Capturing the change in China
Forty years ago, a few months after Mao Zedong’s death, I stood in the vastness of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. There were army vehicles, People’s Liberation Army soldiers and a few groups of foreigners, like us, on political study tours. Mao’s Mausoleum had not been built; the dominant building was the Great Hall of the People. In the distance was the steady, whooshing sound of many bicycles passing by.
Today, the square is full of holidaying Chinese in bright colours, and foreigners, like us, on tourist visits. PLA soldiers are still there, in smaller numbers. A soldier turns up to observe as we are invited into a local family group photo. And, in the distance, there are still bicycles; this time brightly coloured, made by Giant.
Then, the Forbidden City was a chance for a political lesson. Alongside thousands of people in blue padded Mao suits, we were herded through the complex. Our translators, their suits distinguishable by fine cloth and tailoring, educated us in the profligate ways of the emperors and their retainers. The displays of jade bowls, gold chopsticks, porcelain water jars and silk hangings were kept well for this purpose.
This time, in our thousands, we are herded through the Forbidden City, the commentary neutral, the displays of imperial excess dusty and uncared for.
Some things are the same — the happy, curious children, the multi-generational family groups delighting in their communal visit to the political heart of their country, and our courteous, friendly interactions with them.
In Shanghai, our guide brushes us past the now less significant Western Bund. The purposely kept sign, “No dogs or Chinese allowed’’, has gone from the Bund Park. The Peace Hotel is still there, no longer the rundown art deco place for foreigners, but very upmarket. China is rushing out of the past and into the wealthy middle class at the speed of light. Across the Huangpu River, modern Pudong, 27 years old, is all glittering, high-rise towers.
From the terrace of The House of Roosevelt, the original headquarters of the Jardine Matheson & Co. trading company, I look at Pudong, captured by the stunning view of the river looping from northeast to southeast. For a brief moment, it seems, I am standing in the 19th century looking far into the 21st; at the China in all our lives. Send your 400-word contribution, with full postal address, to: email@example.com. Columnists will receive a selection from Australian stationer Notemaker that includes a MiGoals passport wallet ($29.95), Delfonics canvas pencil case ($16.95) and a clothbound Moleskine Voyageur notebook ($44.95). More: notemaker.com.au.