Tiananmen Square

The following excerpt is taken from
Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows (pp. 53-64)


It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain; despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People's Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin, for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word, they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without caus-ing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization. Moreover, the architectural ugliness of a city like Tientsin, which reaches almost surrealist dimensions, could have inspired the architects of the new regime as it challenged them in the category of delirious kitsch and petty-bourgeois preten-tiousness; the competition would have been keen between the imperialist-colonialist and the Maoist city planners; even better, the various monuments given to China by the Soviet Union which now disgrace Peking would have found in Tientsin a background more in harmony with their aesthetic. But alas, from a Maoist point of view Tientsin would not do: it had no imperial tradition.

In Peking stands one monument that more than any other is a dramatic symbol of the Maoist rape of the ancient capital: the Monument to the Heroes of the People. This obelisk, more than a hundred feet high, the base of which is adorned by margarine bas-reliefs, would by itself be of no particular note if it were not for the privileged place it has, exactly in the center of the vista from Ch'ien men Gate to T'ien-an men Gate. A good sneeze, however resonant, is not remarked upon in the bustle of a busy railway station, but things are somewhat different if the same explosion occurs in a concert hall at just the most exquisite and magical point of a musical phrase. In the same way, this insignificant granitic phallus receives all its enormous significance from the blasphemous stupidity of its location. In erecting this monument in the center of the sublime axis that reaches from Ch'ien men to Tien-an men, the designer's idea was, of course, to use to advantage the ancient imperial planning of that space, to take over to the monument's advantage that mystical current, which, carried along rhythmically from city gate to city gate, goes from the outside world to the Forbidden City, the ideal center of the Universe. The planner failed to realize that by inserting his revolutionary-proletarian obscenity in the middle of that sacred way he was neatly destroying precisely the perspective he wanted to capture for it.

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

The destruction of Peking started in the 1950s, when all the pailous that spanned the main thoroughfares of the old city were eliminated. These graceful arches broke the monotony of the streets and gave them a kind of rhythm that was at the same time noble and elegant, but they were guilty of two crimes: they hindered traffic and worse, in the heart of the Red capital, they were feudal and reactionary remnants (most of them had been built to commemorate chaste widows or upright mandarin officials).

At that time, an expert in ancient Chinese architecture, Liang Ssu-ch'eng (son of Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, the famous publicist who did more than anyone to introduce modern ideas in China at the beginning of the century), defended the pailou and fought bravely against the destruction committed in the name of Russian urbanistic principles. He paid for it: not only was his struggle in vain ( not one of these charming constructions remains in all of Peking), but he became the target of various attacks, which stopped only when he had recanted publicly, praised the merits of Soviet architectural planning, confessed his errors, and (for good measure) denounced the memory of his father.

After pulling down the pailous, whole blocks were razed to assuage the hunger of socialist town planners for immense avenues, boulevards, and squares; these are intended for the parades, mass meetings, pageants, and rallies, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of participants, that are as essential to the good working of a people's republic as the old circus games were to Roman Empire. During the off-season for political grand opera - and this is so in all socialist metropolises, from Moscow to Peking - the paltry car traffic, contrasting with the giant size of these roads, gives them a ghostly appearance. The vast boulevards call to mind the false airports which cargo-cult devotees in New Guinea hack out of the jungle in the hope that this will persuade their gods to send planes full of treasure: one is sometimes tempted to believe that the building of the Autobahns, now used only by a few dismal cyclists or donkey carts, might similarly be part of a magic ritual, as if miles of macadam might generate the sudden appearance of hordes of hooting, stinking, triumphant cars - simultaneously the nightmare of the consumer society and dream of the socialist one.

In the obliteration of Peking, the next step was to demolish the city walls. Here it must be noted that Peking was not an ordinary city born of the meeting of various economic, demographic, and geographical factors. It was also the projection in stone of a spiritual vision: its walls were, therefore, not so much a medieval defense apparatus as a depiction of a cosmic geometry, a graphic of the universal order.

Before coming back to Peking in 1972, I had known already that I would not see the walls again: the government of the People's Republic had razed them all. This Herculean labor, begun in 1950, was completed in 1962. But, I thought, if the walls have gone, at least the essential things are still there: the glorious series of monumental gates that still define and organize the city's space. Even if the physical appearance has changed, at least the gates are there, perpetuating on Chinese soil, as an ideographic character painted on silk or carved on a stele, the sign of Peking.

