Qianmen: The Foreigner’s Lament [I]

(Note: Chinese characters may not display properly due to Turkish-style computer in Berlin via which this entry is being uploaded.)

Preface: The connection of Tiananmen Square with political theater has been well documented by all number of scholars and observers, most often with reference to the 1989 student movement which culminated in the chaos of June 4. In my own visits to that space in Beijing, I have tried to resist what might be considered a false connection between past events and the space at Tiananmen Square; in other words, I have tried to resist the seemingly foreign preoccupation of memory and taken the more “Chinese” outlook of pragmatism, simply enjoying the space for what it is: a fine place to take in the twilight too strongly. However, here I let myself go, somewhat more freely than my academic analysis permitted in a forthcoming essay for Cornell University Press.

I. The Sarcophogus

A swarm of sparrows glides and unclusters, diffusing space between Qianmen and the moon ascendant. Looking south, and up into the twilight, I murmur: “they are a collective intelligence.” Though I am anchored on the stone tiles of Tiananmen Square, my final syllable acts as a thunderclap; the flock flees north, warping the air towards Mao’s sarcophogus.

There, in the distance it takes for a bell to resound, a lone soldier stands, centered in the tomb’s yawning portal, stairs sluiced out beneath his gaze; he is a gleaming scale on the dragon’s back. The grandeur of his solitude, the mingling of his defiance with apparent vulnerability is all illusory: certainly behind this lone and vast portal stands a regiment drenched in iron, a body bristling with blades whose weight is meant to crunch down upon a palace coup. Playing within the drama of intimidation even in death, Mao indeed resembles Qin Shihuang.

(Yet the First Qin Emperor sits at this very moment bewildered on the blue line, the Number 2 subway. Under Qianmen’s depths, at the bottom of some toothy escalator, he is clad in peasant vestements, nervously fingering his imperial seals amid a sea of empty plastic bottles in an enormous sack; he knows not where to detrain. Qin Shihuang has buried his soldiers, killed his translators, gone amnesiac. He can no longer read his own scripts. Thus he sits in a long blasting sarcophogus on uniform gague, and rides the loop around the Second Ring Road with beggars who sing the forgotten songs of the Eighth Route Army, flanked by oblivious readers of the Huanqiu Shibao. 真是个悲剧.)

Above on the square, created by the revolution, the soldier guards the body of its progenitor, sustaining some flame that would eitherwise be mocked as futile or anachronistic. I plunge into my pocket, finding implements of German democracy – der Bleistift / the pen – fluttering with the visage of some Socialist Democratic Party bureaucrat. Though it emerges, somehow I am inhibited from wielding this tool; like the shouts of one million websites, it is blocked, strangely; it will not echo in this space.

Instead I peer up above that lone PLA guard, and to the icons. Above Mao’s tomb stand ten giant seals, and further still upward are carved five further seals. Fifteen – some oblique reference to the number of members of the Central Committee? No power lingers in the numerology. If five be a reiteration of the five major ethnicities evoked in the national flag, then it is a wholly stale one that reeks of artifice. These fifteen plates instead represent an unparalleled stone canvas of immortality; yet they are simply repetitve, meaningless patterns of flowers and stars. They are thus indicative of the intellectual exhaustion of their era, the inability to say anything with specificity or real conviction other than “bury the man, and make it glorious.” Were the cranes still up over this massive construction project, blocking out the view south from Tiananmen, when the walls blossomed with big character posters again in Xidan? Did someone wonder if the great leader might be buried alongside the head of his loyal general Peng Dehuai?

The public security / 公安 does not interpret such phenomenon.

Oblivious youth in bold greens and pinks pose in tacit ridicule of everything. After all, fresh pixels of one’s own image capture an allure far greater than some thousand-year old monolith or the millenial tomb of some ideologue. After all, the monuments will still be here when one ceases to look like a pop star on a Pepsi can.

Dead Mao and the nouveau riche: even this pastiche of minisculism drives me nauseous into the dark and accepting portal of Qianmen. I look out, north. Four guards pass, protectiing the republic, lingering over my brandished pen, thrumming with its own schaffensdrang, their only possible enemy in this lengthening and lonely salient of the square at twilight. Behind them, Mao’s tomb blocks out everything — Tiananmen, the monument to the people’s heroes, the flag – suffocating space.

I turn away, and to the stones. They are grey and black, mute, yet so tolerant. Their loving silence at the application of such potentially dangerous inks…

II. Shades of the Republic – Min’guo

I stumble out from the sterile guts of the square, tiled, aniseptic, and seek dust.  “Staub”, as the Germans say, as Mahler hurled out, to dust I shall return!

And in following trails of pebbles south of the square, I find a crevase of dirt.  And one could be in Anshan, or Shanxi…the pavement is gone, an ancient hotel not yet razed, everywhere destroyed.  No one is here.  And then after suffering the stares of a few ghostly souls who still live among smashed bricks and gravel behind the giant canvas pictures of future dream developments, I find it:

A bank hewn from stone, the National Bank of China, a nation unto itself, built in 1932 as the Japanese made their way south with lugubrious power.   This building is of a rare vintage indeed; very little remains in Beijing of the Republican epoch, at least not visibly.  Even the Square itself is a creature of the People’s Republic, not its predecessor rival which Mao chased off to Taiwan like Zhu Yuanzhang.

And so I am pleased to find this bank here, to make its great aquaintence.  It is as if it has been dropped out of space, as if its compact shoulders and barfing stone dragons, defy and expose the manifest weakness of everything in its aura.  Everything else is crushed underfoot in this abandoned warzone.  But neither Mao nor Deng nor their followers had the guts or the ability to raze this structure, fearful somehow of its compact brawn.

Min guo!  Your sinews are yet imitable.  For you, I would slide into iambic meters, compose paeans, acknowledge that you dug out the hollows in which I yet sleep.  For you, state of old, I would inhabit the 1930s, hack at typewriters, lick the wounds of Wade-Giles, callous my fingers on all rotary phones, suffer through interminable dinners with American brass, avert my eyes from scandalous qipao, voyage for weeks to collect bullets from Chinatowns, dive like Hart Crane into waters as blue as the tiles on the Guofu’s tomb, drink sandy beverages with Sidney Rittenberg before he pushes off for Yanan, gauge the tenor of the American ambassador’s strange war whoop, work in this damned united front, shave and pray, deliver speech after speech in dolorous orphanage meter, find something celestial about your banks, your tombs, your dizzying modernity.  And I would of course strive to recover your northern frontier.  I would do these things for you, all for the love of your architecture, and purely so, because my daoshi and his ilk are of the Minguo, and because I perceive within it the roots of the present beast — this bellowing panda, laughing dragon, rural dumping ground for microchips — and the idea that unity might yet be achieved between the red stars and the white sun on blue.

And because my lands were once locked in civil war, I wonder when yours will end, in a a chat room or by some less pleasant means.  But today it is no longer my fight and I have gazed upward for long enough at the remnant of Republican glory.  I turn to beholden the lights, leaving in my wake a dusty field of memory.

III. Qianmen (forthcoming)

Relevant Citations:

Adam Cathcart “Walls as Multivalent Icons in the early People’s Republic,” forthcoming in Chinese Walls in Time and Space: History, Medicine, Media, Law, Art, and Literature, Haun Saussy and Roge DesForges, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

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