Friday, July 17, 2009

China’s Landmarks Offer a Glimpse at its History

By Devin Beliveau
Staff Columnist
(Editor’s note: This article is the 2nd article in a 3-part series about staff columnist Devin Beliveau’s recent 12-day trip to China.)
On the 4th of July, The United States of America turned 233 years old. Our country, however, is but an infant when compared to the 4,000 years of recorded history in China. China is a country accustomed to making history too, from the invention of gunpowder and the compass, to the grand spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The following are but a few noteworthy events in the long turbulent history of China, including how some of the country’s notable landmarks developed and contributed to that history.
In the US we have a history of Presidents. In China it is a history of all-powerful emperors. And these emperors were not elected to power, but instead gained control by defeating the previous emperor’s forces on the battlefield. With a new emperor often came a new dynasty, which was a succession of hereditary rulers, similar to the British Monarchy style of handing power over to the next oldest son or daughter.
One of the most impressive legacies left by the Ming and Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasties is the awe-inspiring Forbidden City. Located in the center of the capital city of Beijing, the Forbidden City was the home to the emperor. Walking through the imperial grounds, which stretch for several city blocks and feature hundreds of buildings, this palace makes the American White House seem downright puny.
The Forbidden City got its name because almost no one was allowed in, and inside it is clear that security was a priority of the emperor. It is built like a fortress, complete with a wide moat and huge wall surrounding the whole complex. There are no trees within these walls since they could be potential hiding places for assassins. The foundation of the entire palace was built several layers thick to prevent enemies from tunneling in from underneath.
Inside the walls of the Forbidden City, the emperor was revered (and feared) as a god. He had an exclusive walkway on which he was carried from the entrance to his throne. Anyone else who dared touch the walkway suffered the loss of his legs. The emperor usually surrounded himself with a number of concubines, women who had the honor of satisfying any and all of the emperor’s desires of the flesh. He also had a large number of eunuchs, high-ranking personal assistants who were castrated so the emperor’s personal concubines would not tempt them.
Perhaps the only relic of Chinese history more impressive than the Forbidden City in sheer scale is the Great Wall of China. Stretching about 4,000 miles, it was built over a period of 100 years by millions of workers in an effort to keep invading northern tribes out of China. The fact that it remains largely intact in 2009 is a testament to the quality of its construction, and one of the reasons it has been labeled one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see this monolith firsthand.
Modern 20th century Chinese history, following the age of the emperors, brought violence and instability. In the 1930s, imperialist Japan, China’s island neighbor, was looking to expand. On September 18, 1931, the Japanese military staged an attack on its own soldiers at a train station in the northern Chinese city of Shenyang, and blamed China. This was used as a pretext to invade. The Japanese army quickly devastated northern China, and then set up a puppet government called Manchuria, from which the Japanese ruled for the next 14 years. Widespread murder, torture and rape were used to keep the Chinese frightened and to ensure obedience to Japanese soldiers during this tragic time in Chinese history. The Japanese then used Manchuria as the base from which to launch an invasion on all of eastern China in the lead-up to WWII. Hatred towards the Japanese is still alive in northern China today because of this occupation.
Resistance to the Japanese occupation grew in the late 1930s. Both General Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army-in-exile, and Mao Zedong’s emerging Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) army of guerilla fighters increased attacks on the Japanese, finally driving them out in 1944. This unfortunately still did not mean peace for China, as a civil war soon broke out between the nationalists and communists over who would control post-WWII China.
After a bloody 3-year civil war, the communists were victorious, and Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. For the next 27 years Mao ruled a communist country like a dictator. From the mass starvation that followed his failed Great Leap Forward (a policy of rapid industrialization), to the lawlessness and violence brought by his Cultural Revolution (Mao’s attempt at redefining Chinese values to prioritize the agricultural class), China under Mao was an unstable existence. He is credited, however, with uniting China’s provinces as never before, and with improving the quality of life for large numbers of agricultural peasants. As his CCP is still in control, Mao’s painting still today hangs prominently over the entrance to the Forbidden City.
As China has opened up to the world more since Mao’s death, and slowly adopted more market-oriented economic policies, millions of Chinese have come out of poverty. However, the CCP still exerts considerable control over the lives of the Chinese people, as evidenced by its “one child policy” which attempts to prevent the overcrowding of the world’s most populous nation. The future now looks bright for the “world’s next superpower,” but its turbulent history teaches us that certainly anything can happen.
Photo caption: Emperor’s exclusive walkway leading to his throne in the heart of The Forbidden City in Beijing. (Devin Beliveau photo)