[Jiang Rui] is an eighteen-year-old boy from Shenyang who has recently graduated from high school....He's dreamed all his life of visiting Beijing, and for him, Tiananmen Square is the highlight of that visit. A trip to Tiananmen Square is obligatory, and the Chairman's [Mao Zedong] embalmed corpse is one of the must-sees of any visit to the square.
Jiang Rui is just in front of us in the slow-moving crowd. Just before entering, he is persuaded by the flower vendor to buy a bouquet to place in front of the white marble statue of Mao that stands three meters high in the main hall. After about an hour's wait as the line snakes around and into the building, Jiang finally makes it to the main hall, where he leaves the line and places his bouquet at the foot of the statue of the Chairman. He bows twice in reverence, fixing a solemn gaze upon the enormous statue, and moves on, in tears. By now the crowd has moved slowly forward toward the next room, where Mao's crystal sarcophagus rests. As we move out of the main hall, the vendor who has just sold Jiang the flowers comes in and retrieves each of the bouquets strewn across the floor. As we pass by the vendor's stall on our way out, we find Jiang's flowers back in place, awaiting another patriotic soul who wants to leave some tribute to the Great Helmsman. When Jiang sees them, his face falls, tears well up, and he shakes his head in disbelief. "Hey, listen, everyone has to make a buck," explains the flower vendor, clearly uneasy about his own disrespectful actions. This could very well become the new slogan of postreform China. Yet the degree of unease, of sheer embarrassment and discomfort, shown by the vendor as he snatched the flowers away from the foot of Mao's statue is something that many in post-economic-reform China have also felt.
Beijing Time is an intriguing puzzle portrait of pieces of China, from an explication of how Communist construction disrupted the traditional flow of qi through the city to scenes from ragpickers' slums, karaoke bars, "ghost markets" where collectors search for authentic Maoist ephemera, former factories converted to avant-garde artists' spaces, and a good deal more in only 238 well-illustrated pages. Through it all, China emerges as something quite different from the totalitarian nightmare of some people's fears, something more like the European monarchies of the 19th century where arts, culture and independent thinking flourished alongside the activities of secret police -- not a free society in the American sense, necessarily, but one where plenty of people seem to be free just the same, and maybe more free, for the risks they might run, than Americans would give them credit for.It might have made a more balanced portrait had the authors sought out some political dissidents, but it isn't an idealized image, either, as the anecdote above should show.
Sharon Stone might have been better off reading this book before opining about the recent Chinese earthquake. She might not have been any less obnoxious, or even less stupid, but she might have made her point harder had she read the following:
In the traditional cosmology there was a metonymic link between natural disasters and rule on earth: a natural disaster was symptomatic of a loss of the mandate of heaven. Diasters showed that the gods had turned against the ruler; they were portents of a need for what we call today "regime change."
With that tradition in mind, the extensive coverage given the earthquake by the Chinese media, compared to the more lethal 1976 earthquake that preceded Mao's death (make of that coincidence what you will) is probably proof of real progress in the country.