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It is possible to visit just two destinations in China and bracket the entire history of the country. This is cultural shorthand, of course, but really very effective. You can land at Beijing and make your way directly by road or rail to Tiananmen Square (say Tian-an-men). You are now at the epicenter of modern Chinese events. You might have read that Chairman Mao had fallen out of favor in post-millennial China, but you would not know it from being on this square. A very large and imposing mausoleum dominates the area, housing the remains of the Chairman. Far across the complex there is a massive gate that leads to the precincts of the Forbidden City and over the entryway is a full color portrait of Chairman Mao.

Forbidden City in smog, 2012

Forbidden City in smog, 2012

From the Caravan Journals: On the day of our arrival, the notorious Beijing smog was out in full force and it was difficult to get pictures that did justice to the deep reds of the palace buildings. Perhaps for this reason, I gave more time to imagining lives once lived inside these buildings. An invaluable visual aid for this activity is the movie, The Last Emperor (1987), winner of Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for Bernardo Bertolucci. It tells the story of Little Puyi (say Poo-yee) who ascended the throne as emperor of China at age two in 1903 and was deposed in 1908. This ended a long line of contending dynasties reaching back more than 2000 years. The movie was filmed in the Forbidden City, which was built by the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s. After Puyi, there were attempts to form a democratic government but Mao took power in 1949, establishing the restrictive People’s Republic of China. The film ends where it began, with Puyi, now an elderly gardener, visiting the Forbidden City as a tourist. It is the year 1967 and Mao remains in full power.

To complete the bracketing process, it is only necessary to get on an overnight train to Xian  (say She-an), the historical capital for both the Qin Dynasty (say Chin) and the Tang Dynasty (say Tongue). The Qin Dynasty was the first to unite all of China. It only lasted fifteen years, from 221 to 206 BCE.  In that time, the Emperor was able to earn credit for two of today’s most remarkable archaeological sites, the Great Wall of China and the famous terra-cotta soldiers lined up by the hundreds in his tomb. The Wall, designed to keep the Mongol nomads out, runs for 5000 miles across the top of China and can be visited just north of Beijing. Construction of the Wall began during the Qin Dynasty and the fortifications were greatly expanded during the later Han Dynasty.

The discovery and excavation of the tomb soldiers only began in 1974. There are several movies about this foundational dynasty, often involving flying swordsmen and swordswomen. There is at least one epic film on the Tang Dynasty, considered a high point of dynastic development in China. Some very fine movies from China after Mao, including Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The King of Masks (1997), will be covered in the posts below.


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