I’ve finally figured out the deal with communism. What happens is that a group of people take control by promising universal well-being but it eventually boils down to: “you give up all pretense to political power and in return you’ll get a few incredibly massive, blocky buildings with the word ‘people’ in their names.” I’ve already told you about Warsaw’s great stone turd, and in Moscow, there are a number of places that could well be named “The People’s Hall of Architectural Monstrosities” (although as I’ve pointed out, there are now teenage mutant ninja turtles slumming for rubles in front of them). But China is the world’s largest country, and it’s theoretically communist, so you shouldn’t be surprised at the sheer scale of Beijing’s ugly communist buildings.
Actually, maybe you could be surprised, since Chinese communism has turned out to be pretty much capitalism without Facebook. Karl Marx would have been appalled to hear that the régime in Beijing calls itself communist… travel around the ramshackle villages just outside of Beijing and then go downtown to take a walk down Jao Bin street, past the Aston Martin and Rolls Royce dealerships and then explain to me how this represents the revolution of the working class. You have nothing to lose but your bicycles, evidently. In fact, if it weren’t for the architecture at Tiananmen, you’d be hard pressed to know that communists run the place—it could just as well be Donald Trump (although of course if Trump were the leader of China then we wouldn’t have squat blocky buildings, we’d have soaring, glittering buildings with waterfalls and stuff… just as ugly, but with a lot more flash).
There are three large affronts to taste in China’s largest square: one is the mausoleum of Mao Zedong , the other is the People’s Hall of Miscellaneous, and the third is the National Museum.
I have been trying to get into Mao’s mausoleum for years, but here I run up against one of the other problems with communists: they get up early. I do not. I always forget that the tomb can only be visited up until noon, and I never seem to manage to get there earlier.
This is a shame, because I think it’s interesting to visit dead people. I’m not talking about cemeteries and the like (although I’ve visited some very interesting cemeteries), nor am I talking about obvious tombs, like the pyramids or the Valley of the Kings (have I written about those? If not, shame on me). I’m talking about dead people you can see. I’ve visited a few: Ramses II, Pope John XXIII, Lenin. They always look like they’re made of wax—except for Ramses, of course, who looks like silk even though he’s made of leather. Why do I find this interesting? I have no idea. Actually that’s not true—there’s this thing about seeing history, but more importantly, it’s very interesting to observe the other visitors. There’s a lot of veneration and all that, and for some reason, I find it interesting to observe people as they display reverence. If you want to understand people, find out what they revere.
But once again, lacking the motivation that comes with veneration, I had arrived too late at Tiananmen to be allowed to visit the Chairman, so I had once more to content myself with being awed by the stirring bas relief bronzes of peasant soldiers all striving together to liberate other peasants from the tyrannical rule of those who buy their cars on Jin Bao street. Or something like that.
The second major architectural affront to the senses is on the West side of square, and it is the People’s Hall of Miscellaneous. It’s not really the People’s Hall of Miscellaneous, it’s actually called the Great Hall of the People, but if you ask a Chinese person what it’s for then they give you a response that essentially means it should be called the People’s Hall of Miscellaneous. In a nutshell, the government uses it sometimes to hold big conferences about the state of communist architecture and whatnot, and sometimes they rent it out to big companies (which clearly indicates that the hall doesn’t belong to the people at all, but rather to the government, who is always looking for a way to make a buck, which is yet another example of the paradox that is Chinese communism. But I digress).
I was hoping to go into the People’s Hall of Miscellaneous, but it was closed to The People on the day I was there. I strolled by the enormous television screens set up near the head of the square. The last time I was there they were selling beer, but this time they were once again selling the idea of national unity. Someone had put together a rousing film clip of amber waves of grain and soldiers proudly raising a flag and saluting while happy citizens of different races all watched with pride. It could only have been made by the Chinese government. Or FoxNews (they only would have needed to change the colors of the flag and most of the faces). Feeling less impressed than amused, I headed to what had been my principle objective all along—the National Museum.
The National Museum used to be called the Revolutionary History Museum, but then the Chinese government apparently decided that it should avoid using the word ‘revolution” at Tiananmen square. The museum takes up the East side of the square and while I had often been awed by the outside, it’s nothing compared to the inside. I’ve never seen an entrance hall like that, and I couldn’t help but consider the extraordinary waste of space it represented. It is the largest enclosed space I’ve ever seen and all it enclosed was, well, space. There are no exhibits there, just some escalators and a long counter selling tourist trinkets (which I’m absolutely sure was not part of Mao’s blueprint). Maybe they sometimes use it as a garage for cruise ships or blimps, but aside from that, there doesn’t seem to be any practical reason for all this emptiness at all. Come to think of it, just heating the place probably contributes in a significant way to global warming.
Needless to say, a building of this magnitude represents a tempting target to enemies of The State—a state that is ever anxious to protect the peace, particularly around Tiananmen Square. The entrances are therefore guarded by a host of cub scouts wearing uniforms emblazoned with the words “Anti-Explosion Security Check”. Perhaps they’re a little older than cub scouts, but not by much. They are very well organized, though. I witnessed a changing of the guards during which exactly twenty-four cute little security guards trotted out in perfect formation and in step and stood at attention, their white-gloved hands at their side, while twenty-four other security cubs saluted them, left their metal detectors and explosives sniffers, got into formation, and trotted away off to wherever they go to rest. Or do their afternoon calisthenics, or whatever. I felt very secure.
There are some actual exhibits in the museum, and they are impressive indeed. It is easy to forget, when one is not Chinese, that while we tend to think of civilization as starting in the Middle East, it started in China as well, independently (and probably in the Indus valley, for that matter, but I’ve never had a chance to get there). It is impossible to forget this when one is in China, however, and the Chinese like to point out that for all intents and purposes, not only did civilization start in China, but China is still the same country. That depends what you mean by a country, I suppose, but in the Chinese mind, or at least the Han Chinese mind, China has always been and always will be, while the rest of the world is inherently unstable.
The exhibits in the museum are all designed to remind you of this, and of the very important fact that China is one big happy country, in which there may be different ethnic groups, but they all get along swimmingly and never have any real conflicts with each other and all love each other and the benevolent state that takes care of them. This is done more or less subtly, and in between the propaganda are some of the most astounding things you’ll ever see… bronze work from the dawn of civilization, jade marvels, deep, disturbing paintings, the delicate finery of an ancient age.
China is old, very old. Its fortunes have waxed and waned over the millennia, but China has always been there, it has always persevered, it has always had a strange way of bending the will even of its conquerors to suit its desire. It is old, and it is patient, and it will have its way. You should visit it and see what the world is in for once it gets its way.