Beijing and Ruminations on History

How does China relate to Malawi, you might ask? Well, as most of you know, I was in China at the end of last year as part of my graduate programme. One of our course assignments was to create a technography with a research question we wished to answer. I chose to focus on identity, race and travel and it surprised me to note that a lot of my reflections made some reference to Malawi. I will be posting a few of these posts here. Enjoy!

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I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my trip to Tiananmen Square. Suddenly I was in a place I had seen only in pictures. The pictures I’d seen didn’t quite capture the mood there. The Square was definitely charged with something; a foreboding  presence that made sure that you behaved. And it worked. I was aware that not only was I surrounded by CCTV, I was also surrounded by armed soldiers and guards.

I thought about how history and culture are linked, and I noted the happy faces of the Chinese people taking pictures by the Chairman Mao portrait while wearing their Chairman Mao hats. They looked so thrilled to be there; it was obvious this was a big deal to them, definitely more personal than it was for me. I could see the pride in their faces in the evening when the flag lowering ceremony was taking place. It’s reputation precedes it and I am aware that my reaction to it is partly due to what I’ve heard about it.

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Showing a photocopy of my passport and visa to a guard in order to enter the Square reminded me of my 5 year old self when visiting Blantyre with her family and having to show a passport and Malawi Congress Party membership card to the Malawi Young Pioneers in order to get on a bus or similar. Although I didn’t live in Malawi during Banda’s rule, the effect of coming from a country with that sort of legacy, including having parents who were born and raised under that regime, was very evident in my life. Visiting the Square made me even more aware of that fact. The legend of Banda impacted me. I saw the resemblance between Banda Malawi and present-day Beijing in many ways. Portraits of Mao are all over China, just as portraits of Banda were all over Malawi. The only difference is as the authoritarian government in Malawi is long over, and Banda is long deceased, the portraits have all but vanished, and his likeness has been removed from the money and postage stamps, and although Mao predeceased Banda by a couple of decades, his image is still big business as is evidenced by the Mao memorabilia I saw all over the country.

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A question I asked myself was how do political regimes, especially authoritarian ones, affect identity? And how do dictators create a national identity?