Written by Raymond Palmer (Connecticut College)
CET Chinese Studies & Service-Learning in Beijing, Spring 2012
It’s my opinion that, although it’s just a blob of ancient carbon, you should see anybody whose body is preserved at the heart of a nation: that person must be of some significance right? But surprisingly, I hadn’t gone to see Mao Zedong by the time it hit May – so I dragged my somewhat reluctant roommate (who hates crowds – sorry Roomie) and an enthusiastic Osakan friend and hit the heart of the city. Our plan was to hit the Mao Zedong Mausoleum (毛主席纪念堂: Mao-Zhu-xi Ji-nian-tang) at 7:30 am.
The Mao Mausoleum is always packed with people – most of whom are farmers from outside the city. Outside the mausoleum, which is only open from 8 am to 12 pm, there is a line the whole day. The mausoleum itself is open until 4pm, but they cut the line at 12 pm so that the last people in the line can see Mao before the 4pm shutdown: you do the math for the waiting time.
My jaw dropped – how can there be so many people who want to see some Chinese corpse? The answer is in their history textbooks. This Mao guy is glorified so much in their textbooks that he is almost on the same platform as, say, our God. According to general Chinese education, Mao Zedong freed the Chinese nation from foreign oppression and Japanese occupation, launched it into a glorious era of development, and brought to the Chinese people Mao Zedong thought, whose excellent ideology has ever since served the nation in all facets. Chinese history is continually re-written so as to boost the Communist Party’s legitimacy; and obvious mistakes – like chronological irregularities in when the Party was present or established – can be found. The Tiananmen Massacre is downplayed to “chaos,” and the Great Leap Forward which is estimated to have killed about 300 million Chinese because of bad policy, is “a turbulent time,” which is at least an upgrade from the previous “time of natural disasters.” Ask a Beijinger and many will confide in you that “this is all bulls*it,” but that’s because they have a relatively nice education and are rich enough to afford many first-world amenities, like the internet and VPNs. The farmers, though, aren’t all connected to the outside world like Beijingers are: hence the disproportionate farmer-majority in the mausoleum. To them, Mao Zedong is really just a wonderful guy that you have to see.
We waited for about 30 minutes (thank God we got there early!) and had our bags and phones and IDs checked (don’t forget your passport/student ID!). It’s important to note here that they’re actually trying to fish out any attempt to blow up the mausoleum: since many Chinese also know the atrocities that Mao committed, people’s opinions about him often have a mixture of intense hatred – although in public he is only appreciated.
Anyways, now we were ready to see Mao. Now, you have to follow a long line after your security check, and while you do so, you’ll have one or two people come try to sell you “flowers to give Chairman Mao” – you can buy them if you want, they’re only a few kuai, but none of us did. You saw many people buy them though: and I think it’s fair to say that the selling was half-compelled. You don’t want to be called unpatriotic here of all places, do you?
The Mausoleum is big on the outside, but inside there are only two small red-carpeted rooms: the first one with a white statue or Mao in a huge chair, where you give your flowers to him; and the second one containing Mao, which is dimmed down and also filled with flowers. The two combined was probably only about the size of a basketball court. There is no talking, photography, blasphemy, or stopping allowed in the building. All you could do was to walk about 2 miles an hour in silence. Breaking out of line is probably the last thing you want to do, considering the place is filled with Chinese army personnel.
Mao was orange. Because his casket is guarded by two (probably bullet-proof) glass rooms, you can only see him from 9-10 feet away; but from what I could see, his skin looked very plasticky and was overwhelmingly orange. I didn’t really have any other impression. He looked like a Martian in traditional Mao-era uniform to me.
Although I was a little disappointed that I only got to see this guy for 5 seconds after 30 minutes of waiting, it was worth the experience – I’ve finally seen the man that drove China through so much history, both good and bad. As our last photo, we went up to the place where Mao gave his famous speech, declaring the establishment of a Communist China.
It’s 7:30 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, May 19, and although I’ve practically already been up for 5½ hours, I couldn’t feel more alive. Surrounded by a sea of people decked in form-fitting, multi-colored spandex and flaunting running utility belts bearing a motley assortment of gels, mini water bottles, and granola bars, my Middlebury-Kunming friend Liang Chaole and I are just two of this year’s 2,000 or so Great Wall Marathon event participants (which includes 700 full marathon runners), waiting at the starting line to begin a ridiculous 42.2 km journey that will take us through 5,164 steps on the Huangyaguan portion of the Great Wall and beyond.
