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December 2, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright December 2, 2009. Used by permission.


With all of the attention generated by Barack Obama’s speed-touring of Beijing sites, we became interested in finding out a bit about previous presidential sightseeing itineraries. There were some useful summaries on the web of what Nixon and company had said about the Great Wall, but what about the Forbidden City as a presidential tourist attraction, past and present? This complex of palaces, which are the subject of a recent book by Geremie Barmé that we’ve praised already on this blog, would seem a more problematic place to include on the go-to lists for foreign dignitaries, given its links to the Qing Dynasty, whose last emperor was topped by the 1911 Revolution — still celebrated as a prelude to the 1949 one that brought the Communist Party to power. Here are two vignettes that people in the know have said we can share with our readers to fill in some blanks:

Sheila Melvin is a Stanford-based writer whose books include Rhapsody in Red: How Classical Music Became Chinese, which she co-wrote with her conductor-husband Jindong Cai. She offers this brief account of a day in 1972 that her spouse remembers fondly:

My husband was a middle school student in Beijing during Nixon’s first visit to China and by chance his class was scheduled to visit the Forbidden City on the same day as Nixon — a day on which there was also a huge snowfall. My husband and about 200 other students got to the Forbidden City and were told it was closed, but then somebody decided that they should make it look “normal” for Nixon by allowing at least a few people in — they handpicked 50 students, including my husband. (He claims he was chosen because of his sartorial style, a light blue “qingnian zhuang” not commonly seen during the Cultural Revolution.) He and his select few classmates had the entire Forbidden City to themselves in a snowfall. They never saw Nixon, but it was a magical moment for them all.