China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Go fly a kite.
Date: Thu, 14 May 1998 15:58:29 -0700

23:14 Fang Yuan Hotel; Beijing -- China :: 07 MAY 98

A month after arriving in Beijing (see Arrival: Beijing) and cycling into Tiananmen Square remains a vivid image. How massive it all seemed, and how emotionally impotent an impression it left. Washington DC thrums with power. St. Peter's in Rome too. Uncle Ho's Mausoleum in Hanoi was more daunting with its imperturbable grey cloak of polished granite humbling the visitor's queue walking in strict procession.

I wonder if Moscow's Red Square will affect me so little? I've seen images of it too. But the grandstands and gates at Tiananmen's northern edge left the greater impression. I remember film, newsreel, documentary: red books waving under under rippling red banners; Mao and Zhou Enlai standing over the imperial arch, reviewing the troops and armaments marching abreast across 10 traffic lanes; beyond the rows and columns of steel and flesh, the billowing masses in the square itself. I remember a weeks-long vigil for democratic reform which ended so tragically. Burned into my mind, the image of a lone man standing down a tank, haranguing its driver, blocking every attempt to pass. It happened just east of where I stood that afternoon of my arrival in Beijing, looking up at Chairman Mao's impenetrable smile.

We didn't stay long. Never even took the de rigueur picture under Mao. With our three hotel options mapped out, Jay and I mounted up and rode east on Chang An Jie, passing the Beijing Hotel, crossing over the very spot where man stood down tank. Still, I could not conjure up the ghostly power, that hideous strength.

I've since talked with people who were there, demonstrating. For many it's simply an event of the past now. Seen as little more than a reminder of futility. Talking politics is a waste of time. Better to get on with your life. Go with the flow rather than swim against the tide. But that is not what I sensed at Tiananmen that first day either.

Jay and I found a hotel, checked-in, went out for some food. Sunset approaching, I cycle back to the square alone while Jay naps. It remains as it was. Enigmatic.

I sit for a while by the Monument to the People's Heroes, in the square's heart. A few Russian tourists mingle with numerous Chinese tourists, all having their photographs taken standing before the obelisk, below an inscription.

The people's heroes are immortal.

read the characters in a reproduction of Mao's own hand. I'm not certain. Is this a dot on the tourist map? Or a place of significant patriotic pride? Both, I suppose. Yet around this obelisk the largest-ever demonstration against the country's Communist government rallied.

I ponder. Try to wrap my mind around the contradictions. I watch the kites fly in the gathering dusk's light breeze. Such a variety there are. Some, with the shape of eagles, soar in lazy circles mimicing the great birds of prey. A pair of fish dance, wriggle and jump as if caught at the end of fishermen's lines. A young girl, perhaps six or seven, playfully rough-houses with a brother a couple years younger. They gad about, all giggle and shout, on the concrete tiles, scaring up the thin veneer of Gobi Desert dust with every foot-fall and prat-fall. Nearly matching the childish glee with adult mirth are the parents calling out signals that can only mean, "On your mark. Get set. GO!!" Two pairs of sneaker-clad feet clomp up the dust in a mad dash.

Vanier Park comes to mind. Vanier Park in Vancouver, where the kites fly. Where the seawall ends and from it spill the cyclists and walkers on their way to Kits Beach and the glorious sunsets there. Or English Bay on a Sunday evening, where the jugglers and guitarists play for coins thrown into a hat and the 9-to-5ers enjoy the final calming moments of the weekend. "This is a place of peace," I think, "of lightness." On a warm spring evening, a light breeze rippling the flags, power and history are no match for a child's laughter, for the tug of a kite in the wind.

But this is not Vanier Park. History and the power it generates lie dormant here. Hundreds of years built up. Put your hand on the dusty tiles and feel it thrum. That hideous strength is here and, from time to time, people invoke it. As happened in 1919 during the May 4th Movement, in 1949 when Mao Zedong announced the PRC, and in 1989 when youth and tanks clashed. Peaceful as it seems now, there will be more days when no kites fly here, when no children laugh, when forces converge. As always, history will judge the outcome.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

  graphical element attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 14.
trans. Stephen Mitchell