As the race kicks off, I’m oddly very calm, easing into a steady pace suitable for the beginning of a marathon this difficult with the rest of the runners. I’ve spent the past two months preparing for this event and, luckily enough, haven’t encountered any serious injuries at all. All I really can do at this point is what I know how to: run.
The first part of the race is a winding, gradual uphill, about 4 km long. Innocent enough. Until I notice the runners in front of me noticeably slowing down and merging into a single-file line, which means that we’re finally entering the Great Wall. Dun dun dunnnnnn.
It’s impossible to run the Great Wall portion of the race. Not only did the original race organizers pick a portion of the Great Wall with some of the most uneven terrain ever to run upon (think loose dirt mixed with jagged, human head-sized cobbles), but they also seemed to have picked one of the steepest sections, with steps often reaching higher than my kneecaps. What’s more, the first half of the Great Wall section is generally all uphill, the rest downhill, and neither scenario is great. Going uphill is a pooper because you have to climb those nasty Great Wall steps, the smaller ones of which are just the perfect width to prevent me from efficiently taking them two at a time, the larger ones of which I literally have to scale, like I’m climbing a mountain. Going downhill is a pooper because it absolutely kills your knees and quads, and, especially when the steps below you are randomly missing quite a few critical chunks to them, careful attention to where you’re placing your feet is a must, which in turn drains you mentally. Making my way through this part of the race for another 4 km or so, however, I feel rather good, despite a creeping dullness in my legs. Also at this point, I’m literally (literally) sweating bullets. It’s barely 8:30 am, but it’s already quite hot, humidity levels just high enough for my skin to feel slightly suffocated and enveloped by a warm and damp external pressure.
When I finally emerge from the Great Wall, I breathe a sigh of relief, which is rather short-lived when I realize I still have about…34 km to go. Of those 34 km, 26 km or so are rolling hills through surrounding villages. This part of the race is interesting. Because the marathon organizers didn’t close the roads off to cars, I find myself running alongside obnoxiously loud, rickety trucks spewing thick, black exhaust and teens on motorcycles cackling at how fast they are compared to us silly runners. And if I’m not being honked at by rude drivers who want me to get out of their way (excuse me, while I’m busting my butt running a marathon?!), I’m being followed by cars who nosily crawl alongside me, matching my pace so that they can quantify my actual speed on their speedometers.
When I make my way out of this traffic-strewn, middle section of the race, the scenario is no better. I find myself running on a narrow stone path with no flat running surface whatsoever. With every step, my feet are forced to readjust their original landing position so that they become flush with the sharp slant of the rocks below them. This type of running is just asking for horribly twisted or sprained ankles, and I’m actually furious thinking about what kind of maniac would design a marathon race course on such an absurdly dangerous terrain.
For most of these 26 km, I’m doing surprisingly fine, physically. I realize that Kunming’s elevation (1900 m above sea level, which is higher than the elevation of Denver, Colorado) has prepared my lungs rather well for the race, so I’m not hitting too many problems, breathing-wise. It’s when I hit kilometer 20 or so that my mind really starts to lose it, knowing that I still have a solid 22 kilometers or so to go. It seems to take me longer and longer to run by the signs that mark each consecutive kilometer. To pass time, I go through the lyrics to the longest John Mayer songs I know in my head, and slowly. Don’t laugh; everyone has their own tactics.
Other details of this part of the race are not important, and if anything, I don’t remember them clearly because I was in a sort of running daze, mechanically striding one foot in front of the other. In any case, I finally reach kilometer 34, which is when I hit the Wall…literally. This second and last pass through the Great Wall is what I’m both longing for (as it’s a sign that I’m almost done) and dreading (as it’s an exact backtrack of the grueling first pass through the Great Wall). I approach the entrance to the Great Wall and immediately before me towers a looming, freakishly steep monster of a hill, overlain with the Great Wall’s classically narrow and slippery steps.
Written by Raymond Palmer (Connecticut College)
CET Chinese Studies & Service-Learning in Beijing, Spring ’12
My Chinese roommate dances. He does ballroom dancing at the university’s ballroom dancing club, and goes to competitions every once in a while. They get together to practice on Wednesdays and Sundays, and sometimes more. The practices go on for hours. Roomie is serious about his dancing.
So, I decided to come to his ballroom dancing competition earlier this month.
I had just come back from our weekend trip to Luoyang at 6am, and we needed to leave at 7:30am, so I didn’t have much time to relax or sleep, but it was definitely worth the experience. Having never been to any dance competition, I can’t compare it to anything in the States, but I did get to see just how competitive ballroom dancing can be.
