The itinerary for the day was to see the sights of Beijing including Tiananmen Square, which means ironically "Gate of Heavenly Peace" in Chinese. Sixteen years before, found this 100-acre plaza jammed with students and peasants demonstrating for freedom. The dead and the debris have long since been removed. On this early June day, I stood in the midst of this colossal expanse measuring nearly one square mile. The sun shone brightly even through the ubiquitous Beijing smog.
I had taken a group of university students to China for a class in Chinese history, religion, and philosophy. The tour guide had dropped off the group as a soccer mom would hoping for some quiet time. We were free to wander around Tiananmen for several hours. It is hard visually to take in this huge this area; it is more difficult to relate to this sea of concrete. One begins merely to wander aimlessly.
In addition to the enormity of Tiananmen, there isn't much on this
square aside a couple monuments. The size of Tiananmen even dwarfs
the Monument to the People's Heroes located in the center of the
square. There is a very small and slightly elevated stand
containing a couple of modest flagpoles at one end of the square a
couple hundred yards in front in front of the gate into the
Forbidden City with it gateway adorned with a picture of Chairman
It was then that I realized that most of the people were there to take pictures of each other in this vast void of space. Families, young lovers, and small groups of adolescent boys or girls were all there to take snap shots of each other. Some stood so that the picture of Mao would be their backdrop, but others merely milled around in the midst of the square and then snapped away. Had I had the concession of film and memory cards, I could have bought much of the proverbial tea in China. It wasn't long before I found myself taking pictures of people taking pictures of each other. There isn't much else to photograph once I took the gateway to the Forbidden City and the picture of the Great Helmsmen watching the tourists.
After an hour in this large expanse of concrete devoid of almost any physical objects same the milling thousands who clicked away and then moved away pausing to pose for another couple of pictures, I was forced to concentrate on my thoughts within my head. I felt uneasy. What was it that troubled me? Then came the epiphany; the Chinese people were happy, laughing, and enjoying this day in June. James Russell Lowell was thinking of a day like this when he wrote, "And what is so rare as a day in June?"
How could these Chinese be enjoying this day in early June there in Tiananmen Square? I had come to Tiananmen to pay my respects to those killed in a failed attempt to acquire freedom. However, most of the Chinese were there to take pictures of each other. That emotional juxtaposition troubled me for the longest time. I felt like I carried more reverence for this place than most of the Chinese did. I didn't think that they should genuflect, but it seemed that taking pictures of friends and families was a sacrilege. I wouldn't expect tourist clicking away snapshots of young lovers or families with Golgotha as a backdrop. I would have thought that they would treat this hallowed ground with some sort of reverence.
My wife, who had been aware that I had been lost in my mental meandering for some time, asked, "What are you thinking? You seem like you are mile away."
I replied that my head was back at Mt. Lebanon High School, and I was standing in front of Mrs. Davis, my 12th grade English teacher. Both then and now, I was desperately trying to remember the words of Carl Sandburg's poem, Grass:
There on that 100-acre square which means Gate of Heavenly Peace, the grass has grown high, thick, and lush. I wondered whether anyone remembered what took place there exactly sixteen years ago. Apparently, they hadn't. I had gone to the shrine of Chinese freedom and found grass flourishing. I left Tiananmen sad. Students and peasants lined up there and faced tanks and guns demanding freedom. Sixteen year later, students and peasants lined up to take family photos.
"I am the grass. Let me work."
This article first appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 9/21/05.