I spent several hours at the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, China, this week, while attending a media conference. I was returning to this landmark, now a key tourist attraction in modernised and assertive China, after nearly a decade. And much has changed…
Measuring 880 metres by 500 metres, and covering a total area of 440,000 square metres, the Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world. But mere superlatives don’t impress me. It’s what goes on behind the claims, labels and stereotypes that interest me.
I’ve been to the square on a couple of previous Beijing visits. The first was in October 1996, during my very first visit to China. I was also taken in a group tour on a later visit. If I remember right, my last sighting of the Square was in 2002 – just before I acquired my first digital camera. (That makes a difference, because Before Digital, my analog photographs on travel were sparingly taken…and my own memory is not a very reliable storage medium.)
This time, I was armed with my digital camera and ample digital memory — and, it seemed, so were most other visitors! There were the obviously foreign tourists (including the loud and uninformed Americans), but it seemed most people thronging to the square were Chinese…many from out of town. For some, a visit to this centre of power is a rare occasion to be cherished and recorded.
I was impressed by just how many people were clicking away, using either digital cameras or mobile phone cameras. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, for China is the country with the largest number of mobile phones in use: by March 2010, there were some 780 million mobile subscribers, accounting for 58.5 per cent of all people in China.
Keen to capture different scenes under varying kinds of daylight and night lights, I made three visits to the Square – including one at 5.30 in the morning to catch daybreak at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (literal meaning of Tiananmen). So here’s a sampling of my several dozen photos – this selection has a bias on people shooting each other, digitally speaking (a far cry from the kind of shooting that took place here 20 years ago).
One of the most striking moments I captured was of this elderly couple, very dignified and sprightly in their outlook, as they were taking a stroll on the square early morning and capturing memories on their mobile phone. They are old enough to have known another reality, but this was now and here…
I also noticed how the younger visitors were clearly at ease with digital technologies, just like their fellow Digital Natives elsewhere in the world. There is also a discernible easing up (not only among unknown people in public places, but also noticeable among older and younger Chinese friends I have): maybe it’s the exuberance of youth, but the NextGen Chinese don’t seem to be as somber and serious as their parents.
Or perhaps the younger people in China today just have more things to smile about?
It was a rushed visit of four nights and three days, so all my impressions are fleeting. They don’t begin to do justice to the nuanced complexity that is modern China. But they tell me one thing: even in a land with a proud history of over 5,000 years, ten years can still make a difference.
Note: All photos were taken touristically for my own memory and personal archives, with no other intention.