Too late. Finding herself deep inside the soporific traffic flow on the Avenue of Eternal Peace [长安街], her sudden impulse to hop off the bike and go on foot seems trifling to the grand surroundings. No one is supposed to stop on the Avenue, a long picturesque scroll of the exhibitionist capital city unfolding uninterruptedly from west to east, and east to west. Vehicles can drive through, bicycles circle around, passengers make their way across through the underground passageways, but no one stays. Traffic is regulated to preempt loitering. Maximum evacuation capacity must be maintained at all times, it’s indisputable.
Meanwhile, you are far from being alone. Your movements are subjected to surveillance cameras and your face recognized. You are on stage.
Something down there... She needs to get off, right here right now. An urge to urinate… She pressed her crotch down tighter on the seat. It’s gone... Probably a psychological signal gone awry.
Still waiting for the lights. The security portals look empty and this emptiness is nerve wracking. Where are they? What time of the day is it? Something in her groin starts to burn.
To be oriented in Beijing, you use four cardinal directions: North, South, West and East. The Avenue is a horizontal line that cuts through the old city and separates the Gate of Heavenly Peace [天安门城楼] from Tiananmen Square [天安门广场]. Cycling west to eat on the stretch of the Avenue between the Gate and the Square, you get a quick glimpse of the layout: on the left is the Gate, constructed in 1417, now dwarfed by modern buildings. The Square, on your right, no direct access. You have to get off somewhere and enter on foot.
Another twenty minutes of hopeless pedaling. She’s running out of breath, sweat dripping down from the tip of her nose. She remembers seeing fountains under the arrow-shaped Golden Water Bridges [金水桥] bobbing up and down, but nothing else.
Here it comes again, the feeling of urgency, but the body doesn’t know which part of it should react. She squeezes her eyelids together, flexing muscles around the eyes. “Some of my eyelashes will break off and fall,” her imagination extrapolates, “unlike Cinderella I can be found through DNA identification.” Feeling preposterous, she presses her tongue towards the back of the teeth to prevent corners of lips from lifting up. She continues to ride ahead.
2 subway stops away from where she originally wanted to get off.
A bike station.
Jumps off the brightly colored ofo bike.
Pulls the phone out the back pocket—it’s been burning her butt, too many Apps running simultaneously.
￥6.25 gets charged from the e-wallet.
A few promotional banners pop up and she’s annoyed.
The bike cuffs itself and chirps a valediction.
She doesn’t want to look back.
Walking down Southern Pond Street [南池子] all the way south.
Adrenaline fuels her legs.
Neck and ears are red, face is pale.
It feels unreachable, the open space.
She finds herself under a brick red archway, an opening to the eastern section of the Avenue. A traffic policeman pulls out expandable fences. She waits, with the rest of the crowd, to be released onto the crosswalk wide as a car lane. Upon arrival to the other side, she is again stopped with the masses, until fences open again, allowing them to descend into a tunnel underpass with only one exit: the Square.
Here and now, she starts to feel fine again, noticing her speed has dropped in the crowd that immediately disperses after crossing to the other side. The scenery is now static and unchanging because vast. She gets a footloose dizziness that makes her forget the pain in her inner thighs. From four directions, arresting views encourage her to meander. Without a center in the body, she starts to promenade, attempting to exhaust every perspective the four hundred thousand square meters can afford.
Capital of China since 1368, the imperial city of Beijing, with all its palaces, gardens, temples, and tombs, was planned and built according to principles of Chinese cosmology, such as bilateral symmetry, the south-north axis line, and the positioning of major architectural components according to the arrangement of celestial bodies. The Temple of Heaven lies in the south, the Temple of Earth in the north, the Temple of the Moon in the west, the Temple of the Sun in the east. The Forbidden City sits in the center of the central axis.
Reality starts to recognize itself now: you are actually here, on the Square, exposed under the sun. You are thoroughly checked by security guards and proven benign.
The Square was created for the Founding Ceremony of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It reached the present manifestation through three major expansions at different stages of socialist modernization. In 1958, 1976 and 1999, each construction was under the imperative to embrace and renew socialist reality. Whatever the previous regimes built—walls, gardens, corridors, pagodas, and gateways—were progressively demolished to make room for the new People’s Square, one that now deflects the human with lower-case H.
Feel free to see everything, seeing is believing.
The monument, the flag poles, the white marble, the red portrait, the golden lining, appearing and disappearing in front of your eyes one after another, as if this place is alive and keeps regenerating itself. Your heart is pumping hard, armpits wet. You keep imagining the nation’s authority under threat. You want to consider this place of a home, a house, a credo, but nothing you’ve seen is like home. Not a bed, not a dinner table, not a bowl, not a bench (let’s be reasonable), not a garbage can, not a canopy. Nothing makes you comfortable. This is a public space, a place you shouldn’t consider your own. It belongs to too many people, who spend lifetimes passing it down to the next generation. You are here for way too long, that’s selfish.
Hollowed inside out, she is determined to take everything in. She is not sure what has been awakened in her, but knows the only position she opts for is here. The more she sees, the sooner she forgets. She tries putting things in order, counting them one by one: The central axis line that runs through the imperial palace cuts perpendicular through the Avenue of Eternal Peace. On it lies the Monument to the People’s Heroes [人民英雄纪念碑], directly facing the Gate; the Great Hall of the People [人民大会堂] to the west, the National Museum of China [国家博物院] to the east. However, this beautiful spatial rendering of socialist realist architecture is not meant to be admired by a single-bodied creature; at the scale of the people, it must be seen in aerial view, from above and afar.
