China: In search of Mao

An index to the China series appears at the first post.

September 24, 2016

I arose this morning with a quest: I would seek out a copy of the “Little Red Book” that initiated the late 1960s Cultural Revolution in China. I believe the figure of Mao Zedong is somewhat confusing to a lot of Americans. In many respects, he is considered the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Americans tend to demonize him for that. At the same time, we might pause to think how hollow and helpless China was at the time of the Second World War. The strong leader who set the pattern on which the rapid re-growth of this nation could take place also has some claim to fame.

I organized my day’s journey around three sites: the “Bookworm” shop and the 798 arts district in northeast Beijing, and Tien An Men Square in the heart of the city. I felt that a proper bookshop might be just the place to start my search. The Bookworm offers new books, used books, and a lending library for people who enjoy its coffee bar. I had read of art based on old propaganda posters being presented in the 798 arts district, and today marked the start of their design fair. Tien An Men draws me inward; I remember how I felt in 1989 when it appeared that China might take a more democratic direction. Of course, that square carries Mao’s mark in two different ways. His enormous portrait hangs on the gate to the Forbidden City, and his massive mausoleum is at the center of the square.


This electronic subway map was my only copy since printed ones weren’t available.

I was on my own for this journey, and I immediately missed all the details my friends at the Institute for Computing Technology had arranged for our travels together. They had left me a pass card for the local public transportation, though, and I took full advantage. Walking to the nearest subway station (Zhichunli) took a bit of time. I have been staying at the WuKe hotel, part of the campus for the Institute of Physical Sciences. My journey on foot ran approximately a kilometer directly south, to the subway station. My path led past the Institute for Computing Technology, a sports complex for a local high school, and Beijing Spacecrafts. An armed and helmeted guard at the last pointed me in the correct direction for the last hundred meters, actually.

As I descended the escalator, I saw that I would pass through a security post; the subway used an x-ray machine to check my bag. Happily I could keep my water bottle. I used the contact card to get into the ticketed zone, and then I was faced with a decision– which way should I go? Helpfully, Line 10 of the subway is a loop, so any mistake would have short-lived consequences. The loop, however, is quite large, with trains taking perhaps an hour to run the full course. I found the direction that would take me east (from northwest Beijing to northeast Beijing). Unlike most other undergrounds I’ve taken, some Beijing subway stations prevent customers from jumping onto the tracks by gates in the waiting area. When the train pulls up, its doors open and the outer gates open. I stepped aboard. The trains had a good system for tracking the current position of the train, and stations were named in both pinyin (Latin characters) and simplified Chinese (it’s different than employed on Taiwan). Even at 10:00 AM on a Saturday morning, the train had a fair number of people aboard, enough that I stood and held a strap rather than intrude on others. I was rather surprised at one point when an advertisement appeared in the dark of the tunnel. LED displays outside the car play stop-motion animations for various products (they have to strobe at an interval matching the speed of the train for it to look like a continuous movie). The ads were for a sporting event and for Tyson’s chicken, of all things, featuring a muscular fellow wearing only bib overalls, leaving a comet trail behind him. I exited the train when we reached the Tuanjiehu stop. I had a frightening moment when I got to the exit from the ticketed area; the machine refused my card! The guard got me through the gate and handed me another card with 33 Yuan on it; my trip from the northwest corner of town had cost 5 Yuan, or less than one US dollar.

My next half hour was considerably more disorienting. The website for the Bookworm told me to walk west along Gongti Bei Lu, a major artery, and then head south on Sanlitun South. I took the first turning to the east, and there I would see a green roof. No problem, right? I had to walk a fair bit further than I expected, but I found the Sanlitun South route. Unfortunately, I thought the “first turning” was a private drive, since it had a security boom across it. I turned east on a street lined with small businesses instead. Having walked for twenty minutes, I was no longer confident that I was in the right place.


Places like this do not feature a lot of English fluency.

Helpfully, an Amway employee who gave his English name as Daniel came to my rescue. We understood each other imperfectly, but he walked with me all the way back to Sanlitun to an international hotel. The concierge there had me straightened out in no time. The first turning was across the street, and the green roof was actually a white glass roof with teal books on it. I had found my bookshop!

Sadly, I was entirely out of luck for my little red book. The soft-spoken clerk expressed doubt that the book was still available; some of its ideas have gone out of style for today’s China. In any case, they did not have a copy. We talked for a few minutes, and then she suggested I check with “Page One,” a modern book shop down the street. Well, soon my surroundings did not match her description very well. I found myself back at the place I had met Daniel. I decided to strike east for my subway stop. Soon I was underground once more.


Who knows what you will find, when wandering? I saw a panda.

For my next trick, I planned to venture further northeast, and that meant I would scoot south to Line 6, pop east one stop, and then head north on Line 14. The Jiangtai stop had been presented to me as the place where 798 could be found, but really I needed to go a kilometer north. Helpfully, a Ukrainian and his friend, who both lived in Beijing, let me tag along on their Uber ride to reach the arts district. I felt the irony of searching for a little red book in an arts district; the Cultural Revolution essentially baited intellectuals and artists into the open so that they could be rounded up and packed off to manual labor in the countryside.


Creepy crawlies

798 is actually a pretty cool place, though. It collects art galleries, art schools, and a wide variety of shops and bistros into a tidy district of gentle relaxation. Creative graffiti has been encouraged for making murals in some places. I was excited when I saw the banners announcing the start of the 2016 Art Festival. The opening ceremony was slated at 3:30 PM over at the Rose Bud. I had arrived around 1:00 PM, so I retired to a bistro for a bite to eat. When I looked at the menu, I realized the pricing for this area is also special. My cheeseburger, fries, and salad came to 70 Yuan. (shrugs)

The 798 had several cool displays of public art. I enjoyed the flock of sheep walking atop the bushes as though on a meadow of grass, and a stampede of golden spiders had climbed on each other’s shoulders to get a peek inside one of the shops. A man contemplated a frog, while a woman helped her son play “airplane.” The art was playful and lovely.

