summer palace/beijing/places/full places/empty places/stories about places/places as stories
Today I went to the Summer Palace. The main features are a hill (Longevity Hill) and a lake (Kunming Lake) — which also coincidentally functions as Beijing’s main water supply (the lake, not the hill). It was built as a palace for an emperor, then that happened for a while until it was destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion (I cringe using that phrase), then it was rebuilt, then it fell into municipal hands once this-and-that happened to the emperors it belonged to, and now it’s the present day and you can buy tickets and go inside. The whole thing is about a square mile all told, though most of that is the lake, and it looks huge and feels huge, and there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance in my head even now where I feel like one square mile isn’t that huge even, but trust me when I say that being there it feels quite huge.
I got there around four. Around four it was very crowded; there’s a placard out front which shows how many people visited that day, and apparently today was a 50,000 visitor kind of day. I’ve never liked crowds myself, so I wound my way towards the far end of the lake, away from the hill, where I saw many nice things:
- There was a man pushing his wife in a wheelchair. Everyone who passed them seemed to know them. He had a bandage on his cheek, and she had an umbrella, which was purple.
- There was a group of people playing hacky-sack in a pavilion by the lake, all shirtless. If I tried that I’d have kicked it right into the lake, but nobody kicked it into the lake, at least not while I was watching.
- There was a bridge which was very oddly tall, and another bridge which wasn’t tall at all and had a different name once, but had to change its name for this and that reason, so now it was named something else.
- Boats with bulldozer arms all submerged in the water, sunken very still.
- A man I ran across three times, and who became embarrassed when I smiled very widely because I was so happy about it.
- A friendly security guard who wanted to help. It’s hard sometimes to appreciate the nuances of helping others. It’s hard to know what someone truly needs, but we feel the urge to help nonetheless. Sometimes they don’t know themselves. It’s hard to acknowledge how helping can be dangerous.
- A woman singing on the edge of the lake across from the hill. This was truly wonderful. She was always moving like water, even when she bowed, even when she waved goodbye. I can’t say for sure, but I got the feeling she felt like she really stood for something, there on the edge of that lake.
The Summer Palace closes at eight, so I headed back to the other side of the lake around seven. It was as if a bomb had gone off. There was no one there except me, and some wandering cats, and boarded up shops, and lengthening shadows.
I always find it so insane how different places are when they’re empty. Even one person can bend a landscape to their will: one tyrant can transform a stately castle into a place of misery and fear. 50,000 people together…? It’s almost overwhelming. Now, devoid of it all, the Summer Palace is something quite different. Half estate, half ruin, half murder scene.
That is why I love ruined places and closed places and empty places and out of the way places. “Places” seem impossible to parse when they’re so full of people— the best I can do then is catalog. Only afterwards can we get the gist of things, piecing all the clues and detritus together into something that means something happy or means something sad or means something for us, working softly, singing softly.
Like reading tea leaves in an empty cup.