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Tank Man, prostitutes, rich monks and Biden’s menu

China is finally open again for international tourism. Although it is now not Beijing’s best season, there could still be a few not-so-smoggy, not-so-windy days. Here are some suggestions on what to explore in China’s capital, or maybe where to stay away from.

1. The place where the Tank Man stood

On June 5, 1989, the second day after the military crushed the 50-day-long student movement, he was famously seen standing before a line of tanks, blocking their way and creating one of the most memorable images of the 20th century.

People are still not sure about his identity and what happened to him afterward. But with the photos and videos of him, it was not so hard to figure out where exactly he stood at that moment. It was on Chang An Avenue (Chang An means eternal peace. Tiananmen means Gate of Heavenly Peace), about 400 hundred meters from the eastern border of Tiananmen Square, and about 100 meters from the Grand Hotel (Gui Bin Lou 贵宾楼).

He was facing West, blocking tanks driving to the East. Almost all the photos and videos seen today were taken from a hotel standing next to the Grand Hotel, the Beijing Hotel, where quite some foreign journalists stayed.

2. Where a CCP co-founder groped a sex worker

The Eight Big Hutongs (八大胡同, Hutong means alley) was Beijing’s red-light district roughly from 1800 until Communists started to run the city in 1949. These alleys, located a few hundred meters to the southwest of Qian Men (前门), still exist. 

Like its counterparts in the rest of the world, these alleys also had connections to major political and social figures and events at the time.

In 1920, Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), then a professor at Peking University and an activist and major voice for communist thought, got involved in a physical fight in one of the brothels due to “jealousy, and scratched the private parts of a prostitute,” according to media reports of the time.  He was fired by the university for this. 

A year later, the Communist Party of China was founded and Chen, though absent from the party’s first congress, was elected its first general secretary because of its influence in the incipient communist movement in China. 

The Eight Big Hutongs also has a German connection through a courtesan, Sai Jinhua (赛金花1872-1936). Sai Jinhua, meaning “rivaling golden flowers”, is an alias for the profession. She started to be a prostitute at an early age before becoming a concubine of a diplomat, Hong Jun. When Hong was appointed as the Qing Dynasty’s envoy to Europe, his wife claimed to be ill and was unwilling to go with him. So Sai went as his spouse, in 1889. 

Hong died shortly after the couple returned to Beijing. Sai’s relationship with the Hong Family went sour and she picked up her old profession as a courtesan in two of the eight big Hutongs consecutively. Following the Boxers Rebellion in 1900, von Waldersee becoame the occupation army’s leader in the war between eight western countries and China, which ended in Beijing. He and Sai were reported to have reconnected and to have intimate encounters, an opportunity that Sai took advantage of to persuade him, with success, to contain brutality against local residents.

Some of the old brothels in the alleys are open to visitors, with an entrance fee. But the alleys and the buildings are generally not in very good condition, at least not as neat and elegant as those seen with Michelle Yeoh flying around in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

3. The richest temple in the city

The rich and, sometimes even the powerful, compete to offer the first incense here for the Chinese New Year and major Tibetan Buddhist holidays to show how devout they are. Others must stand in line. This is the Lama Temple or Yong He Gong (雍和宫), the imperial temple during the Qing Dynasty.

The privilege to be able to jump the line comes with a price, unknown to the public. With contributions like this, the temple has allegedly become the wealthiest temple in the city and one of the wealthiest in the country. 

Buddhism is a big business in China. Many monks are believed to be among many of the country’s hidden rich. On the offering side, the big donors also have their requests for the Buddhas: please help me secure a higher position in the official hierarchy; survive the political fight; beat business rivals; or keep lasting stardom, among others.  

Across the intersection, by the way, is the huge, four-story Jin Ding Xuan (金鼎轩), a 24-hour restaurant, which offers decent food.

4. Joe Biden’s (anti)gastronomic China experience

When then vice US president Joe Biden visited Beijing in 2011, he ate in a modest eatery serving local Beijing snacks at the foot of the Drum Tower. The price there is low, but the food is abhorrent.  This, however, has not prevented curious people to come and try the “Biden menu”.

The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are beautiful buildings worth seeing. One of lodgings of Mao Zedong, when he was still nobody, is in Tofu Pond Hutong (豆腐池胡同) on the north of the two towers. 


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