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Opening the gates

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By Jack Souther

Modern Beijing is a city of profound contrasts: peddle-carts wind through narrow cobblestone hutongs under six-lane elevated freeways, glass and steel office buildings tower above rows of tiny street-level shops, outside a KFC restaurant a woman ladles out noodles for her sidewalk customers — but nowhere is the contrast more striking than at Tiananmen Gate. On one side a large portrait of Chairman Mao gazes out across Tiananmen Square, a vast desert of pavement that has come to symbolize the revolution, and on the other the gilded splendor of the Forbidden City. Here, in the very heart of Beijing, Tiananmen Gate personifies the ideological boundary between Socialist China and its Imperial past.

Flanked by low, somber buildings Tiananmen Square's barren expanse of pavement is the very heart of Communist China. At its centre the Monument to the People's Heroes is adorned with larger-than-life revolutionary figures — stern, dedicated, and resolute. We paused there for a while before leaving the Square and making our way to Tiananmen Gate and the outer wall of the Forbidden City. Before the revolution this wall was an impenetrable barrier between the imperial household and the general population. Commoners dare not even approach it.

We crossed one of the seven bridges leading to the five archways of Tiananmen Gate. In times past only the Emperor was permitted to use the middle bridge and the large central archway, but as we approached the gate it seemed that all of Beijing was streaming into the once forbidden city. We joined the crowd and were swept through the tunnel-like archway onto a broad walkway bounded on both sides by parks. Directly ahead of us the magnificent Meridian Gate with its ornately gilded roofs and slender red columns — symbol of another era, another world as different from the austere architecture of Tiananmen Square as day and night.

For more than 500 years the Forbidden City was home to 24 successive emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was the power base of Imperial China, the residence of "the son of heaven" whose whims, issued as edicts from a rostrum above Tiananmen Gate, controlled the lives of his impoverished subjects. Whether it was a demand for emergency taxes to support the lavish excesses of the court or the conscription of a million labourers to work on the great wall the assembled people prostrated themselves and "kowtowed" before the Son of Heaven by touching their foreheads to the ground nine times, and then complied with his demands. Until October 1, 1949 — that is when Mao Zedong stood on the same rostrum above Tiananmen Gate and announced to the crowd, and the world, that "the Chinese people have now stood up."

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