A Canadian in Beijing: The Forbidden Tian’anmen

The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square (situated right next to each other) are the two principal tourist destinations in Beijing. When people come to this city, they usually stop here for these two major sites and then take in The Great Wall before moving on to other parts of China. I mean, these are the bare minimum.

Tourist requirements.

I had already been to Tian’anmen Square a few times and I have walked the outer courtyards of The Forbidden City once before. I have also seen the outer gardens and surrounding moat and quite enjoyed this perspective. I hadn’t yet gone inside, though, and so the arrival of my sister and her fiancé Steve to Bejing meant that I could catch some last-minute tourist sites before heading back to Canada.

I must say, though, that it was all starting to feel a bit strange. My last four days in this beautiful place and I felt like my whole Beijing identity was morphing before my eyes. I was about to leave my new love (China) cloaked once again in tourist garb. I had worn this outfit once before (at the beginning of my trip) and slowly (happily) had changed into local clothes throughout my stay. The arrival of my family meant that I had to revert once again into this tourist attire.

I wasn’t sure it all fit me anymore.

Since I wore those clothes last, I’ve put on some local knowledge.

But, the agenda plowed ahead with no time for philosophical meanderings. I rolled out of bed at 7:00 Saturday morning ready to tackle another tourist day with my family. We were meeting in the lobby at 8:00 and taking transit down to Tian’anmen’s southernmost gate: Qian Men, which literally means “first gate.”

This time, I thought it best to hire a guide. The woman who walked us around had lots of information about the sites, historically, but offered almost nothing politically. I’m not sure why I was disappointed because I had no real expectation for anything but. It’s just that there is a vibration to the square that is undeniable whether unspoken or not. By this, I mean the history here – the massacre or uprising (depending on where you stand geographically, the noun used to describe 1989’s events is different) – sits in the stone and pavement and it comes up through the soles of my shoes. When our guide was asked what she knew about it, she fumbled and became uncomfortable and responded that many powerful events have taken place there and she hastily began to explain the significance of a nearby statue.

What is it about real history that China has trouble with? Something terrible happened here and silence doesn’t erase the vibration of that truth.

Even my Chinese friends don’t talk about it. They don’t want to. What’s more, they don’t know to. It’s just not talked about here (except by the foreigners), or so I’ve found. What’s more, much of the information about such events is blocked on the internet while you’re in China. It’s nicknamed “The Great Firewall of China.” (For instance, the link I placed above on the words “history here” will not be viewable from within China unless someone has found a way around the firewall.)

I always feel shaky near Tian’anmen, almost speechless with the lump that comes into my throat and the ache in my jaw. I haven’t written about it throughout the whole three months despite the fact that I have visited it three times and have felt the same sadness each time. I haven’t known what to really say.

One interesting thing the guide did show us were the public “squatters” that were disguised as sidewalk grates. Apparently at large assemblies, these are opened up to provide the thousands of people a place to relieve themselves. Without this information, I would have thought they were just sewer grates. I guess, in a way, they are just that. I wonder if they provide privacy to each “stall” in those times? The guide said she learned this from her parents who were here during a large assembly that that there haven’t been these kinds of massive events as long as she’s been aware.

Not since 1989, I thought. Of course not.

Being there with my sister and her fiance made it easier. They did not want to linger on the square and marched on ahead to The Forbidden City where it promptly began to rain. We trudged through courtyard after courtyard imagining over three thousand concubines and nearly the equivalent in Eunuchs working and living there, trapped inside the palace walls that both kept intruders at bay and servants hostage.

The place is seriously HUGE. I had no idea.

The rain got worse and the guide asked in her sweet English if this would the appropriate time to describe the weather as “raining cats and dogs.” I laughed out loud. I confirmed that it would be a perfect time to describe it like that and the laughter momentarily relieved both my irritation at the incomplete history lessons as well as the chill that had attached itself to my bones as a result of wearing shorts on such a rainy day.

Two hours later, we emerged on the other side of The Forbidden City, out the North gates. We paid and said goodbye to our guide and then had a brief sidewalk conference about what was next.

I was shivering and hungry (having not thought about breakfast and finding nothing vegan in this tourist area) and there wasn’t a cab to be found. On rainy days in Beijing, if you’re far from a subway it means that you’d better just walk until luck turns your way. The only thing on my mind was a hot shower and a change of clothes and so I put my head down and led the way westward where the streets got busier and the chance at hailing a taxi (I thought) would be greater.

Twenty minutes later we still had no taxi and I had lost my ability to speak. Hunger, fatigue, cold, and the familiar emotional siphoning of a Tian’anmen visit – it was all combining together to silence me. My sister wanted to go and get food at a restaurant and I encouraged her choice if it was to be on their own, but I was adamant about mine. I simply had to return to a hot shower. I knew that I would catch what my Grandmother describes as a “chill” if I didn’t. I know myself. She, of course, wasn’t comfortable going to a restaurant on her own and so when a taxi finally pulled over to let people out where we were standing (what luck!), everyone piled in for the hotel. I had them over a barrel with my language skills and their lack of language skills, and I knew that. But, I also had my physical limits and so I quietly insisted.

The quiet insistence is the most powerful.

Back at the hotel, showered and fed and much happier, I emerged again about an hour later and I was re-energized to be host and tour guide.

Everyone was smiling. The rain had stopped.

Time for more shopping…

(That’s my sister, Temple, and I)