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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Understanding China

A Lesson Within the City Walls
Beth A. Prazenica

Squeezing my way through the crowded underpass, I hasten my gate in a fruitless attempt to keep pace with my tour guide’s crimson flag as it tirelessly forges onward. Days of endlessly exploring the wonders of China has masticated my energy sources, hindering the enthusiasm that, I imagine, stereotypically accompanies a visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

In every effort to suppress the comatose sleep my body currently craved, I focus my attention on following the fabric cardinal that disappeared up a flight of stairs. I squint and allow my eyes to adjust to the blinding haze that spilled into the vast square, large enough to support approximately one million bodies. Once adjusted to the manifesting glare of the sun, my eyes wander along the perimeter of Tiananmen Square; the exhaustion previously threatening my volatile state of mind melts into my notable surroundings. The number of visitors currently gaping at the square’s vastness along with me must exceed one thousand; yet Tiananmen Square maintains a façade of vacancy. I meander alongside my companions in the direction of the Forbidden City, permitting the complex spirit—bursting with tales of China’s important historical events—of Tiananmen Square to saturate my bones.

A few hundred feet from where I stand, in October of 1949, Mao Tse-Tong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China to millions of dedicated, devoted disciples. The square also set the stage for large rallies during the Cultural Revolution, which succeeded in removing China’s intellectual elite from authoritative positions and destroying many schools for higher learning. Perhaps the most publicized event, though, occurred in 1989 when a large group of protestors gathered here peacefully, hoping to influence a democratic reform. After weeks of refusing to evacuate the square, the unarmed demonstrators came face to face with their country’s army, which did not hesitate to open fire; the losses were devastating. Reviewing these events in my head, I struggle to identify the mixed emotions that suddenly overwhelm me. A great deal of patriotism for the good ole’ USA intertwines with heavy sadness for the casualties and hardships faced by those of this foreign power as I glance up at the massive portrait of Mao fixed to the Tiananmen Gate. The cultural disconnect between the Chinese and me has never felt more prominent; I find the allegiance to a man who single-handedly devastated a nation incomprehensible.

I emerge from my privative reverie, realizing that I have deafened myself to an apparently humorous story. A chorus of laughter erupts from our group as Sean, a hilarious and attractive friend of mine, animatedly delivers the punch line. Noticing the look of utter confusion on my face, Sean raises his eyebrows preparing to deliver a cleverly offensive "blonde" joke—he always does—that I imagine he’s gingerly cultivated and patiently awaited the perfect moment to unleash it upon me. Quickly I join the others in the song of chuckles and chime in with: "Good one!" The menacing glimmer in his sapphire eyes subsides and I smile triumphantly; Sean’s quick wit does not fail often. The excited banter continues as we pursue the entrance to our next destination located beyond the five cavernous arches of the Meridian Gate.

Refusing to allow my negative thoughts to spoil my tour of one of the world’s most impressive palaces, I will them forcibly to the back of my head. Surprisingly the notions travel with ease deep into my skull as I become transfixed by the intimidating gate looming overhead: powerfully red and sumptuously dressed in an outfit of gold. Each intricate detail, painstakingly applied by the hands of talented artisans, glistens as the sun breaks from the nasty fog’s hold for just a minute.

Our tour guide sums up the reason for so many entrances to one location in one word: divinity. Ancient tales portrayed the emperor as the Son of Heaven; his superiority deemed his subjects unworthy to share the ground he walked on. The emperor, alone, accessed his kingdom through the grandest entryway situated in the center. All other members of his family and court utilized the smaller arches on either side. I pass through this central arch and embrace the "forbidden" essence of royalty pulsing through my proletariat veins. I cross the threshold into the courtyard that leads to another set of substantial gates, and I consider my luck. Throughout the reign of the twenty-four emperors who called the Forbidden City "home," no common person set foot where I currently stand; only the emperor and his royal family ventured farther within the mysterious city that awaited my exploration.

The courtyard itself lacks the regal feeling of the entrance. Aside from the scarlet perimeter, the courtyard’s only color radiates from the clothing of temporary guests that pass through. I trail the red flag as it flutters on through the next set of gates, lending my blue-flowered shirt to the destitute square for just a moment. Emerging from the next gate, my group and I are met by the pleasant green and brown hues of deciduous trees with plump summer leaves and the pink of flower petals delicately swirling in the light breezes that aerate the city’s quarters. Before anyone sets foot on the stairs into the courtyard, an older man marches toward us with his hand in a salute position. His balding head glistens with sweat and his eyes disappear as his crooked grin stretches across his thin face. On his right arm sits a red band, noting his service and loyalty to the government and wreaking of Communist symbolism. Speaking in an almost shout, he looks to all of us with a desperate hope and takes each of our hands in his own and shakes vigorously. In this moment, I wish I had studied just that much harder so these foreign praises escaping from his lips could fall on understanding ears. Looking to our tour guide, we curiously await interpretation, "I do not fully understand him. I am sorry," he says. Just as in the United States, China, too, has many different dialects and approximately fifty-six minorities; this man belongs to one, if not both, of these categories. "Friends, my friends, you are welcome. Acceptance, support. That is all I understand," our tour guide finishes.

As I watch this man who undeniably respects and loves his government, the thoughts of Mao resurface within my head; perhaps the Western world is quick to judge. This man so genuinely accepts me: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, ignorant girl from the United States, without even knowing me. I, on the other hand, turn my nose up at the sight of his armband: a remnant from Mao’s era. Without a doubt in my mind, I say with confidence that Mao Tse-Tong holds responsibility for inexcusable starvation and an unbelievable death toll. However, in this one man, who I observe enthusiastically posing for pictures between my fellow travelers, I understand the reverence held for Mao. Despite the hardships felt beneath his rule, he instilled ambitions within the common people and gave them the will to strive for more than they possessed. He paved the way to the superpower that China struggles to become each and every day.

Mao exists as a beacon of hope, inspiring the nation to stand for what they believe in. This hope I see in our new friend’s eyes. He does not appear to have much money, but the vitality in his voice bursts with hope and pride for his nation. I admire him, as well as every other member of his culture. They have experienced a great deal of suffering—many continue to struggle today—and still manage to continue with unwavering strength and diligence.
I am startled as he pulls me into a friendly embrace, now singing an anthem of sorts. Smiling, I pose for a picture with him before continuing my tour of the Forbidden City. I arrived this morning, tired and apathetic toward yet another tour; but I leave, energized, with a different standing on life. I will never dismiss the cultures and opinions that differ from my own, in each and every one of them lies a truth waiting to be discovered if I only open my eyes to it.
Beth A. Prazenica May 2009
beth.prazenica at
Beth Prazenica is currently an English major at Villanova University.

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