left and right, and the first gate to the Imperial City (which leads into the Forbidden City) at its front. This gate has an enormous oil painting of Mao hanging over it, which is replaced with a fresh one every October. The National Museum and Mao’s mausoleum look like they come straight out of Nazi Germany. This is one thing I did not put together when I was thirteen, but those two buildings pretty much encompass the concept of fascist architecture. Large sculptures that fit the same category also border the square, sporting groups of life-sized peasants bravely standing up to support their country. In the center of the square, there sits a giant monument to the Communist Party, a large marble block covered with words in golden inlay. The stairs leading up to it, though existent on all sides, are blocked off from six feet back all the way around. People used to be encouraged to climb those stairs and get up close in order to fully admire the carvings on the stone. Now, it is severely guarded by two very stoic Communist soldiers. Why? After three restoration attempts, it is still ridden with bullet holes from the 1989 massacre that took place there, when the military opened fire on student protestors.
So, casually strolling. I was wondering if Barry would even bring up the massacre, since it is a huge taboo in China – no one younger than him even knows about it, since schools are forbidden to mention it. Barry brought it up, asking if we had heard about it. We all nodded in assent. And then he dropped that he was “one of the angry college students” who used to participate in protests in the square. He used to sell bottles of water on the steps of the National Museum to the protestors at night in order to make his living. He was a few blocks away from the square when the soldiers opened fire, and he carried an uncountable number of friends and strangers to the clinics and hospitals in surrounding area. Which had no idea how to treat bullet wounds (only the military hospital had the training and materials for this, and the military were the ones inflicting the wounds in the first place). Barry described his shoes and socks being completely soaked in blood, his toes slippery from it. He said that, to this day, no one knows what the death count was that day. By the end, they were just plowing people down with tanks and using helicopters to airlift their bodies away. And most of these people were the age I am now.
Barry talked about all of this without much emotion; he wasn’t even particularly solemn about it. It seemed like a distant memory to him, like any old story about foolish college ventures. He even laughed a little at the thought of himself as a protestor. But I was on the verge of tears just listening to him talk about it.
I asked him why they were protesting, embarrassed that I didn’t know. “About two things, mainly,” he said. “Against corruption and for human rights. Those are still the two main problems in China right now. Had we (the protestors) succeeded, China would be a much stronger country today.” He said this with his voice lowered. Next, I asked Barry about Mao. I had grown up, as most Americans do, hearing what an awful dictator he was, how his political movements were largely failures, and how he had murdered an astounding number of his own people. I expected another hushed-toned answer from Barry about how, despite the enormous painting of Mao hanging in the freaky “heart of China” square we were standing in, everyone secretly hated him and blamed him for China’s somewhat shameful recent history. That is not the answer I got: “Oh, people love Chairman Mao,” he said. “Chairman Mao brought three very important things to China. He made education available to everyone, even in the most rural areas. He provided the country with free healthcare. And he established equal rights for men and women. This is something that is not communicated in Western media.” He was right. That hadn’t been communicated – hence my surprise at his answer. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Chinese media had failed to communicate to Barry (who stood up to the government after Mao had already passed away, when Deng Xiaoping was in power) all of the awful things that China’s beloved Chairman Mao had done in order to achieve those three unquestionably important things for his country. Those are definitely left out of the history textbooks in China. I decided not to push the subject as we took what felt like a very inappropriate cheesy jumping picture in the middle of the square and made our way toward the Forbidden City to continue our tour of Beijing.
I think I will always remember that day in China; somehow, however short it was, that conversation with Barry changed my life. I have grown up in a country where I am largely free to say and think what I want, where I have free access to information, where I can – if I choose to look for it – get both sides of any story. People who grow up in China don’t have that choice. They live in a very real iteration of the cave in Plato’s Republic – they look at the shadows on the wall that their government chooses to cast, and they take them for granted as their world, their reality. So, here’s to many more life-changing conversations to come, and to being thankful every day that I’m spoiled enough to have grown up in a country that I can stand behind instead of fight against. At least in most respects, most of the time :)