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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Catching up on Y2K

 Questions: What were you doing / where were you / who were you with at the turn of the millennium over a decade ago? I’m sure that at the time most of us told ourselves that this was a point in our lives we would never forget, it being such a milestone in the history of the world.

But apart from the Millennium Bug that wasn’t, I’m blowed if I can remember that much about it. I vaguely remember the thought going through my “brain”: now what? … as if anything was really going to change.

So I was intrigued recently when I discovered the existence of a Millennium Monument in Beijing – how I could have missed it I have no idea; but I determined to put that omission to rights pretty quickly.

中华世纪坛 (Zhonghua Shijitan = China Millennium Monument) was constructed to celebrate the arrival of the 21st Century. It’s located in Haidian District immediately to the west of the Military Museum, immediately to the east of the old CCTV building, and immediately to the south of Yuyuantan Park, occupying an area of 4.5 hectares and a total floor space of about 42,000 square metres.

The day is bright and clear and once again your favourite blogger heaves himself out from beneath the duvet, foregoing a lovely lie in for the benefit of his adoring fans. It’s an hour in the subway to the Military Museum station, and from there a four minute walk to the monument.

As I turn the corner there in front of me is a huge marble slab – or stele, to use its proper term – a full 9 meters long, 1.05 meters high and weighing 34.6 tons. One of my guide books claims it is the world’s largest, though it fails to say the largest what. The inscription - 中华世纪坛 – is meant to be in the handwriting of former president Jiang Zeming.

Immediately inside the southern entrance is the grandly sounding Plaza of Holy Fire. It stands in an area of 960 square metres, paved by 960 granite bricks, representing China's territory of 9,600,000 square kilometres. The flame is said to have originated at the site of Peking man at Zhoukoudian, and is fed on natural gas. (I have to wonder, though, if instead someone really just flicked his cigarette lighter on when the gas started to flow. But hey, why spoil a good story!)

The ever-burning flame, one is told, rises some 45 centimetres high, and is a token of the “unceasing creativity of Chinese civilization”.

On either side of this plaza is a steady dribble of water – sorry, cascade of water – running down the steps, “reminding the visitor of the mother rivers of the Chinese nation: the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers”. Hmmm – if that’s really the case I don’t think I’ll bother making a special trip to go see them.

To get to the main section of the monument – the building itself – one now has to walk along a “bronze corridor” which reflects the history of the Chinese nation, “with its splendid civilization of 5000 years”. Every few inches there is a reminder of what happened at that moment in history.

Actually, looking at the archive pictures of the coming of the new century in Beijing, it must have been a fabulous sight with the celebrations centring on the monument itself.

The blurb tells you that the main architecture of the monument is comprised of two underground storeys and three above ground. It is 39 metres high and 85 metres in diameter. Right in the middle, the structure revolves; all 3,200 tons of it, making it the world’s largest and heaviest revolving building – though when I am there, nothing appears to be moving, save for a gentle breeze.

I decide to go inside – naturally – but am stopped by a security guard who tells me I will need to get a ticket from a little glass booth 100 metres away. (Well, he utters something incomprehensible and points at the glass box, so my superfast brain interprets this along the lines of “oh no ... not until you have got yourself a ticket, my good man”.)

Duo shao? [how much?] I ask the very bored looking girl dozing off in her square goldfish bowl. She wakes with a start, a big grin spreading over her face, and starts to practise her English on me. It flee. No sharge. Here tikkit. And I am suddenly the proud recipient of a piece of paper to get me through Check Point Charlie.

I walk back the 100 metres the way I had come and hand my new ticket over to the security guard who accepts it with a blank look on his face – the irony of the situation being totally lost on him.

Up a flight of stairs and I find myself at the entrance of the Millennium Sculpture Gallery.

Here there are 40 bronze statues of Chinese cultural celebrities, reminding you – as if you even need reminding - of what a civilised and clever lot the Chinese have been over the centuries.

Here’s Confucius, for instance: philosopher, educator and thoroughly good egg, who lived, as you will no doubt recall, from 551-479BC…

A few metres further on is Lao Zi – philosopher and founder of Taoism. According to the inscription below his statue, he lived to the ripe old age of 100 from 571 to 471BC.

This handsome devil of course is Sun-tzu who, as we all know, came from Qi and wrote the first discourse on the law of war in China: Art of War.

And so the history lesson continues. Were you aware for instance that the 16th century musician Zhu Zaiyu put forth the theory of equal temperament for the first time in his Complete works of Ritual Tonal System, which I’m sure must have been a best seller in its day….

Actually I learn that the Chinese invented almost everything worth knowing – next up, for instance, is a statue of Bi Sheng who worked out the principles of movable type printing, around 1040AD.

(Obviously the Arab claims that you find in places like Saudi Arabia and Dubai that most things worth knowing were discovered by Islamic scholars takes a bit of a battering at this point; but maybe these Chinese inventors were also Moslem? Hmmm. The inscriptions don’t say.

Now, the eagle eyed among you will have noticed that through the glass behind the statue gallery is a wall with a number of images carved into the yellow granite. This is the outer wall of the revolving middle section (or non-revolving middle section as the case may be) and on it are 56 national symbols representing the 56 ethnic groups of China.

And my guide book tells me that in the centre of the revolving building, there is a round 14-metre diameter stage area specially used for dancing and art performances. Unfortunately, today it is closed.

Inside the building, too, is the Beijing World Art Museum which specialises in collecting, exhibiting and researching art from around the world. Unfortunately, today it too is closed.

I wander out into the fresh air, down the steps, and out into the surrounding gardens and come across a millennium bell – a huge great thing that is the equal of anything I have seen in Beijing’s bell museum.

And thence out into the bustle of Beijing’s streets once again. On my right is the old CCTV building – so boring compared with their new HQ near Jintai Xizhao. But I love their satellite dishes. Oh for a couple of those on my veranda! I wonder if they’d miss just one of them…..