Walking the city
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau says that to walk in a city is to subvert the authority of the dominant, organising forces of government. By walking the streets of the city, he argues, the pedestrian takes shortcuts to create personalised and individuated routes outside of the official cartography, thus re-appropriating the rules and products of authority to promote personal agency. Try that in Beijing, Michel.
With roads that stretch twelve lanes across, a pedestrian crossing system that defies any logical explanation, and some of the most impatient taxi drivers I’ve ever encountered, to walk in Beijing is to risk your life. Even in the hutongs (residential areas of city characterised by narrow, labyrinthine lanes), cars bustle pedestrians out of the way with impatient pips of the horn and a too-close-for-comfort driving style that borders on the sadistic. Once you’re out onto the arterial highways that course through the city, pedestrians all but disappear (or become invisible to motorists, at least), which pretty much leaves the pedestrian with one option: to hail their own Mad Max-cum-Robert de Niro cab driver and go marauding down a side street.
I imagine that strolling slowly through the lanes of Monmartre (baguette in hand) does invigorate the soul somewhat, but were Michel to get up to such idle philosophising in Guo Zi Jian Street he’d most likely get his kneecaps spacked off by a passing motorbike.
This isn’t to say, however, that the residents of Beijing billow about in cars all day like, to quote Stephen Fry, ‘bin bags full of yoghurt’. It’s true that obesity is on the rise in China, with rates as high as 20% in some cities, and that China, like the rest of Far East Asia, has an unhealthy attitude towards McDonald’s, KFC and many other shit-merchant fast-food chains, but you only need to visit one of the many public parks in Beijing to realise that, in the capital at least, the population is far from slovenly.
We were lucky enough to be staying very close to one of these public spaces—a beautifully presented, green little number called Jingshan park, which is situated just to the north of the Forbidden City—so we were able to witness the ‘enlivening’ of Beijing’s populace first hand. We arrived at around 10 a.m., and the park—which consists of a variety of squares, gardens and trees organised around a pagoda-topped hill—was already teeming with for-joy-of-it activity.
In fact, it was a little overwhelming: there was singing, dancing, skipping, playing, writing, twirling, whirling and orating; there were the ancient, the aging, the youthful and the young; there were tourists, tourers and locals; there were showmen, cheerers, gazers and partakers; there were teachers and students, performers and applauders; there was talent, practice and hard work; there was tradition, vibrancy and cultural heritage.
And it was all happening at that moment, in togetherness, as one, for us, and everyone else. And I can honestly say that I would have happily stayed there forever.
Of all the social activities, though, it was the storytelling and poetry recitals that stayed with me the most. Here were aurally transmitted narratives—enhanced, modified and, no doubt, edited through generations of telling and re-telling—that were finding a receptive audience in the heart of Beijing. By listening to these stories, people could take part in the narratives as they unfolded, assuming a role beyond that of audience members to become characters, orators and authors of a shared social heritage. And as we finally left Jingshan Park and crossed the road to the imposing entrance of the Forbidden City—a cultural monument that makes no secret of its past exclusivity—it became clear just how important the preservation of such social histories can be.
The Forbidden City
Since opening its doors to the public in 1925, the Forbidden City has become a world-famous tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has kind of transformed the place from a symbol of imperial extravagance into a beautiful repository of jabbering idiots. Coachloads of tourers zip about the place like wasps wearing backpacks, and every opportunity to look inside one of the buildings involves wrestling with gangs of DSLRs all vying for position atop outstretched arms.
That said, however, the vastness of the place is truly impressive, as is the intricate detail of the craftsmanship on every eave, tile and doorway. A great many talented and unhappy people must have toiled away their lives to construct such a work of art. (Which is true, I suppose, of many of the man-made UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I doubt there were many smiling labourers on site at Machu Picchu, for example, and I don’t suppose knocking together The Sphinx was a barrel of laughs, but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be awed by the fact that these things were put together by human hands so many years ago.) That the Forbidden City came to represent the stratification, exclusivity and decadence of Chinese imperial rule doesn’t stop it from being a luvverly bunch of buildings.
Tian’anmen and Tian’anmen Square
The same cannot be said, though, of Tian’anmen Square, which, belying its historical significance (or maybe in testament to it), is rather grey and plain, and as we walked through Tian’anmen and out onto the infamous square (via a security check), it was easy to see the difference between the old, dynastic Beijing and the new Beijing of political posturing and military might.
The buildings surrounding the Square are like many you find in the redeveloped areas of Beijing, i.e. enormous, symmetrical cuboids—a design that lends itself nicely to orchestrated displays of military prowess. In fact—and I have no idea whether this is an established architectural term or not—much of what’s in and around Tian’anmen Square could be classified as ‘power architecture’. These buildings (and the people within them), the brickwork says, aren’t to be mucked about with.
There were folks, of course, during the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests (known more popularly as the Tian’anmen Square massacre) that did decide to ‘muck about’ with the authorities, and the ghosts of that traumatic history certainly linger. Despite the crowds, despite the noise and despite the traffic, there is a screaming silence of things unsaid: a disavowal on the part of Chinese government officials; a rejection, a rubbing out. That I could have been standing next to someone on Tianan’men Square who knew none of the details of that terrible event—someone who perhaps knew it more euphemistically as the Tianan’men Square ‘incident’—just shows the incredibly pervasive power that a paranoid, controlling government can wield. And also proves that as important as the Forbidden City and Tianan’men Square are to Beijing, it’s the socially constructed cultural histories of Jingshan Park that have the most resonance for the people who actually live there.
798 Art District
Similarly important, I would argue, is the 798 Art District—a rejuvenated factory complex that’s now home to numerous gallery spaces, workshops, studios, cafes and boutiques. Apparently its burgeoning popularity has seen many of its original tenants (proper poor artists, like) forced out by larger, more commercial galleries and artists, which is a shame, but somewhat inevitable, and it certainly doesn’t detract from what is a truly original and exciting idea to foster creativity in the city. If those that were ejected are able to establish another artistic community elsewhere, which they are apparently aiming to do, then the Beijing art scene seems to be in pretty safe hands.
The district itself really brought to mind the area around the old Truman Brewery in East London (the 798 factory has a touch of the brewery about it, in fact), which is similarly engaging, creative and forward looking (if rather more self-aware and pretentious). Both have at their heart the renovation and re-purposing of abandoned or derelict buildings to provide arenas for the public to engage with creative, artistic endeavour, and while it’s undoubtedly true that many parts of Brick Lane have been hijacked by a bunch of angular wallies, the 798 Art District has, for the time being at least, retained a tangible atmosphere of independence and free thinking.
The only depressing thing about it is that such a factory complex in Hong Kong would have been torn down and replaced with a corporate headquarters in the time it takes to wash a brush.