Before my trip, I wondered if the people of China knew the enormity of their history and how remarkable this is for everyone else on the outside looking in. Thousands and thousands of years of stories and monuments are still marvelously preserved. That, in and of itself, is profound. Yet, I somehow thought that Chinese people just see this passively and that’s not in a bad way. Merely, China is so rich in history that it’s just part of everyday life.
On the second week of my trip to Beijing, we spent an afternoon going through Qianmen, Tiananmen Square, and Forbidden City. On our way there, I spoke with my class’ head teacher and asked, “So, how old are these places?” Her answer gave me an insight into the mind of a Chinese person living among such historical places. She said, casually, “Oh, not very old. Maybe five or six centuries.”
Maybe five or six centuries.
Let that sink in for a moment. Mind you, let’s compare that to the United States which, as a nation, has only been around since the 18th century. On China’s scale, the USA is a baby barely able to speak or maybe even walk on its own two feet. Granted, the Great Wall and earlier walls date back to the 7th century or maybe even further. My knowledge of Chinese history is still a bit lacking. I understood by our head teacher’s answer that there were much older sights to marvel.
As we walked through the Forbidden City, I wondered if the people we saw, souvenir sellers, the workers at the drink stands, or tour guides found it as daunting as I did. Daunting, in the sense that remnants centuries old were still kept in the same rooms they had been left.Everything seemed to be untouched, as far as the emperor’s things were concerned. We stopped at one end of the palace, which would have been the Emperor’s quarters. Pictures were allowed, but the windows and the room looked like no one had been inside to clean them, respecting the souls that had left them as they were. I had taken a couple photos, but to my disbelief they all came out pitch black. Perhaps that was a sign that I should just leave what I saw in my memory, that it was sacred and something that should only be seen by those lucky enough to walk on these grounds.
What I found most astonishing, in a good way, was the unbelievable detail of every corner of every roof, wall, banister, even the bricks on the ground. I questioned just how prosperous the Chinese empire was, and how carefree they must have been to be able to think with a clear mind exactly how they wanted everything to look.
If these were just ordinary people, these quarters would just be bricks stacked together to make something pretty. But that’s not how the Chinese work. Everything has a meaning, a purpose, a superstition beyond us all. Red and gold trims were everywhere to invite good fortune and balance. Dragons sat on the roofs, symbolizing nobility, heroism and perseverance. Although eye catching, it’s hard for me to believe that all of these were built just to get a second look.
I suppose that’s what I find the most beautiful about Chinese culture. This is a culture of thinkers, believers in entities beyond what we know in our natural world. Although I wouldn’t call Chinese people the most religious, China is in fact officially an atheist* country, they are spiritual in their own sense. In that, there is still a conscious belief that what we see in this world, everything we live through, none of this ends where we are. For that matter, symbols are important. Symbols that will help us lead a wonderful, joyful, fulfilled life seem to be reoccurring themes within Chinese culture. And, to this day, these symbols persist.
I can’t help but think that the cultural sights we are lucky enough to visit in China stay intact because of the staying power of Chinese tradition. Places like Forbidden City aren’t just cultural sights that drive the tourism industry. Places like it have been preserved because of the history and connections to the empire’s past. It is absolutely extraordinary how well-kept everything is, with its keepers paying special attention to the ancient meanings of each crevice and ornament.
Our afternoon at Forbidden City came to a very abrupt end. As soon as we sat down at the last corridor, it was time to leave. In any other part of the world, picking a time to close would be an easy task. You go by your own schedule, or what you think would be most practical for the kind of business you are. Not in China. Most of the historical cultural sights in China close at 5:30pm. The reason isn’t because this is convenient for those who work to maintain each sight. Our head teacher said that cultural sights close at this time because it lets the souls wander about their quarters as they would have in their ancient times.
“These places are only open for a short time everyday. It’s not meant to be for common people like us.” She said to our group. So we left, and I had never felt closer to history than I was on that day.
*China is officially atheist under the Communist Party. However, the government also recognizes Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Taoism as religions present in China.