Tidewater Traveler: February 2006


     Today I stand beside a young Chinese soldier. Together we are gazing into the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony. From this vantage the attention of every tourist and countryman is focused upon the throne from which China’s emperors ruled for ages. Only a brass rail separates us from antiquity that spans time measured in centuries and defined by dynasties.
      I am in awe at what I am seeing and am feeling a swelling of emotion that manifests itself in a way that makes me glad I am still wearing dark sunglasses. But a brief glance to my left forces me to remove them and wipe my eyes. For silent tears are also streaming down the young communist’s cheeks and staining the front of his crisp green uniform. After a fleeting glance my way, we turn from one another, perhaps in mutual embarrassment and understanding. For the soldier I cannot speak, but I know I am richer for the experience.
      Our walk to the Forbidden City has taken us through Tiananmen Square. Like most westerners, I suppose, whenever I hear the name Tiananmen Square I immediately associate and add the word massacre. Our Chinese guide, when referring to the 1989 slaughter of thousands of China’s brightest young students and professionals, uses the term “Tiananmen Situation.”
      There is an eerie feeling walking across the world’s largest open concrete block square. I have read that thousands of the paving blocks were replaced to remove the bloodstains, and I am once again reminded of the freedom I enjoy as an American.
Today, there is a special military ceremony on the square to honor the arrival of the President of Yemen who is in town to discuss positions, on Iraq (and probably Monica - not positions, just issues).
      To reach the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square we need to cross a busy, multi-lane avenue. We do so via a wide, modern, pedestrian tunnel. One of the most memorable moments of the day occurs as we are passing through the tunnel. Ceremonial cannon fire from Tiananmen Square shakes the air and reverberates along the concrete and tile walls of the tunnel.
      At the sound of the first cannon, a group of several dozen Chinese teenagers who just entered the tunnel at the opposite end come racing toward us with wild excitement in their voices. The tunnel is wide enough that group-to-group collision is not a concern, but it takes me a few seconds to realize that they are not running in fear; they simply want to clear the end of the tunnel in time to see the cannon salute before its conclusion.
      The experience is simple enough, but it leaves me wondering about the level of fear known by those students of little more than a decade ago as the sounds of gunfire split the air in Tiananmen Square.
      The Chinese guide for our group, Mr. Chen, has a wonderful “western sense of humor.” Last evening he told us that it would be very important for each individual in our group to be prompt whenever we were to rendezvous at a given time and location. He emphasized the importance of this by stating with a grin, “I wouldn’t want to lose anyone, AND you all look alike to me!”
      I have been privately curious how I might visually distinguish Chinese people from Japanese people. I am especially interested in this because we have learned that the nation sending the most tourists to China is Japan. This fact alone is fascinating in view of the long history of fierce animosity between these two peoples.
Being quite sure I am the only human alive unable to visually distinguish the two nationalities, and being unsure if this is a sensitive (forbidden) topic locally, I have inquired quietly of some of my travel companions. What follows my inquiries is a variety of descriptions of facial features including nose breadth, eye angle, hair texture, skin tone; I also hear about stature, knee configuration and velocity of gestures. Everyone, without exception, summarizes their suppositions by adding, “But I’m not really sure.”
      Eventually the question comes to Mr. Chen. He smiles. “Yes, of course I can tell the difference…and I’m right about fifty percent of the time!”
      Mr. Chen’s humor has entertained us on more that one occasion throughout this study tour. Yesterday, while escorting our group through the Forbidden City, he stopped at a point to give us additional historical perspective about what we were observing.
      He began by describing the roles of the Emperor and various members of the Imperial court and family. He pointed out the living quarters of the Emperor’s “familiar companions”: the Empress, the Secondary Consort, and thirty-six concubines. This, of course led to numerous questions about the relationships that existed among these individuals. One of our party said she didn’t really understand the function of the concubines, to which Mr. Chen quietly suggested, “Think of the concubines as the ancient Chinese version of White House interns.”
      May All of Your Journeys Be Happy and Safe!