It’s a well known fact that most people need the impetus of a visitor from overseas – or de minimus from out of town – to go see some of the sights that are ‘just around the corner’ from where they live, and which they fully intend to see some day, but somehow never find the time to do.
And so it was for one of China’s most important buildings situated not a stone’s throw from Tian’anmen Square. My daughter and her husband were visiting Beijing and on the only gloomy overcast day of their holiday we decided to do an indoor trip.
The Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂) is one of those buildings that I have passed endless times, but have never even thought of going inside. But just this past month it has been in the news non stop for the “liang hui” (literally "two meetings") event, where both the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC) meet in sessions lasting for two to three weeks in the Great Auditorium.
Basically it functions as the People's Republic’s parliament building, where decisions taken by the good and the great are rubber-stamped, and when the national conference is not in session this enormous building is open to the public.
The Great Hall of the People was opened in September 1959 - one of the "Ten Great Constructions" completed for the 10th Anniversary of the People's Republic. Amazingly it was built in only 10 months by more than 30,000 volunteers working in groups from 20 provinces.
The building covers 171,800 square metres of floor space – more than the entire area of the Forbidden City; it is 356 metres in length and 206.5 metres in width; and contains 300 meeting halls, a 10,000-seat auditorium and a 5,000-seat banqueting hall, as well as more than 50 reception and conference lounges spread over different levels.
It is said that because of a breakdown in Sino-Soviet relations, the Russian engineers who designed this leviathan went home before the roof was finished, and the planned traditional Russian style cupolas were scrapped in favour of flat Chinese style eaves.
Facing it across Tian’anmen Square is the National Museum – another huge megalith which to my untutored eye is not as stark as its domineering neighbour opposite.
Around the corner from the main entrance are a number of ticket booth windows who are happy to relieve you of the princely sum of 30 kwai for the privilege of entering these hallowed portals. Before you can go in, though, you have to queue up a second time at another window and give up any bags you may have, just so long as you don’t leave any valuables in them. (They even search your bag for cameras and wallets which you are required to take with you.)
Actually, that is not all you are forbidden from bringing in, as an LED display offering timely advice on what is and isn’t allowed makes clear.
“No explosive articles, guns and ammunition, percussion cap and bomb, calcium carbide, firecracker, gas, toluene, lacquer thinner, oil paint, liquefied gas and peculiar smell, frangible and toxicant articles,” it warns ominously. We sniff our bags, but they don’t smell that peculiar, and we don’t think we have any frangible or toxicant articles with us.
“No fly sheets, blue books and periodicals,” we are also told. I have a blue-coloured notebook, but we somehow suspect they don’t mean this kind of blue!
“If you have special requirements, please contact our staffs timely and we would be more than happy to serve you wholeheartedly,” it gushes. We hand over a fistful of the readies, are served wholeheartedly and are given our tickets in exchange. Time to make our grand entrance!
Entering the building, one cannot help but feel amazed by the sheer scale of the interior. The Central Hall, which we find ourselves in after braving the X-ray machines and metal detectors, is the size of a football pitch decked out in marble. Red carpets, pictures and tapestries line the floor and walls; and in the distance – one almost needs binoculars to see it – is a jade model of the Temple of Heaven. Grand staircases on both sides lead up to the second level – a balcony overlooking the Central Hall.
Mind you, it appears that there is an austerity drive on at the present time. Half the light bulbs are switched off throughout the building making the Stalinesque interior even more forbidding than it might otherwise have been.
In some ways, this building is an art gallery in its own right, with some splendid pictures and artefacts from all across the country gracing every room and corridor.
Each province, special administrative region, and autonomous region of China has its own hall in the Great Hall – 34 in all – each with its own unique characteristics, furnished according to the local style, and decorated or designed by artists and architects from that part of the country. We visit the Hunan Room which has the unfortunate distinction of being situated close to the loos – a fact born out by the odour that envelopes the unwary visitor.
As well as the wall pictures and decorated screens, there are also some beautiful porcelain artefacts on display.
We make our way next to the Grand Assembly Hall along carpets that look as though they have suffered an accidental spillage in the not so distant past…
The Grand Assembly Hall or Great Auditorium, depending on which sign you read, seats 3,693 in the lower auditorium, 3,515 in the balcony, 2,518 in the gallery and 300 to 500 on the dais. If you’ve ever seen it on TV, it can be an impressive sight. Alas, it’s anything but that when empty.
All the web sites we look at, after we’ve visited, mention the illuminated plexi-glass red star on the ceiling; but our guide book forgets this must-see attraction, so not one of us notices it above us in all its lonesome glory as we wander through to the next corridor on the other side of the auditorium, and I am left to filch this particular picture off Google images.
We find ourselves in the upstairs gallery of the Central Hall, where there are two ginormous calligraphic works.
as well as a lump of quartz rock that someone has seen fit to put in a glass display cabinet.
There’s even a horrid little stall selling overpriced and unattractive Mao memorabilia to the gullible Chinese visitors from out of town, as well as the chance to have your photograph taken in the all-but-empty auditorium. One wonders why anyone would bother…
But apart from the tat, there are also some really nice pictures on display; and this huge one had people lining up to have their photos taken with it as a backdrop’
Most of the meeting rooms are roped off, but we can still peer in and get a taste of the furnishings and decorations – such as this one: The Shanghai Hall
or the aptly named Beijing Hall.
Next, it’s on to The State Banquet Hall where 'Tricky-Dick' Nixon was famously wined and dined on his visit in 1972. With an area of 7,000 square metres, up to 5,000 people can be fed at one time. I would have loved to have seen the kitchens, but alas that is not on the tour route. Security, as ever, is tight. Woe betide you should you even think of awakening the guard…
Downstairs again past another of the loos is the Sichuan Room, which I feel is crying out for a snooker table to be placed in its centre. Again, security is heavy with the female guard speaking ten to the dozen into her mobile phone at the normal 120dB level that all Chinese seem to adopt when calling a friend.
I particularly like the panda screen near the entrance…
… but am not so enamoured by the electrics…
though it enticingly leads to a sound mixing desk which is in turn attached to various cables sprouting from a patch panel on the wall. My BBC sound engineering days come flooding back to me. How I’m tempted to swap a few of them over to see if anyone would ever notice…
Eventually we reckon we have seen just about all there is to see, except for a quick check out of the plumbing. Could this have been where the Great Helmsman actually popped in to do his business? I half expect to see a sign saying something along the lines of “Mao pee’d here”.
But no. Maybe he had his own private convenience. Instead there is a sign warning us to be cautious, due to a wet floor.
Visions of the soiled carpet and memories of the odour in the Hunan Room spring to mind. We hurry out. As far as life’s great experiences are concerned I can now safely cross off the Great Hall of the People from my list of must-visit-edifices-before-I-die. I somehow don’t think I will hurry back again.