It’s freezing cold in the Hall of Heavenly Purity. How the emperors managed to maintain their dignity in the middle of winter in these huge open spaces I have no idea.
After wandering around the Imperial Palace in Beijing for a couple of hours (and I’ve barely seen half of it), I’m finding that the spectacular visual feast is more than just a photo opportunity – it’s good food for introspection.
Standing in a place like this breaks the illusion that we are the lead character in our own little drama. We’re small actors in a cast of billions, and those of us who manage to get enough distance from our own little existence will be the only ones to really understand the story of our times. It’s hard to see the whole stage when you’re constantly under the illusion that you’re at the center of it.
At university, I used to get quite frustrated with certain nation-bashing jokes. As a Belgian, I suffered stoically alongside the Irish as our respective nations served as the punchline to more than our fair share of jokes, but there was one particular joke that always annoyed me for it’s idiotic premise.
“Can you name 10 famous Belgians?”
Well actually I can, you won’t have heard of most of them. This doesn’t tell you nearly as much about Belgium as it does about your education. As an example, and without resorting to the Internet, can you name 10 famous Greeks?
I’ll get you started: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. There. Only 7 to go. So can you do it? Of all the nations in the world, surely the Greeks, with their massive contribution to philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, rank highly enough in your esteem for you to remember 10 notable notables?
If not the Greeks, what chance has Romania? Turkey? Portugal?
The point is that we’re in a little bubble, the limits of which stop at our borders, and our perception of the cultural diversity and richness to be found within any single other country is not usually much more than a hazy impression, even when we think we know quite a bit.
If I had to name 10 famous Chinese people I would fail. But standing here in the bitter cold of the Chinese winter (-8 celsius, in case you were wondering), I am reminded of that joke, and what I used to think when I heard it.
I have never considered China lacking in history or achievements. In fact, I almost certainly know more about it than most of my peers, having had the good fortune to travel here and work with the Chinese from time to time. But I remain sadly ignorant of the history and richness of this culture, even if I am dimly aware that it must be there to be discovered, if only I would make the effort.
As my toes freeze, my electronic guide whispers the history of these remarkable buildings into my ear, listing the names of emperors who imbued this country with wonder and inspired worship and adulation from its citizens for centuries, and the unfamiliar syllables slip from my memory like water, as quickly as they are heard.
I suppose it comes down to this: No matter how small we know the world has become and how close we are to understanding it, we remain the product of our respective villages, with nothing more than an academic appreciation for the richness of things foreign to us. We see the wonders of the rest of the world through a pane of glass, without a proper understanding of the cultural heritage that comes with their past or, for that matter, their present.
I think of that picture every tourist takes in the Louvre in Paris, standing in front of the Mona Lisa. Ask them what it was like and they’ll tell you it was smaller than they thought. What a poor answer when you’ve been to see one of the most important works of art ever painted. They probably can’t tell you much about it, what it represents, why it’s important. They can probably tell you how often it’s been stolen, they’ll describe the big protective display case in loving detail. The painting itself? Well it’s a woman smiling, isn’t it?
Standing here surrounded by the ghosts of emperors, princes, concubines and supplicants, I can’t help but want to break through the tourist’s glass window and walk away with something more than some pictures and an academic knowledge of a few buildings. There’s so much more here than that.
It’s hard, though. Ask anyone to explain their culture and you get a collection of biased anecdotes wrapped up in a few facts and oversimplified into a barely comprehensible soundbite. In other words, exactly what you’re trying to avoid. The same problem exists everywhere. You can’t encapsulate culture and no one perspective is the right one. It takes immersion.
Is there no solution? Must we be either ignorant or make it our life’s work to understand the world so as to have a claim to an open mind and an understanding of the diversity that surrounds us?
Of course there’s are other, intermediate options, and we mustn’t confuse knowledge (as received at school) with understanding.
I’ve travelled more than most, and clichéd though it sounds, I’m learning how little I know, and it’s more enlightening than it sounds. Like discovering how big the garden is.
Every time I find myself in an interesting culture I may have had some notions about, I come to the realisation that I know less than I thought I did a little quicker than the time before. I’m also less prone to pretend to be the authority on such things, like that friend who always says, “Actually, this is why they’re like that…” and follow it up with a reasonable-sounding factoid or anecdote that’s either wrong or less than a tiny fraction of the knowledge necessary for a real understanding. That’s just camouflaging or denying your own ignorance.
I like to think I’m progressing in the right direction. To acknowledge that you don’t know something is to open yourself up to learning it. To claim to know already is to shut yourself off from a different understanding, so I listen, and in the contradictions between all of the stories and explanations and interpretations, I build my own understanding of the corners of the world where I spend enough time to claim a small amount of familiarity. Each understanding is frail, and I’m happy to reconsider it if I get a new point of view to add to the whole.
I’m not even close to an understanding of the culture when it comes to China, but I have seen the mountain, and the summit looks like it has a view worth the climb.
Note: This post took a long time to edit, was published on January 16, but was backdated to January 6th, when the first draft was typed with very cold fingers into an iPhone
Note : This comment is temporary : MP4GQMRPQBCM