The dimensions of Beijing and its minimalist architecture are alienating, and murals of China’s founding father, Mao Zedong, at odds with Prada stores, says Margaret Hickey.           

Before arriving in Tiananmen Square, the Beijing underground station prepares you for its immense size.

There are two stops for Tiananmen: Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West. It is intimidating in its vast, featureless, urban emptiness.

China might have moved on since the days of Mao Zedong, but the late dictator still dominates this space in the centre of its capital city. His portrait, a large, bright mural, fronting The Forbidden City, seat of many dynasties before the collapse of the imperial system, in 1911, gazes sardonically across the square.

If that were not enough, the huge mausoleum that holds his mortal remains also overlooks the square, from the east, a reminder of his enduring
legacy. This is important for his successors: It is from Mao, ‘the great helmsman’, that they claim their legitimacy.

The spartan outlines of the buildings around the square, like the great space itself, are not scaled to make the little human comfortable. They inspire unease and a sense of being watched.

There are no softening features, such as fountains or trees, and there is nowhere to hide from the long rows of deep-set windows that line The Great Hall of the People, which stretches for a quarter of a mile along the western side of the square.

Places like this tell people that, though they are tiny cogs in the great giant wheel of the state, they are not below the radar of ‘Big Brother’.

Indeed, it is a peculiar sensation, as a visitor to a great metropolis of 22m people, to feel so conspicuous and so
insignificant at the same time.

Yet when you survey the stylish passerbys, dressed to their manicured tips in western labels, Tiananmen looks like one giant mausoleum to a dead idea and Mao more like King Canute, helplessly overlooking the creeping tide of westernisation and market economics in the heartland of his revolution.

A brisk, ten-minute walk from Tiananmen Square takes you to the heartland of capitalist power in the city. Here, behind the glazed facades of
designer stores, is all the gloss and glitz of any world city. The wide boulevards could be anywhere.

Here, however, the scale is meant to be empowering rather than overpowering, provided you can aspire to buying into the glamour. Apart, perhaps, from eye-popping, vivid-red drifts of salvias and begonias, there is little to indicate you are in a capital city of world communism.

Beijing is not the only city in China where Mao Zedong’s image gazes across an urban landscape towards a Prada store, in mutual mockery. The man who banned flower pots and lawns, because they were too bourgeois, would be horrified at the decadence of the haute couture world.

The irony of China becoming the engine room of global capitalism would please him less.

What he would make of the environmental cost is harder to say, since he had such little regard for the peoples’ well-being. At any rate, the lifestyle philosophy these days is more Miu Miu than Mao, more about the little black dress than the little red book.

Monuments to Mao dominate the cities. Chengdu, deep in the south, has the largest statue of Mao in the country, reminder, if any is needed, that the regime’s power is not diluted by distance from the administrative capital.

It used to be said, by local bigwigs, that the ‘hills are high and the emperor far away’, but that was never as much of an advantage as it seemed.

Now, as during the days of the dynasties, the reach and grip of totalitarian power seems firm and sure-handed.

According to Oxford scholar Joseph Needham, whose massive work, Science and Civilization in China,was written after extensive travels in the country, it was chiefly the control of the large rivers, and their many tributaries, that enabled the authorities to dominate the massive hinterlands all around them.

Needham cites the early development of the arched-bridge and irrigation-and-flood control technology in China as the tools of subjugation.

Certainly, there must have been an overall connectivity to explain how such a vast country could be governed over many centuries by a central authority.

The other great, long leash of control was the iconic Great Wall, which also winds like an immense river across the landscape of China, connecting, controlling, and defending the countryside in one majestic sweep.

Today, the physical arteries of power are the railway systems that link cities and regions with the capital. It is, tellingly, a two-speed system. Underlying the rising differentials in wealth in China, the older and slower, ‘sleeper’ trains still operate alongside the swish speed trains.

The obsolete, grubby, ‘bring your own grub’ variety of train is one of many anachronisms that highlights the very uneven economic development.

Mao’s cultural revolution obliterated much of China’s architectural heritage. Even The Forbidden City came under threat from the marauding zeal of Mao’s squadrons of Red Guards and was, according to writer, Jung Chang, saved from destruction only by the intervention of Zhou Enlai, Mao’s prime minister.

It is a long, wide corridor of linked courtyards for the various departments and activities of government, as well as the accommodation of the emperor’s immense entourage of courtiers, concubines, senior officials, and what we would now call protection detail. Here, we find highly decorative, mosaic-walled, traditional buildings with upturned roof edges.

The latter, though very picturesque, is one architectural idiom that never caught on. It never occurred to me to wonder why not, until I found myself exiting one in a downpower. It was exactly like walking under an upturned bucket of water.

However, there is nothing either playful or picturesque about the soulless apartment-block conglomerates that house the teeming populations of Chinese cities. This is brutalist architecture to the point of social vandalism.

It further atomises the individual and reduces communities to mere units and divisions of economic productivity. The lack of green space, water, and parks, and of anything of beauty to soothe the spirit, is, however, not the major deprivation for now, because, without clean air, natural amenities count for little.

Small mercies come in the explosion of cafe chains, like Starbucks and Costa, which are opening up by the dozen across China.

They offer clean air, a pleasant social environment for an unhurried coffee, a chat, or a quiet read. They offer a window on a culture of leisure and relaxation.

But, unfortunately, they are literally a window for the many Chinese who simply cannot afford to go inside.


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