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March 19, 2009

History to see in China

No visit to China is complete without a visit to three major tourist attractions.

The Great Wall truly is an engineering marvel. Built between the 5th century BC and the 16th century to protect China from a series of invaders, the Great Wall stretches about 4,000 miles across the northern part of the country. Built of stone, bricks and rammed earth, it ranges from about 8 feet high...

...to about twenty feet high and is wide enough to hold five horseback soldiers side by side. The Wall was built primarily by slave labor. Two to three million people died in its construction - many of these were buried inside the Wall itself. The Lonely Planet book on China describes the Wall as a monument to tyranny. It's hard to dispute.

The Forbidden City, in the center of Beijing, required more than a million workers, and about 15 years (1406-1420) for its construction and was used for almost five centuries as the home of the emperor and his household. It was the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government. The complex consists of 980 surviving buildings. "Forbidden" refers to the fact that no-one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor's permission. The penalty for violation was death.

And, perhaps the ultimate irony is the popularity of having one's picture taken in front of the massive portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. Somehow Mao combines kitsch and terror in a Andy Warhol, George Orwell stew of dictatorial pop culture; sort of a Hitler meets Hello Kitty sensibility.

Chairman Mao's Big Brother, menacing yet almost fatherly, Mona Lisa smile is somehow the perfect backdrop for tourists passing by these historic sites.

Mao was essentially personally responsible for the largest man-made famine in world history and the death of at least 40 million people, yet he is still respected - even prayed to, by millions of Chinese people.

My wife insisted that we have our pictures taken in front of this portrait. I'm not sure why, but it does capture, as well as anything, the moral ambiguity inherent in this painful, ancient and rich culture.

So what are some of your stories of encountering new and puzzling worlds?

Send them here. We all want to hear them.

In April, I'll be starting a series on book recommendations - books related to language, teaching, travel or anything related to the ESL teaching & learning experience. So send in your travel stories soon.

My best to you,


Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf spent about six years working for a Native American Tribal College, a few years teaching various humanities, English, writing and ESL courses with the community college system in Washington State (including one year as part of a faculty exchange program with The Beijing Foreign Language University). While in China, Morf was briefly a radio host for CRI (China Radio International) and did recordings for the "English can be enjoyable" book and tape series. Morf currently teaches English and writing for a local technical/vocational college with many international students. Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else likes and riding his bicycle in unlikely and ridiculous situations.

Posted by mmorf at March 19, 2009 05:56 PM

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