Watch the Throne

To complement yesterday’s business-oriented visits, today we traveled to some of the most culturally rich locations in modern China. We left the hotel and began our journey to Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest city center comprised of a legislative building, a museum, a memorial house that quarters Mao Zedong’s preserved corps, and several other structures. As Uncle Joe helped us to traverse the crowded square, he recounted the events that ultimately resulted in China’s current political system. In 1911, the quickly declining Qing dynasty was overthrown by the United League helmed by Sun Yat-Sen. The Republic of China was established as was the Kuomintang political party (KMT). This political arrangement, however, was short-lived. The Communist Party of China (CPC) displaced the KMT under the direction of Mao Zedong in 1949. Consequently, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created with Mao as its founding figure. Since many of the grand events that contributed to the formation of the PRC were based in Tiananmen Square, the location has become sacred in the eyes of many Chinese citizens. The current state of China’s political world that formed from this long narrative differs greatly from that of the United States. The only similarities I was able to discern were in the selection of regional representatives, in which legislative delegates are chosen by citizens. Besides this, the Secretary General of China is appointed by these delegates, rather than the citizens. The Secretary General (positioned at the top of the political hierarchy) is a member of the Communist Party of China, as the PRC is a single party system. These proceedings lie in stark contrast to the mass voting process of the United States to select a president that may be from one of several competing parties. Also, the power of the president of the United States is more limited than that of the Secretary General of China because the former adheres to a democratic republic while the later operates under an autocracy.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Adjacent to Tiananmen Square lies the Forbidden City which served as the residence for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. While we roamed the area, Uncle Joe identified the use of particular buildings in the palace complex. For example, certain structures were dedicated to political gatherings, entertainment, solving family issues, dressing, selecting concubines, wedding celebrations, and even birthday celebrations for the first lady. Uncle Joe then led us through a showcase of artifacts that were believed to ensure the longevity of the emperor’s health and rule. Ornate vases, paintings, and jade sculptures contained symbolic depictions, including bats (as the Chinese word for bat forms a linguistic homophone with the word for luck) or objects in multiples of 9. This political ideology, where the continued rule of the national leader is of great concern, differs from the mandated impermanence of presidency that the United States has always followed. This is closely related to the fact that the emperor was viewed as the son of God. He alone is imbued with the divine right to control the fate of the nation.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Many activities of the emperor revolved around his continued connection to God which manifested itself in structures such as the Temple of Heaven. After we had traversed all sections of the Forbidden City, we travelled to the Temple of Heaven to further probe the actions of the emperor and witness traditional Chinese architecture. Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties performed Heaven Worship ceremonies twice a year in the temple, which consists of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Circular Mound Alter, and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. As we walked from building to building, we were able to see the ornate carvings and paintings of the wood interior as well as the ceremonial objects involved in the rituals. The effects of the emperor’s divine status are evident even after the fall of the feudal era. Because the country’s ruler is inherently related to God, he is deified in a similar manner. Even though China this belief no longer explicitly exists in China, it seems to still be present in the worship of Mao Zedong.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

Leaving the Temple of Heaven, we journeyed to the Hutong area in the Dongcheng district of Beijing. Here, we were meet by rows of rickshaws that conveyed us through the narrow alleyways that define the area. Having navigated the labyrinth of tight roads and side streets, our biker signaled we had arrived at our destination. We were graciously welcomed into a traditional style courtyard that joined multiple structures to form a single housing complex. We were seated in a quant, 2-room hut style building filled with family memorabilia, religious tokens, paintings, and pictures. As Uncle Joe conversed with our host, we learned that this simple style housing is the most highly regarded and sought after in the city. This traditional living situation, often situated among many flower gardens and trees and involving pets, emphasized a connection with nature. Only wealthy citizens can afford to live in this area, while the less-affluent citizens are relegated to the modern apartment complexes. Walking back through the streets of this neighborhood, we were met by the bus and returned to the hotel.

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