My mission, however, continued apace. I found a roadside seller who had a few scrolls of propaganda posters for sale. Instead, I found my gaze drawn to a “singing bowl.” She demonstrated how to circle the edge with the baton to cause the resonance to rise. I tried to mimic her motion, but I got no sound. Using gestures, she explained that I was muting the sound by cupping the bowl in my hand. I did a little better on the next try. I thought of my friend Alan in Nashville who had a small chime for meditation meetings, and I realized I needed a singing bowl for my office. I knew my intuition was right because the seller gave me a furtive look and then pointed out some symbols in something other than Chinese: “Om mani padme hum.” We said “namaste” to each other, and I knew I had a very special keepsake for Beijing.


Dave hears the bowl singing.

I had passed through any number of small shops, and I felt I might as well give up on 798 for my purchase of a little red book. When I stepped inside one of the larger keepsake shops, though, I found a pile of little red books right inside the door! Something wasn’t quite right, though, because these books were in French, English, Chinese, and other languages. I asked the price, and I learned that these were a highly affordable 20 Yuan (less than $4 USD). Although they had been fitted with covers designed to look old, the pages were in far too good a condition to be from 1966. I asked the store clerks about the possibility of older editions. Sure enough, they did! The shop owner brought five volumes out from a shelf behind the counter. These were “Selected works of Mao Zedong,” a compendium that provided much of the source material for the much lighter “Quotations from Mao Zedong.” The smaller but thicker book was a single-volume edition, while the four larger but thinner books were a four-volume edition for the book, originally published in 1944. In essence, the “Selected Works” was the little red book with more source material. The small ones at the entry were modern reproductions of the “Quotations.” I thought of my favorite history teachers and knew I needed a copy of each! The price was a bit higher than I would have liked, but I am sure that these books will have a place of honor in two different classrooms.


Mission accomplished!

I took a moment to reflect on a satisfactory end to my quest by walking into an art gallery at the north end of 798. They were holding a special exhibition of three famed Chinese painters. A graduate of art school talked with me as I looked at the works on the wall. I really enjoyed the images of Tibet that had been brought back to Beijing by one of the artists, much as Gauguin had popularized the South Pacific by the paintings he produced during his visit there.

Suddenly, I knew it was the right time to go to Tien An Min. If I wasn’t delayed too much, I should still have some sun for photographs. I rode Line 14 back down to Line 1, which runs east and west through the heart of the city. When we reached Tien An Min East, I came above ground to be at the foot of the National Museum of China. After a moment, I found the walkway to the Square itself. I was confused, though, that there was no way across the street separating me from the Square. As I looked around, I spotted a pedestrian underpass that would take me over to the square. Halfway under the road, though, I spotted something remarkable. Eight impressive honor guardsmen were being reviewed by their sergeant. The other tourists buzzed around the group as though they were invisibly repelling us. I stopped against the opposite wall and simply watched for a few minutes. Then a tourist stopped for a photo, and then others began hauling out their iPhones. I pulled up my camera and snapped an opportune moment. The sergeant turned around and held his hand up to block the lens. I lowered it, nodded my head, and continued through the underpass.


My dad was once a guardsman in the U.S. Army…

Now that I had arrived in the Square, I wasn’t sure what I sought. I took pictures of the heroic statues, the monument, the buildings lining the square, and a discordant ten-meter basket of flowers. Mao’s mausoleum was closed and deserted except for the guardsmen. A stranger agreed to take a photo of me in front of it, but I think he was not familiar with photography since pushing the button required my miming the action. I walked around to the “back” of the mausoleum. The side of Tien An Men that does not have a view of the gate to the Forbidden City was essentially deserted. I had a chance to gaze at the massive Zhengyangmen (Qianmen) gate, which served as the gate of the inner city of Beijing at its construction in 1419. The size of this gate borders on the unimaginable; getting far enough away to fit it into frame on my prime lens required backing almost to the gate of the mausoleum. I found myself thinking that ancient China and modern China are always grappling with each other, the one bracketing around the other in layers.


Mao declined to take a photo with me.

Filled with rumination, I walked through another underpass to leave the Square and exit into the Great Hall of the People on the western side. My solitude was jarred a bit when I realized that another honor guardsman was standing in the underpass. I was a bit shocked to see a helmet and riot shield lying on the ground before him should an incident arise. I kept my pace up, giving him a nod as I passed. I was surprised again when he called out in English, “Have you enjoyed your visit to Tien An Min Square?” I stuttered, then said, “Yes, very much.” He said, “I hope that you enjoy your visit to China.” I said, “Thank you! It has been wonderful.” He smiled and resumed his guard.

Back above ground, I decided to get a photo of myself in front of the Great Hall of the People. A group of three teenagers were leaning on the rail in front of it. I asked one if he would take a photo, and he agreed. He needed a little technical support since the button focuses at half-way down and then shoots at the bottom. His friends chuckled. I asked him if he would like a photo with me, and he said yes right away. Another friend of his agreed to take that shot, and the fellow gave his friend his cell phone so he could have the shot, as well. We saw that the other friend was scooting over toward us, as well, so we invited him into the shot on the cell phone, too.


Another day, another friend!

I was filled with a sense of contentment.


3 thoughts on “China: In search of Mao

  1. Pingback: Seeking my Buddha nature | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: China: Dave visits the Temple of Heaven | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: With the new year, a new office! | Picking Up The Tabb

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