Power, paranoia and a walking tour of Beijing
The era of concubines and taste-testers is long past, but other things have not changed
We stand, hands shading our eyes, in the bright Beijing sun. The image in front of us, larger than life, seemingly stares back at us.
We are in Tiananmen Square gazing across the 10-lane road at what is one of the most recognizable icons in Chinese history.
Why does this image, the portrait of Mao Zedong, hang on the entrance to the Forbidden City? Didn't his communist vision fly in the face of everything life inside the Forbidden City stood for with all its excesses? Wouldn't his portrait be better suited out in the Square itself?
After all, the Monument to the People's Heroes stands in the square, a brainchild of Mao's upon first declaring the People's Republic of China in 1949.
In fact, the mausoleum that contains his preserved body can also be found in the square. Maybe the portrait should be there?
These are questions we pose to our guide Sara, who has been regaling us with facts and figures of the size and stature of the largest public square in the world.
"It is meant to signify a transition from the old to the new," she simply replies.
Fair enough. We file this away as we make our way to the entrance of the Forbidden City.
Here, Sara again impresses us with her vast knowledge of the history of the compound. She paints a picture of generations of strength, overindulgence, security and insecurity.
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It is known as the Forbidden City, as the average Chinese citizen had no place inside. The emperors who lived here over a 500-year span took every precaution to ensure that the status quo — and their own self-preservation — was maintained.
The order of the day? Opulence, exotic meal spreads, taste-testers, slaves, eunuchs and harems of concubines.
It is clear that power and paranoia have been political bedfellows throughout much of Chinese history.
The emperor had his choice of 17 bedrooms, which he switched nightly to evade enemies. There were no trees in the compound for fear that would-be assassins would be given a hiding place. Silver chopsticks were used, which would turn colour if exposed to poisoned food.
The Imperial Garden featured a small mountain made of limestone imported from southern China and held together, in part, by glutinous rice. It was built solely so the emperor would have a splendid view while enjoying his tea.
He had a bevy of mistresses at his beck and call. And they, too, lived lives of splendour, at the whim of the Emperor. But his concubines' servants were eunuchs, the only way that the emperor could be assured that his mistresses would be faithful to him.
And perhaps, in the most grotesque display of possessiveness, when an emperor died, all his concubines were murdered so that they could be buried by his side, "his" for all eternity.
Back to Tiananmen Square
Later that evening, we return to Tiananmen Square on our own to view the ceremonial lowering of the flag that takes place every day at sundown. [See the video above for a glimpse of what happens.]
This is a popular ritual in the heart of Beijing, and we are among the thousands who gather to take it in. We watch with rapt attention as the flag-bearers goose-step their way in perfect unison out of the Forbidden City. They cross Chang'an Avenue, the massive road that separates the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, which is closed daily for this ceremony, and make their way to the cordoned-off flagpole.
With reverence, the flag is lowered and returned to the Forbidden City, where it sits until the following sunrise.
The spectacle that follows gives some insight into the modern-day version of power and paranoia that is China.
We are very aware of the political significance of Tiananmen Square, and remember watching the televised images of the famous pro-democracy gatherings of 1989 and the subsequent crackdown and violence.
Sara, our educated guide who took us through earlier that morning, admitted that she knew very little of these events — proof of the Chinese government's effective control of access to information.
Enormous police presence
Although all evidence of these events is erased in the square, measures are in place to ensure that similar dissent doesn't erupt here again. The police presence (both uniformed and plain clothes) is immense.
This force leaps into action immediately following the flag ceremony, as the Square is systematically evacuated. Police cars, trucks and armoured vehicles come out of nowhere and corral the thousands of onlookers out of the Square in a matter of minutes.
This is a practiced and efficient drill. We watch in amazement as we, along with the rest of the crowd, are herded towards the several exit points leaving the Square.
It is a vivid reminder that, despite the prevalence of McDonald's joints and Rolex shops, we are still visiting a communist state.
As we reluctantly leave Tiananmen Square, we turn back towards the Forbidden City for a final glimpse of the now-illuminated portrait of Mao.
Is this the transition that Sara told us of? As the image of the ubiquitous chairman fades out of view, we can't help but think that Mao's prominent position upon the old Imperial City is right where it should be.