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Mao and Then
By Roderick Eime
26 August 2011

In Beijing the comical contradictions of the 21st Century capital stand out for all to see. Plastered above the entrance to the ancient Forbidden City is the omnipresent face of Chairman Mao. I'm not sure if his apparently benevolent demeanour is intended to welcome visitors or remind them that his powerful influence remains long after his death.

Step through the huge, ominous gates into the hidden realm of the ancient Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace of both Ming and Qing dynasties, dating back to 1410 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

With 800 buildings and more than 8,000 rooms, this was home to 24 generations of emperors, along with their extended families and countless courtesans, slaves and courtiers.

Commoners weren't allowed in and the royals rarely left, living ritualised lives from birth to death within its exclusive limits. It's a grand and imposing place but many of its riches were spirited away in 1947 by Chiang Kai-shek and are now in Taipei (The Republic of China ROC) - something still keenly resented by the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Though the imperial rulers and their chattels are long gone from Beijing, Mao is still very much around, lying in repose like some Madame Tussaud's exhibit, in an enormous mausoleum at the other end of Tiananmen Square. Queues of respectful mourners and curious tourists alike file past all day long - stopping for two hours at midday for the late great man to enjoy a posthumous siesta - to see if the venerable Chairman is in fact really dead.

Tiny bouquets of bright flowers are left for his pleasure, before the solemn shufflers exit into the Great Hall of Memorabilia. Then, in a burst of confused capitalism, all manner of objects emblazoned with his substantial profile are available for sale.

Outside in the vast plaza of Tiananmen Square, ornate kites fly in graceful formation around the towering central obelisk that celebrates the heroes of the Revolution and marks the site where Mao himself proclaimed the New China in 1949.

This Gate of Heavenly Peace (tian'anmen) was built by the busy and influential Mings in the 15th Century and further upgraded by the Qings in the 17th Century. Virtually destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion, its current form is pure Mao. Ironically, the man who so scorned the history and traditions of ancient China and did his utmost to erase much of it still felt this central plaza was the natural place for his political rallies and grandiose revolutionary announcements.

Still a centrepiece of Chinese history, it will forever be remembered as the site of the fateful and tragic end to the pro-democracy rallies on June 4, 1989. These day's it's far quieter, and even the police seemed approachable, though I didn't feel inclined to take too many chances.

The city of Beijing was rapidly rebuilt to host the 2008 Olympics and this development continues unabated. It may be your last chance to explore the quaint hutongs, the narrow alleyways dating back to the 13th century that used to make up almost all of the city but are now disappearing fast.

It is still possible to go on pedicab rides of hutong districts and even to be invited in to a local family for a sit-down meal and a chat about times gone by, but these days the historic areas are increasingly being cleared to make way for the gleaming marble and glass shrines of the Retail Revolution, high-rise apartments and a new wave of skyscrapers.

Go now to see China's capital before it is altered beyond recognition by this new cultural revolution.
The writer visited Beijing as a guest of Helen Wongs Tours

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