Reflections From Beijing

My recent visit to Beijing brought to mind a number of themes relating to international legal theory/history. Themes that I’ve not, at least since I’d started my doctoral project, had the opportunity to read and reflect upon. Themes such as Cháogòng tǐzhì (‘Tribute system’) and Sinocentrism. These themes are arguably defunct as appropriate descriptions of international order or international ideology these days, but, I think those themes continue to serve as useful prisms through which to understand some aspects of contemporary Chinese diplomacy.

The weather for a visit in December was fittingly cold and thankfully dry. Snow or freezing rain would have brought some degree of chaos to my travel plans, which I’m grateful to have avoided. The extent of the cold did surprise me a little. There were many highlights, meeting local people, speaking and reading Mandarin again, buying and bargaining for a Red Guard Styled hat in Tiananmen Square, eating fabulous Yunnan cuisine, and attending an incredible showcase of contemporary art at the National Art Museum of China.

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Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (specifically, I visited Mùtiányù) is impressive for a number of reasons that I am sure this Wikipedia entry would offer. I was particularly provoked by the fact that this walled barrier was a series of imperial actions. A barrier such that trade could be controlled and revenue raised – cf. Suez canal, Sendlinger Tor . A barrier such that the enemy or any other unwelcome people are thwarted from entering – cf. Israeli West Bank Barrier, Mexico-United States border fence. Perhaps a border meant to isolate and punish a foreign community – cf. cuban embargo + recent US policy shift. Equally, a barrier may not be merely a ‘practical’ policy but an act meant to represent and appease a particular political imagination – cf. all the above examples and other kinds of barriers like the use of art by the Ancient Greeks to sustain a socio-political barrier between the Ancient Athenians and foreign ‘Barbarians’. Across human history there are many stories where towns, cities and nations have ‘had to’ protect themselves from routine incursions and other kinds of raids. It is worth noting that the raids and territorial acquisition of the Mongol Empire in the 13th Century eventually did span from China to the Black Sea (see an animation of the expansion of the Mongol Empire here). I do not mean to suggest that this ‘fact’ about history  ‘totally’ justifies the creation of walls as a technique of protecting nationals and territorial interests. But it does offer an explanation as to why, following the fall of the Mongol empire, that the next generation of Chinese dynasties did expand and fortify these walls.

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The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Palace Museum, Forbidden City

The Palace Museum struck a different chord altogether. Entering from the side of Tiananmen square, I ‘left behind’ Mao’s mausoleum and mental images of street protest to enter a walled city that for much of its history was essentially a private royal court. The whole scene was relaxed and rather different from the tensions I’d suggested or as depicted in The Last Emperor (1987).

Reading many of the plaques and explanations around the Museum, one could trace within these ‘textual configurations’ some retention of ‘dynastic memory’. It does trouble me to say this, but I did feel uncomfortable with some of these ‘textual configurations’. Of course, the dynasties wished to give the impression to themselves, to the court, to visitors and outsiders that they were indeed recreating ‘heaven on earth’. Emperors did wish to promote themselves not only as representatives of deities but deities themselves. For all practical purposes to those in the community, they were.

My discomfort comes with any suggestion that this was truly their belief. I have always been suspicious of such a narrative. Personally, I view those examples of Emperors (there are many, from Mexico to Egypt) arguing for their divine status, as part of historical political projects by elites to achieve dominance over the social imagination of a group of subjects. I think the subjects did ‘accept’ this dominance. But I think their acceptance was more in terms of a social truth, like the extraordinary price of diamonds in modern societies. Even for only rhetorical playful reasons, I am rather suspicious of any suggestion that these ideas were thought by people at the time as really true. Perhaps, I am altogether hyper-expectant that the majority of people are cognizant of the openness of their cosmological views. Even if many make choices to affirm ‘simplistic reductions of social life’, I think it is always a small minority who are willing to do much more to enforce ‘simplistic reductions of social life’ upon others. This brings about political questions for all of us, to do tasks like ‘resist an elite group’ or ‘affirm a militant group’ and so forth.

 

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Nine-Dragon Screen, Built in 1402 in Beihai Park. Beihai park is a former imperial garden founded in the 11th century and opened to the public in 1925).

I have seen a number of these dragon screens in my life. I am rather fond of them because it reminds me of one of my primary school Mandarin teachers and a particular dictionary. I still recall the long-winded explanation my language teacher offered to the class about the dragon screen on the cover of my dictionary, and how bored we all felt with her level of detail on the subject. That young self certainly would not have approved a career as an academic, doing PhDs and writing blogs!

Perhaps on that altogether less serious tone, and considering I’ve spent an hour on this, I should put a stop to this post.

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National Museum of China

 

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