Sunday, September 25, 2005

Censored Material

I found out yesterday that Chinese censors prohibit people from reading blogs. You can read this, but once I post it I can't. I wonder why people in China are allowed to post to blogs but not read them.

Train tickets were sold out for yesterday's train to Chengdu, so we leave tonight. We spent Sunday playing tourist in Beijing. The Imperial Palace (commonly known as the Forbidden City) and Tien Amen Square took most of the day to explore. We missed Mao's mausoleum, but we're going back. There is no way I am going to miss meeting a guy who chose to be pickled.

The square, the mausoleum, the Imperial palace, and the building that houses the people's congress are together in one big park of national monuments. In some ways, they reminded me of American national monuments. Each building, sculpture, open space and decorative soldier reinforced the memory of a national dream. Chinese monuments are a bit more obvious, and the written propaganda is pretty chintzy. A giant red sign currently posted above Tien Amen square calls on citizens to "promote the scientific friendliness of the party, and create a more harmonious people's China." The Forbidden City is genuinely big enough to be called a city. One wing of the city was constructed to keep each of the emperor’s thousand-plus concubines in a small palace of their own.

In the early evening, we left the Imperial Palace for Wang Fu Jin, the biggest, ritziest mall in Beijing. There are a concrete differences between Chinese and Western culture, and I can’t buy the argument that globalization is a pervasive phenomenon that explains why people everywhere do everything. Still, globalization may explain why people with people with decent disposable incomes want to buy things. American brand anything is an impressive luxury. Barbie is a hot commodity (slightly altered eyes make her ‘Chinese,’ but there is no meaningful deviation from a skinny white standard of beauty.) Drug-store brand make up like L’Oreal is sold at expensive department store counters like Lancome is sold in the states. McDonald’s is a nice restaurant decorated with swanky modern furniture. Chinese consumers can enjoy knock-offs of McDonald’s, with three golden arches, knock-offs of Kentucky Fried Chicken, with a Chinese guy in the Colonel’s bow-tie, and two brands of imitation Nike, one with the swoosh backwards, and one with it upside down.

The mall is surrounded by blocks of open air food stands and merchants selling trinkets, all packed into small lanes that are only accessible on foot. The food includes such delicacies as sea urchins, centipedes, and live scorpions still writhing on their sish-ka-bob skewers. I thought that every street was unbelievably crowded. Jin said that it was a nice, slow day. The square and the palace are must-sees for anyone visiting Beijing, but they are pretty obvious tourist traps for Chinese citizens and foreigners alike. The outdoor mall was great, also well worth visiting, but both destinations left me with that same feeling of exhaustion that comes from walking around a tourist museum all day long.

Between Tien Amen Square, the Imperial Palace, and Wang Fu Jin, we spent some time just wandering the city. A number of my first impressions were pretty off. There are homeless people in Beijing. They are visibly few in number by major U.S. city standards, and each person that I saw was seriously maimed or disabled. The homeless beggars don’t own wheelchairs; they drag themselves where they are going, which can’t ever be far. Wheelchairs wouldn’t help. Nothing in Beijing is accessible. There is poverty in Beijing, but it isn’t in the high-rise soviet era apartment buildings that house most of the city. In the center of Beijing, long drooping mazes of one-story buildings are a grim reminder that Chinese poverty is of a rural character. These complexes are blocks deep, and are surrounded by crumbling walls with one or two entrances spaced every hundred meters. I tried to enter one, but the tiny passageways, the heaps of salvaged trash and a noxious odor triggered my sense of personal danger. We snapped a photo and got out of there. In the photo, the complex looks quaint and charming. I wonder how many quaint and charming photos hide

Even in the tourist spots, it was pretty tough to get around without speaking Chinese. We still had Jin to bail us out of a few difficult situations. We leave today for Chengdu, which is still a large city, but it doesn’t cater to awkward Western tourists and we’re going without Jin. Cheers to an adventure.


  • At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I must confess when I read this entry I became a little worried. Sorry to admit that I can't always "let go." Ha, you know what I mean. I closed my eyes and felt I was there with you.
    A Friend


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