China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Arrival: Beijing.
Date: Wed, 06 May 1998 19:28:40 -0700

23:53 Bailin Chansi (Pine Tree Temple), Zhiozhou; Hebei -- China :: 02 MAY 98

Peace, lightness, flow, meaning.

Two weeks ago now I rode into Beijing with Jay. Into the city, a gradual change from the rural countryside of small wheat plots and naked brick villages to familiar townscapes of two-story white-tile commercial strip and finally into an urban environment unlike any we had so far experienced. Thronging, thrumming, buzzing with life and activity, thick with rush-hour traffic: up Qianmen Lu on its straight northerly path to Qianmen Gate. The city walls are long gone, cleared in exchange for traffic ways that form three concentric ring roads in the city. The Imperial gate stands as the only reminder here and beyond it lies Tienanmen Square, the heart of Beijing. At Qianmen Gate the 'lu' (street) divides to circle the expansive square beyond.

We had cycled for six days out of Taian, some good days, some bad. And for me Tienanmen Square signalled arrival, achieving the goal.

18:30 Fang Yuan Hotel; Beijing -- China :: 06 MAY 98

At the divide the street circles the square one-way clockwise. It widens to five lanes. Six? A steel fence separates the additional two lanes of bike-way from the road. On our immediate left, Mao's tomb. On our right a row of trees hides the signs of restaurants and retail shops leading to the enormous Stalinist columns fronting the Chinese Revolutionary History Museum. To the left, Tienanmen opens up with an expanse of flat concrete tile and on the other side of the street circling back behind the square, The Great Hall of the People: another Stalinist massiveness in which the National People's Congress rubber stamps the Central Committee's decrees. Ahead, and beyond the square, the Heavenly Gate visible ahead, hip-roofed and beet-red.

Mao Zedong's Mona Lisa smile hangs there, over the central gate of five, the one which once admitted only imperial emperors but through which throngs now entered the once Forbidden City. How many times have I seen this image in magazines, in newsprint, on television?

On October 1, 1949, before Mao's image hung here, Mao himself stood above that gate and announced the formation of the People's Republic of China to the 500,000 gathered in the vast square spreading below him. Thirty years before that, there was a student demonstration here, on May 4, 1919. It is considered a watershed event in 20th century Chinese history. The movement to reform and bring power to the people consolidated. Some might say Mao stood here, Mao's picture hangs here, because that day happened.

The day would be echoed some seventy years later, students even hoisting the same placards and chanting the same phrases. It took 30 years for the first demonstration to bear fruit. Shall we wait another 21 before writing off the Tienanmen Massacre?

But I am here now. And I look for some sense of these events in the buildings, the square, the Chinese tourists milling about the photography stalls at the north end of the square. I look for the power I assume must be here, remembering one small man standing down a tank on Chang'an street, which runs right under Mao's visage. But it's not here.

There is massiveness. Impressive scale. In the buildings. In the expanse of the square and the streets surrounding it. But there is no power. There is something else. I'm not sure what.

Jay and I cross the wide avenue and enter the square, tires gallumping across the concrete squares. People mill about, or sit against the lamposts, or on the tiles with a sheet of newsprint protecting themselves from the winter dust blown in from the distant deserts on prevailing winds. It's a languid pace. A summer stroll in the park. At the north end of the square, under Mao's watchful eye, we buy popsicles from a vendor walking about with a box of them under her arm. We lean the bicycles against the steel fence, break out the Lonely Planet, and pick an area with three options for hotels.

Cycling is over now. We're in Beijing.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 11
trans. Stephen Mitchell