The panic that seized me when I could not find the gates is not easy to describe. Everyone who has known them must naively believe, as I did, that they were immortal, and they will understand my state of mind that day in May 1972, as I rushed breathlessly from Ch'ung-wen men (Hata men is the popular appellation of this gate, from the name of a Mongol prince, Hata, who had his palace nearby) all the way to Hsi-chih men, finding only, in place of each gate, the dull flatness of an abnormally wide and empty boulevard. For a while, I tried to tell myself that I had gotten lost, that since the streets had changed I had lost my sense of direction, that at the next crossroads I could not miss the massive and protecting shape of a gate, rediscovered at last. This could only be an absurd nightmare: sooner or later I was bound to find the road back to reality - the gate to Peking. I must be having hallucinations. Any hypothesis seemed more acceptable than the truth. Finally, at Hsi-chih men, dead-beat after rushing around madly for a whole afternoon, I could not deny the evidence: this obscene stump among the rubble, which the workmen were beating down with their picks, this was all that remained of Peking's last gate.... As I learned later, its destruction had been postponed because the wreckers had found, during their work, the foundations of a gate of the Yuan era (A.D. 1234-1368). Archaeologists and pho-tographers were summoned; the K'ao-ku (Archeology) review published articles by the first and pictures by the second, to show the world how much care was taken with China's cultural heritage under the Maoist regime; when this formality was accomplished, the destruction of the entire monument continued until completed - Yuan remains included. In order to make people believe that it was both revolutionary and cultural, the Cultural Revolution thus practiced (simultaneously or successively) iconoclasm and archeology. Dead stones loom large in specialized periodicals for the export market, while living stones in the city are murdered.

But why all the demolition? In the particular case of Hsi-chih men, for instance, the only result of reducing it to a field of rubble is to clear the perspective of the Exhibition Palace, that poisonous gift of Soviet friendship, a masterpiece of Stalinoid architecture, whose neo-Babylonian tower in lard, now visible from all sides, succeeds in changing West Peking into a suburb of some dismal Irkutsk or Khabarovsk. Elsewhere, the disappearance of the gates has permitted the widening and straightening of the streets; muleteers and bicyclists do not have to waste two or three minutes going around those majestic sentries; now they can dash in a straight line across a desert. In Europe one is, alas, used to seeing the beauty of historic cities destroyed to make room for cars. In >Peking, it is more original; the city has been destroyed not under the pressure of existing traffic, but in pre-vision of traffic yet to come. This, at least, is what one must conclude if one accepts the most common official explanation. But official doctrine on the matter is not unanimous; some bureau-crats defend the destruction of the gates by the need to clear the way for future traffic; others say that it was done to obtain building materials - but this is not very convincing, since the army of demolishers could just as well have opened new quarries in the hills around Peking. When cornered on the subject, authorities are vague and strangely laconic. It is rather remarkable that nobody seems to know the true reasons for a job that took so much effort and so many people and lasted for so many years.

In the end, chronology can give us the clue to the riddle. It appears that the destruction of the gates started in 1967 or 1968: in other words, the operation took place under the master slogan of the Cultural Revolution, "Destroy the old to establish the new." Today, however, various tactical considerations have led the authorities either to deny the depredations of the Cultural Revolution or to lay them to the account of various saboteurs: Liu Shao-ch'i's disciples, Lin Piao's followers, rightists, leftists, rightists disguised as extreme leftists, and so on. When one is confronted with a case such as that of the gates of Peking, whose destruction was the work of specialists, well planned and well organized, employing a large work force over many years until long after the end of the Cultural Revolution, one becomes skeptical of the official theory that maintains that all acts of vandalism committed during the Cultural Revolution were the work of irresponsible extremists at the base, acting against the directives of the central power.

One should not be led astray by this "archaeological nostalgia" which seems to appear now and again in my impressions of the People's Republic. If the destruction of the entire legacy of China's traditional culture was the price to pay to insure the success of the revolution, I would forgive all the iconoclasms, I would support them with enthusiasm! What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks . The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution. The destruction of the gates of Peking is, properly speaking, a sacrilege; and what makes it dramatic is not that the authorities had them pulled down but that they remain unable to understand why they pulled them down.

