Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Invoking an Imperialist Dynasty
While Beijing has become one giant construction site gearing up for the main event, the Olympics, its central government is also keen on establishing its dynastic power.
Back before the Republic in 1911, let alone the establishment of the People's Republic of China, ordinary people were not allowed to have houses with gold roofs and red columns -- only members of the royal family could. No one could build houses or buildings higher than those in the Forbidden City.
But today, the nearly completed Terminal 3, part of Beijing Capital Airport, has a golden roof and red columns.
Restaurants entice wealthy diners by offering Imperial-style menus or at least a lavish enough decor to make them feel like they're dining rich.
Currently the city is constructing a gate near Tiananmen Square, like the old imperial watchtowers. There used to be one there, but the Communists knocked it down. And now they are rebuilding it to hark back to the Qing Dynasty.
Today's star pupils who do well in the college entrance exams are called jinshi, or promoted scholar, like those who successfully sat through imperial civil service examinations.
Sotheby's is having an auction early next month and one of the most contentious items on the block is a bronze horse's head. It was apparently stolen from a water-clock fountain from Yuanmingyuan, the imperial summer palace in 1860 when British and French forces set the palace ablaze and plundered its treasures. There are estimates the horse's head could sell for as much as HK$80 million (US$7.7 million).
The Chinese Communist Party has ruled China for almost 58 years and it's interesting to see how keen the government is to invoke the past to solidify its future.
Is it because the socialist mantra is wearing thin, or some how China's imperialist past has a much richer history? Or perhaps they think they are giving visitors what they want, a more imperial-looking city?
Many tourists have remarked to me that these manufactured or revamped buildings are hardly impressive; in fact they find it disappointing that the Great Wall at Badaling is all fixed up, or that the Forbidden City is repainted, and almost all the rooms empty.
Is it too late to tell the Chinese that tourists would rather see the real deal than something that's supposed to look authentic?
In the meantime the craze for things imperialist is intriguing in a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is even wider than ever...