Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Is the past a foreign country?

There's the famous quote about how the past is a foreign country and lots of interesting studies have been done about how we exoticize the past, and selectively remember it and manipulate it to suit our present day needs.

When I was in the Forbidden City yesterday, it was kind of hard to shake that feeling. Everything was newly painted and brightly colored, and to me, it was really difficult to believe that the whole thing was as old as I knew it to be. Today I went to Beihai Park, which is possibly my favorite place so far. But then yesterday, the Temple of Heaven was my favorite place, so I should probably wait to judge things. Parts of Beihai Park have been restored, but a lot of it is still old, and for me it was much easier to see the presence of history there. It was much easier to imagine that someone once lived there. For me, the Forbidden City really didn't give me that impression at all.

Possibly this also has something to do with what goes on there. Beihai Park is a hang out of many retired people who were using it for eating, dancing, playing musical instruments, and sleeping on park benches. So the space was really being used for what it was intended to be used for, relaxation and a good time, and also hanging out. No one really hangs out at the Forbidden City.

At the same time, I wonder if I'm kind of exoticizing everything, wanting to see dirt and grime as some evidence that this place is ancient. To "feel" the weight of history.

I actually came into Beihai Park through the back door, so it was a very small rather unimpressive path that gradually got bigger and bigger and opened into a courtyard which opened into a bigger square and another bigger square and then finally I came out of the front door, and realized that "Damn, this place is huge!" I actually think it's even more beautiful than the Forbidden City, I hope I still like it as much when they finish restoring everything.

1 comment:

Magniloquence said...

That's a really interesting way of conceptualizing it. I think we do tend to process the past like we process places... we like to see visual confirmation of it's otherness, to assure us that we're looking at something in particular. It gets hard to figure things out otherwise... they're different, yet not so different.

(Though the past has the, er, 'virtue' of being absoutely separate; as much as one might make arguments for bridging cultural or geographic gaps, one will never actually be able to go back in time.)

It's good to hear about your travels! You'll have stories for days. ;)