A passage in the autobiography of Kuo Mo-jo throws a strange light on this subject. In the last years of the empire, Kuo, still a child, goes for the first time from his village birthplace to the next town, Chia-ting (in Szechuan), and he describes the arrival:

... At last, on the left bank, appeared the red walls that surrounded Chia-ting; the high cornices of the ramparts, rising in a sweeping movement, the imposing arch of the great gate and its gaping black hole like an abyss, was, for all of us, children of the countryside, a prodigiously unusual sight. The grown-ups on the boat said to us: "Those who cross the city walls for the first time must first bow three times to the great gate." We knew it was a joke; nevertheless, on approaching the gate doubts seized us, and we could not rid ourselves of the notion that some kind of ceremonial would have been fitting. In fact, I am not sure that the adults did not themselves have the same sense of religious awe when confronted with the severe majestic splendor of that gate; otherwise, how could they have thought of telling us about that rite? Powerful is the work of man! The walls they build end by having a sacred prestige.... The least provincial town has its temple to the god of walls: psychologically how does this differ from our childish response to the great gate Of Chia-ting? Those superb walls are typical of the Szechuan landscape, and one seldom encounters them in other provinces - except in Peking, of course, where the walls are truly majestic.
[From Kuo Mo-jo , Autobiographie: mes années d'enfance (Paris, 1970) pp. 75-76.]

A countersuperstition is not less a superstition: under the old regime town walls were venerated; under the new one they are under attack. The fury of the iconoclasts is a negative measure-ment of the permanence of the sacred powers that ruled feudal society. The tragedy is that the sacred powers dwell not in those innocent stones, whose beauty is sacrificed in vain, but in the minds of the wreckers. Seen in this light, the Maoist enterprise appears hopeless; the regime may well change China into a cultural desert without succeeding in exorcising the ghosts of the past: these ghosts will continue their paralyzing tyranny so long as the regime is unable to identify them within itself. But will it ever be capable of such clear vision? Certain foreign Sinolo-gists guilty of having noted traces of the traditional way of thinking in the Maoist systems, are the focus in Peking of surprising hatred out of all proportion to their limited audience or influence.

This shows, I'm afraid, how little the Maoist authorities are ready to re-examine critically the old clichés in which they have locked the concepts of "old" and new, " "feudalism" and "pro-gress," "reaction" and "revolution." By refusing to examine the nature and identity of its revolution in depth, the People's Republic condemns itself to marking time, to struggling in the dark, producing such periodic sterile explosions as the Cultural Revolution. It can have little hope of liberating itself from the slavery of the past as long as it hunts it among old stones, instead of denouncing its active reincarnation in the ideology and political practices of the new mandarins.

For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.

But for foreign tourists, this dead city continues to offer a number of monuments that amply warrant the visit. The Forbidden City has miraculously been preserved (is it because Mao Tse-tung likes now and again to play at being emperor from the balcony of T'ien-an men?). Whatever the reason, this vast gathering of courts and palaces remains one of the most sublime architectural creations in the world. In the history of architecture, most monuments that try to express imperial majesty abandon the human scale and cannot reach their objective without reducing their occupants to ants. Here, on the contrary, greatness always keeps an easy measure, a natural scale; it is conveyed not by a disproportion between the monument and the onlooker but by an infallibly harmonious space. The just nobility of these courts and roofs, endlessly reaffirmed under the changing light of different days and seasons, gives the onlooker that physical feeling of happiness which only music can sometimes convey. As a body loses weight in water, the visitor feels a lightening of his being to swim thus in such perfection - in curious contradiction to the explanatory notices that the authorities have put at the entrances to each court and building, describing the Chinese imperial regime in terms which would best evoke the dark and cruel horror of some Assyrian tyranny, and which would hardly account for this quality of equilibrium that seems to have inspired the whole city.

The Temple of Heaven belongs to the same aesthetic and spiritual world. Here again, greatness is reached through means that are wholly foreign to gigantism. It represents a perfect harmony, the result of the organization of a homogeneous and unique space where the buildings, the empty spaces, the perspectives, the old trees, and the blue of the sky are all active elements. I do not know to what miracle this pure perfection owes its survival - under a regime for which, elsewhere, beauty in all forms appears to be the sure mark of feudal vice or bourgeois corruption. Up to now, the Maoists have been content with building (in the middle of the avenue linking the Huang-ch'iung yü, the Imperial Heavenly Vault, to the Ch'i-nien tien, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest) a huge crimson cement screen on which you can read the text of the inevitable Mao poem (to tell the truth, it is the least bad one: "Snow") in the poor and pretentious calligraphy of the author. In 1972 truck convoys were bringing dirt to a spot just west of this sacred way: I was told there was a plan to build an artificial hill there. The plan was evidently to make some sort of proletarian Tiger Balm Garden in the heart of the Temple of Heaven, for the healthy relaxation of the working masses ....

I shall say little of the Summer Palace, carefully restored after the lootings of the Cultural Revolution. (But the tomb of Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai has disappeared: the new guides there, pro-moted after the Cultural Revolution, not only did not know that the tomb had been there until 1966, but knew nothing about this famous historical figure. of Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai (1190-1244), a Khitan aristocrat who served as minister to Genghis Khan, exerted a civilizing and moderating influence upon the savage Mongol conquerors.) That was not the first time the Summer Palace was ransacked, and the buildings are of a decadent chinoiserie archi-tecture in the purest style of the 1900 International Exhibition. Still, the surroundings are lovely.