Being here is already a cognitive stretch. Nausea strikes. She starts to see glitches and walks a few steps away from where she’s standing.
If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
On the Avenue of Eternal Peace, cars and bikes stop and go as directed, so meek, so smooth. You start to learn the rhythm, you don’t have to be a mastermind to see it. Out of view, the Forbidden City is eclipsed by the Gate. The spatial order of socialist modernity prevails; primordial cosmology has receded. What’s in between this palimpsest of overlapping sovereign geometries cannot be accessed or inhabited, but only discovered tangentially.
She has been moving. Not sleepwalking, nor lost, nor derailed, just knowing it’s not about her, but the cyclical battle between austere grandeur and terrestrial evanescence. Maybe she should jaywalk. Just go straight ahead and break this acquiescence. Make a note of her own. The line she traces with her feet is the only line she can make. She comes here wanting to be thrown into an opening and devoured, but so far has only been shoved back and forth.
A notification banner from Fliggy pops up on her screen. Her flight is at midnight: PEK- LLV, travel time: 1h 20m. She hears the rambunctious crows from a distance. In front, tourist groups with their yellow caps, yellow shirts and little yellow flags have congregated under the Gate, waiting to be taken in, like a swarm of locusts.
Looking back at the Square, she sees something she’d never seen before: somewhere close to her lies a sleeper, residing in arrested time, nose in the air, heels on the ground, face looks genteel.
Does he talk in his sleep?
She walks south.
Flattened by the grandiose architecture, she feels a burst of altruism.
Her things, her personal belongings: the indispensable phone, copper keychain, snake-shaped lighter holder, tangled in-ear headphones, a foam tip is missing.
She can’t believe she’s doing this to herself.
Looking at them being dumped into the grey rectangular plastic tray, she is already willing to give it all up. The sense of dread humiliates and arouses.
Chewed gum wrapped in a crumbled receipt, a motley of leftover foreign coins, two portable power banks (all dead) (one looks like a fish-shaped cake, the other a piece of shining coal in its chemical perfection), a very long, very dirty USB keyboard, a cracked up disposable camera (no way to find out if it works), an aluminum card holder from Muji, a small jar of purple lip balm.
She wishes no one would bother her anymore. She can survive on her own without any of her things.
It’s just another security check, but all she feels is, “This is it.” To cultivate this sterility inside, she simply picks up her things with a stoic face. Almost immediately, the itchy impulses are gone, she’s able to look at things, to see. For example, she is not mad about the “No Photo” sign on the wall, she thinks it makes sense.
Nothing malodorous here. With very good ventilation, the air in the building is rather cool (soon it will be too cool). It helps her body temperature drop. She doesn’t know why she’s bothered by things that aren’t there: the moment she came in she’s been looking for things she knows won’t be there.
Outside the Mausoleum, the rehearsal for a great theatre of cruelty is going strong. She can see the other end of the Square: the flag pole, the Monument, the Avenue, the Gate, the traffic, the infinite blue of the sky beyond them. She stares until her eyes begin to melt, until she sees another pair of voiceless eyes in the sky, until they stare back to her. She lets her eyes melt, there are no clouds and no sun.
In the very interior of the center, she gets to see him twice. The first time, he sits on a couch. It’s a statue, a colossal seated figure like the one in the National Mall. She remembers Lincoln’s couch is larger than Lincoln’s body and he looks like he’s about to sink (it’s an American sized couch). The couch here is reasonably sized.
Made entirely of white marble aka Han White Jade, his majesty, larger than life, smiling permanently. His skin pure as unmelted snow on Mount Qomolangma. He shrinks in the depth of the hall, far away but close to sight, his form in utmost perspicuity. Unlike her body, which is mercurial and grotesque, his body is righteous, torso upright with good posture, his tunic suit fits perfectly. His weight makes the cushion (also marble) deflate a little. This corporeal detail is rather cold, perplexingly cold.
Nevertheless, this is the hall of exception. What exception imitates.
A pimple is about to break out on her chin, the heat it produces is irritating, she tries not to touch it.
The second time she sees him, he lies rigid in a crystal coffin. Again, unreachable, blocked by rows of plants and flowers. She can only cast her eyes from 5 meters away. Lying down, he shrinks even more, but this time he doesn’t interest her. There’s simply less to look at. “This is it”, she realizes, the dead of the dead. Flaccid, swollen, discolored, patched up with Vaseline, barely keeping in the formalin and alcohol solution—nothing exciting. Apparently, the one sitting on the couch, in the front hall, has taken it from this one who fails to maintain a shape. There’s simply too much going on on a biochemical level: bacteria, microorganisms, the aggression of decay. He can’t keep it together, hold it in.
This idea turns her on.
The one out there, snowy white, hard, beaming with cold life. He stands in for the sleeper, performs immobility, the longevity of death.
She feels a gush of discharge down there.
For the moment being, he must lie still, to be exposed in air, to endure, so things to come can be kept in order. It’s hard to tell where sleep ends and death starts. But as long as he lies in stillness, as long as he isn’t resurrected, time remains centralized, pinpointed, fixed.
Full of envy of his immobility, she can barely stand still. The urge comes so suddenly, she has no time to pause but to strip off her shirt and expose her upper body. She can see her breasts, small, underdeveloped and hairy. She lies down, ass on the ground, thighs split wide, feet in the air, high, she tucks one finger into her vagina, another two in the mouth, she whistles.
「子孙万代永远瞻仰」[To be looked at with reverence for generations to come]
White ashes fly out of the scarlet velvet carpet, she feels dizzy, the vast blue sky comes in, makes her indigo.