I met Tsuen at the metro exit of Tiananmen West and we proceeded to the entrance of the National History Museum to the east of the Square.
But before learning about ancient history, he asked if I’d like to see history in the flesh. Literally.
Mao’s Mausoleum occupies the central spot in the southern half of the Square, and inside, the Chairman himself.
First we headed inside the history museum to obtain our tickets while there was still no line. The museum is free with a valid ID, but they only accept a certain number of visitors per day, one-third individuals and two-thirds groups.
Then we crossed Guangchang East Side Road into Tiananmen Square.
Just to set foot into Tiananmen Square you must pass through security, scan your bags, etc. Amazingly, Tusen flashed his ID card and the guard ushered us through like royalty. Scratch that, like party members. I wondered what his card said. Did he have an ‘in’ with the CCP?
Gone was the two-story flower pot in the middle of the Square that had marked the National Day celebrations in Autumn. As we joined the tail of the line for Mao’s Memory Hall, a gentleman explained to Tsuen we needed to store our packs at the depository back across the street. We headed back across Guangchang and repeated the process.
Returning to Tiananmen Square, as I pulled out my passport, Tsuen repeated the ID thing and the guard waved us through. What gives?
“Tourists,” he said, “They’re looking for tourists.”
“Uh, I am a tourist.” We’re all tourists. Everyone here is a tourist.
He explained that he had a local Beijing I.D.
(So maybe no guanxi with the Party, but still, Beijing’s gotta be the gold standard of ID cards in China.)
“Take off your hat,” Tsuen advised. People were buying white flowers outside. I had learned of this ritual from Lost on Planet China. Outside mourners paid their respect to Mao by buying white flowers wrapped in clear plastic. Then, entering the building thirty seconds later they set the flowers on top of thousands of others in the foyer.
The line moved quickly. There were two symmetrical lines, one on either side of the Hall. We were in the left line and passed single-file into the darkly-lit main room, where Mao lay in the center, in a clear glass coffin, eternally in state.
It was one of the few places in China where no one flashed a picture. Sure, no cameras were allowed inside, but they didn’t take our cell phones. Still, I imagine if you whipped out your phone to take a picture you’d find yourself ushered to the nearest PSB before you could enter your passcode.
He was well preserved, and as I had been warned, more orange than one would expect. It makes sense though. Red is the color of the Communist Party. Yellow was the color of the emperor. Mao was both.
And before I finished my thought, we were outside. The line never stopped moving.
Tsuen took my picture in front of the large relief statue behind the hall. Statues of the workers and soldiers towered above. I mimicked a pose of a worker for the photo. But then I thought, Is it culturally acceptable to mimic a Worker of the Revolution in front of Mao’s Mausoleum?
I clarified with Tsuen, “Is it okay to make a pose?”
He almost laughed. “It’s not North Korea.”
We retrieved our bags and returned to the history museum. The ticket line now wrapped around, but we proceeded straight into the north entrance, tickets in hand.
Inside we headed to the permanent exhibit on Ancient China. At the exhibit entrance were were greeted by a wall-size placard listing all the dynasties in order.
So much history, it’s over-whelming. Not even including periods of turmoil, which could last centuries, eight of China’s dynasties lasted longer than the entire history of the United States as a nation. Xia, Shang, Zhou, Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing. Some for over five-hundred years. Then there were all the shorter dynasties, and parts of Chinese history when the country was split into multiple kingdoms.
In my history classes—world history, European history, American history, art history—my teachers’ lectures and the pages I turned seemed to be telling me a story, guiding me through an adventure. European history for example. You’ve got the Greeks, then the Romans who built on their traditions. You’ve got the Middle Ages, and then the Renaissance…goin’ back to the basics. And then the revolutions—Industrial and political—that created the modern world. A progression.
Aside from the amazing Chinese poets, scientists, and philosophers, going through Chinese imperial history is like watching the world’s most gruesome soap opera over four-thousand years. Betrayals, back-stabbings, usurpations, mischievous empresses, scheming regents, conquests and concubines. They’ve got every plot imaginable except that one where Bobby wakes up and it’s all a dream. It’s like the writers are sitting in the back room wondering, what on earth are we going to think up next? Like Prison Break. Originally meant to be an eight-hour miniseries, and then it was extended a few millennia, and rather than moving the plot in some meaningful direction, the poor writers have to come up with a three-thousand extra seasons to fill up time and appease Nielsen, the god of ratings.
I asked Tsuen if they studied Chinese dynastic history in school. Of course, he said. He didn’t like it, but he had to learn it.
“Why?” I asked.
“To pass the test.”
“I mean, why did your teachers tell you you had to learn your history?”
“To pass the test.”
I tried another route. “Why is history on the test?”
“You ask me,” he said, “I ask who?”
After trying to wrap my head around Chinese dynastic history, I wonder if that’s the reason so many Chinese students turn to engineering and the sciences. It’s not to increase their job prospects after school. It’s to get the hell away from the humanities.