The other Peking monuments have suffered various fates. One can always reread the Nagel Guide on this subject, for it remains a remarkable piece of work, but since the Cultural Revolution its usefulness has become rather academic. It should not be read for practical purposes, but rather for historical information, as one reads the accounts by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century missionaries, or the descriptions by Madrolle or Segalen: to visit in one's imagination the monuments which disappeared or have become inaccessible.

The eighteenth-century Temple of the Lamas (Yung-ho kung or Palace of Eternal Harmony) was being restored in late 1972; it was to be open to foreigners (visitors by appoint-ment). The fifteenth-century Temple of the Five Pagodas (Wu-t'a ssu), built in imitation of an Indian model, was used for Study Groups on the Thought of Mao Tse-tung for young people, and entry was forbidden. The Temple of Confucius, founded in the fourteenth century, was closed down and closely guarded, with barbed wire and electrified wires running on the tops of the walls; it was evidently inhabited by important military persons. The Temple of the White Dagoba (Pai-t'a ssu), an eleventh-century Buddhist temple rebuilt in the fifteenth century, was a warehouse and refuse dump with a padlocked entrance, and all one could see over the wall was ruin and desolation. The seventh-century Fa-yuan (Source of the Law) Monastery (restored in the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eigh-teenth centuries) and the Buddhist Association were closed; the main gate and walls bore traces of various outrages, and the whole seemed dead and dilapidated. The Great Mosque was similarly closed and abandoned; the buildings of the Islamic Society were empty, with no sign of life except for some soldiers strolling in the garden. The T'ien-ning Pagoda - one of the oldest monuments in Peking, an early thirteenth-century construction (the Buddhist monastery to which it belonged has disappeared completely) - is inaccessible: it is in the backyard of a factory, and you can only see it from afar. The Pa-li-chuang Pagoda, the only remains of a Buddhist monastery built at the end of the sixteenth century, is in less dreary surroundings- - you can get near to it and even go around it - but it is in bad condition, with its stucco high reliefs exposed to weather and to the catapults of passing boys. The famous Taoist Temple of Po-yun kuan, established under the T'ang (618-905) and until the Cultural Revolution the only Taoist temple in Peking still in use, has become an army barracks; the tourist should not go too near if he wants to avoid trouble. The T'ai-shan Temple (Tung-yüeh miao, or Eastern Peak temple, a Taoist temple dedicated to the worship of the god of one of China's sacred mountains) has been converted into offices; entry is forbidden, The House-Museum of the famous modern painter Hsü Pei-hung, a beautiful example of Pekingese traditional domestic architecture, with an interesting collection of the painter's works, was razed, along with the entire surrounding block, when a subway was dug there (so it is said). The Wan-shou Monastery, established in the sixteenth century and rebuilt in the eighteenth, has become sleeping quarters for workmen. And so forth. And I might add that in 1972 all the museums - the Historical Museum, Museum of the Revolution, the Lu Hsün House-Museum (Lu Hsün lived in Peking from 1912 to 1926) - were closed, the historiographers not yet having finished rewriting history in the light of the latest purges.

The Pei-hai and Ching-shan parks were closed "for maintenance work," according to signs at the entrances, but the silhouettes of sentries who could be seen patrolling at the crest of those two natural observatories that dominate the city suggested another explanation. It should not be forgotten that the last military coup d'état in China (or countercoup? - since the Cultural Revolution, the question of who holds "legal" power in China is purely academic) took place in 1971. The Chung-nan-hai district - which shelters Mao Tse-tung and most of his staff, as well as the Central Committee, the State Council, and various national executive organs - was still in a state of semi-siege; not only were the two parks forbidden to the public and under military control but the neighborhood streets were stuffed with barracks; on the bridge between the Chung-nan-hai and the Pei-hai, whence one can see a bit of lawn near the holy of holies, every twenty yards one could see a notice reminding passers-by that it was forbidden to stop while crossing the bridge; at each end sentries made sure that this order was respected. At night, in the same quarter, it was not unusual to meet patrolling groups of soldiers with fixed bayonets. This situation was of course temporary; we were assured that things were on their way to "normalization." Except that when normalization is completed it may well appear that it was only temporary, before the next Cultural Revolution. In the end, the problem remains: which, the coup d'état or the period of "normalization," is the really normal condition for the Chinese government?

Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows
Reproduced with permission of the author.

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