China Beat Archive


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August 12, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright August 12, 2008 Geremie R. Barme. Used by permission.


The ancient city of Beijing was literally turned on its head to help achieve the effects of the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday August 8, 2008. Six hundred years ago the city was designed around a north-south axis that runs from the south of the old city through the Forbidden City and on north. Along this axis the spectacles of imperial times would unfold (including the imperial “Tours of the South” or nanxun that were a major feature of the reigns of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors in the Qing dynasty). Since the 1910s, however, Chang’an Avenue, now a multi-laned highway that runs east-west through the heart of Beijing, became the focus for military parades. From the 1950s, mass rallies organized by China’s ruling Communist Party have paraded along the avenue past Tiananmen, the most recent of these grand demonstrations being held in 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic (see my essay “Let the Spiel Begin”).

As part of the makeover of the city in the last decade the long-disused north-south imperial axis has been revived with a rebuilt city gate far in the south and a new park at Yongding Men, as well as a lengthy shopping mall at Qianmen that abuts Tiananmen Square. On Friday night as a prelude to the start of the Olympic opening ceremony a line of fireworks exploded in a series of “footprints” along this axis describing a path to the Bird’s Nest National Stadium.