A Walk Through a City of Walls
Before it was a city, Beijing was a rampart; today, walls remain. TRAVEL: CHINA
TO step away from the hurly-burly of Beijing boulevards into a quiet alley flanked by old stone is to stroll back to antiquity: to the whiff of jasmine and the swish of silken gowns that faded in the capital long ago but remain in the imagination as vividly as imperial red. Beijing is a city of ancient walls, gray slate walls whose mortar has crumbled and vanished, like lost chronicles that once bound together China's past. Indeed, Beijing was a wall before it was a city, a northern rampart defending the Yellow River civilization from invaders storming down from the steppes.Skip to next paragraph
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Beijing walls still block the vision and access of foreign reporters and other modern-day ``barbarians.'' But as the government erects invisible walls to official contacts and drives away many of my Chinese friends through ham-handed harassment, the ancient walls offer me an escape. They inspire fancies of grand, imperial Beijing.
Briefly fleeing the repressive present, I begin a search for the wondrous past of Kublai Khan at the capital's stone barriers. It's easy to picture on the other side of a high Beijing wall a calligrapher flicking back his long sleeve, bending his gray head and wispy beard, and stroking Chinese characters in black ink beside a still, clear pool.
Centuries of xenophobia
Along with tranquil visions, the walls provoke historical insight. They have reminded me not to take as a personal affront the suspicion and severe xenophobia that has bristled within the communist regime since the ``Beijing Spring'' of 1989. China's leaders have viewed foreigners with hostility for millennia.
The walls are also a reminder of China's long history of centralized rule, and so help explain why the current leadership governs with an iron fist. They represent the authoritarian political traditions that, like the hard casing of a bomb, intensified the explosive cry for democratic reform in the spring of 1989.
The walls also recall for me the turmoil of the world's oldest surviving civilization. Throughout history, Beijing's barriers often hid social decay within before they fell to Mongol, Manchu, European, or Japanese conquerors.
Far below the high ramparts, in the maze of a hutong (walled neighborhood), my flight into nostalgia and historical reverie is cut short by the warmth and spontaneity of people sheltered behind Beijing barriers.
A gray-haired woman dressed in black cotton shoes and baggy pants wrapped in puttees turns into an alley, leading her grandchild by the hand back from school. I squeeze by her, one shoulder scraping the stone and the other rubbing blue ``proletarian'' cloth, and glimpse a gap-toothed smile. Encounters with Beijing residents often reveal a courtesy as lasting as the walls that have given them protection.
Mao Zedong, intent on destroying many of China's traditions, tore down most of the walls surrounding the heart of the old capital in 1958. Among the walls left standing are the tall ones of Zhongnanhai, the fortified compound protecting the leadership, and those sprouting barbed-wire and holding ``counter-revolutionary'' dissidents at the Beijing No. 1 Prison.
But there are many old compounds accessible to foreigners that reveal as much about old Beijing as the towers of the Forbidden City. These relics, called siheyuan, or ``four-sided courtyards,'' are in fact modest versions of the Imperial Palace.
In the northwestern part of the old city, within earshot of the ancient Drum Tower that used to beat out each hour, is a Manchu nobleman's siheyuan, now called the Bamboo Garden Hotel.