Ballroom dancing counts as a sport in China, just like basketball and football. There are teams, of course, and your dance partner is called a “队友(teammate),” more often than your “舞伴(dance partner).” You have your own number (men do, women don’t; because you go as a pair), you take turns dancing at different times, and after you come back all sweaty, there’s a case of sports drinks waiting for you – and a towel. The competition is held in a gymnasium, with score boards (projected onto the wall) and the occasional wooing and shouts of school spirits. So, in pretty much every respect, ballroom dancing, at least in the Chinese college competition context, resembles any other team sport (…with makeup of course). I remember finding my roommate dumbfound when I told him, matter-of-factly, that he should probably put ballroom dancing in extracurricular activities instead of sports activities on his application to a US program.
Now, the answer to the question “why does everything resemble a basketball game” comes naturally as you’re watching the dances: everyone is extremely competitive, and in this context, dancing becomes more about getting the moves right and scoring rather than being social. So, there are many pairs that exaggerate the moves so much that they’re basically trotting across the dance floor on their tip-toes the whole time, some pairs that do 5 twirls in a row, some pairs that trip and crash onto the floor, and many more pairs that don’t ever look at one another in the eye. When the dance floor has its maximum pairs, it’s almost like watching a game of bumper cars – and they don’t just bump into each other; they smack into one another. I got exhausted by just watching these pairs run around the dance floor. The ballroom dancing that I saw was a sport indeed.
The judges stood in a cluster of 5 or 6 at the side, with electronic pads to send their scorings. They would look at the pairs, decide how well each one performed, and give the pairs individual scores. One of the things that you have to do as a dancer is to dance past your judges at least once, showing off your skills and perhaps throwing them a smile or two. This is what creates the dance floor chaos: everybody is trying to steer towards the judges. And when everybody wants to go to the same place, things get congested. Bumping into each other is a big failure because it displays how bad the man steers; but ironically, most of the crashing happened right in front of the judges. I even remember a few instances when the judges had to run away to avoid becoming collateral damage.
My roommate really likes his ballroom dancing. He was one of the few smiling ones, and his partners (they have to swap partners because everybody gets tired) were smiling – maybe he was saying something funny. I got to see how ballroom dancing competitions go, and I appreciate his inviting me. As a side note, my roommate got two 1sts: 1st from the top in one category, and 1st from the bottom in another. Ah, life is full of surprises.
Our first day in Guilin was wet and foggy, but in a warm sort of way that almost seemed to say, hey it’s okay, this is South China, you won’t melt, even if you were stupid enough not to bring a rain jacket along on a week-long stay in Southeast Asia (that’s me). As soon as we landed, we were on a bus to our hostel, a delightful little hole-in-the-hutong filled with Europeans and American music and a memorable bartender with a penchant for handing out free drinks, and after a quick rest (we all woke up before 5 a.m.), we were hopping in and off more buses, climing up Guilin’s famouse hills, and visiting Guilin’s equally as famous caves, where nationalists took shelter from communist bombs in 1949. That night, we crashed, and we crashed hard. When we woke up the next morning to the prospect of another frantic day of Guilin sightseeing before our night bus to Beihai, myself and two others decided to take the day off. You can call Maura, Redding, and me lazy if you like, but I prefer the title professional leisurist. After weeks of studying day in and day out, we needed a calm, peaceful, relaxing day, and that is exactly what we got. Not far from our hostel, we found a restaurant that gave us bacon-filled carbonera for a mere 12元. Not far from the restaurant, there was a park, with a ferris wheel and a woman selling bubble blowers and dozens of Chinese people who couldn’t get enough of Redding’s bubble-blowing prowess. We also saw came upon slow moving creek and a hunchbacked fisherman from whom we learned that bubbles don’t bounce when they hit water. Finally, not far from the park we hit up a coffee shop and enjoyed hot cocoa while we played hearts for three hours and learned that one of us (starts with an M- and ends with an -aura) is crazy enough to try to shoot the moon four hands a row. Back at our hostel, we sipped on milkshakes and waited for our sightseeing friends to return. Sure, they might have had a wild adventure, getting conned into an hour-long busride to the wrong destination, befriending a couple of bike-renting ayis and seeing the mountains that are featured on the back of the 20元 bill, but Redding, Maura and I had bacon in our bellies, and much needed juice in our batteries. It was time to bring on Beihai.
Click here to view a video from the group’s Spring Break trip to Guilin (video by Anna McCreedy, Spring 2012 CET Beijing)