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.

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.

Like all siheyuan, the hotel has four walls with apartments enclosing a central garden. But unlike most, it has a particularly grisly history. Mao's secret police chief, Kang Sheng, seized the compound in 1949, and is said to have tortured some of his victims in a chamber beneath a man-made hill in the center of the garden. All I hear in the garden is the whisper of wind through a grove of bamboo.

Not far from the hotel, beside Back Lake, is the former imperial mansion of China's last emperor, Henry Pu Yi. After the communists took power, the ``Son of Heaven'' joined the working class as a gardener at his former residence, and Soong Chingling, the widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, moved into the mansion.

A room for listening to rain

Today, behind the somber walls of the mansion-turned-museum, is the beauty and serenity cherished by the mandarins that built the siheyuan centuries ago. The Granting of Grace Pavilion looks out on a brook, pond, and garden. After a short climb up worn stone steps, I imagine the last emperor listening to showers play delicate melodies on the roof of the gazebo called the Room for Listening to Rain.

On the other side of Back Lake is perhaps the best-tended museum in Beijing, an immaculate siheyuan that is the residence of the late Mei Lanfang, the best-known actor in Peking Opera. Inside the compound, within apartments with red lacquered columns and eaves painted in green and blue, are photos of Mei posing in the jeweled headdresses and silken gowns of the opera's tan, or female roles.

Within Mei's apartment, fragile wooden carvings separate the rooms. From the ceiling hang hexagonal lanterns of glass and carved wood with long red silk tassels at each corner. Like the photos of Peking Opera's greatest female impersonator, the siheyuan is a tribute to the refinement and frailty of China's old culture.

The daughter of Mei, actress Wang Yulan, fondly recalls growing up in her father's rambling siheyuan before the revolution. During parties after opera performances, in the golden light of their garden courtyard, she often sat wide-eyed before European artists and royalty.

``The splendor of those days is gone but many siheyuan remain in Beijing,'' says Mrs. Wang, standing in the center of her own courtyard, a patch of bare dirt no larger than a horse-drawn wagon.

The best way to learn of the warm civility of the people living in Beijing's maze of cold stone is to win an invitation to a home within courtyard walls or the apartment blocks.

Around a New Year's holiday table stacked in two tiers with steaming platters of food, a Chinese friend briefly forgets his grinding effort to get by and inadvertently teaches a battened Westerner like myself the true meaning of ``feast.''

Occasionally, I'm asked why I want to work in China at a time when the leadership is systematically dismantling the gains from 10 years of enlivening economic reform and eased regimentation.

The answer is easy: Poverty and repression cast a stark light on the lives of Beijing residents. They must struggle to defend their dignity; their lives have profound clarity and pathos.

Sometimes it seems a visit by someone from a wealthy democracy like me lifts the hope of my Chinese host that freedom and prosperity are within reach.

Today, for residents of this ancient capital, liberty and affluence are like the refreshing air and soothing verdure in a forbidden garden beyond an insurmountable wall.

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