If you’ve ever seen Chinese news footage, or flicked through Chinese TV channels, it’s noticeable that at any one time numerous programmes are showing meetings between well-groomed people (predominantly elderly men) in marble lined rooms. Quite often they’re asleep. Most of these rooms are located in the Great Hall of the People that sits on the west of Tiananmen Square.
Seeing it so regularly I’d become rather obsessed with getting a look inside the grandiose building, but everyone told me it’s closed to the public for security reasons.
Walking through Tiananmen Square one lunchtime I decided to go and have a closer look at the façade, seeing as I couldn’t get access. Facing the Great Hall, the Museums of Chinese Revolution and Chinese History are to my rear.
Along with other museums and hotels and the Workers Stadium these are a few of the Ten Great Buildings construction project, all completed in ten months in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the PRC. The intention of this Stalinist style was to transform Beijing into a monolithic modern capital city of the time.
Close up the level of security became apparent. CCTV cameras lined every lamppost. Soldiers stood guard at strategic points whilst plain clothed athletic men with bulging jackets prowled round the spaces in-between.
Walking to the corner, I spotted a hole in the security – a ticket office! Anyone with 30rmb can go for a wander round…
Pleased about this I paid my 30rmb – there was no queue – and walked through the unplanted gardens to the main steps.
Inside foreigner privilege still reigns. I walked through the metal detector, metal camera in hand, completely unchallenged whilst a rural looking couple were still being thoroughly searched and their drinks confiscated.
The delay caused by the metal detector and the guards somewhat ruin the immediacy of the surprise at the sheer scale of the interior. The Central Hall is a football pitch sized room coated in marble. Red carpets and tapestries line the floor and walls. Other than a few plants the floor space is only taken up by a paper-strewn information desk and a jade model of the Temple of Heaven.
Inside the 1.8 million square feet of floor space is quite disorienting due to the monotone marble corridors, similar to the whitewashed walls of a hospital ward but with deep blood red carpets. Grand staircases on both sides lead up to the second level – a balcony overlooking the Central Hall.
Upstairs, another messy desk with overpriced yet unattractive souvenirs guards a huge double door leading to the Grand Auditorium. Moving towards the closed doors causes the sudden appearance of a soldier from behind a pillar. He forcefully tells me something, which I took to be “Not this door!”
A few meters away another soldier opens another double door and beckons me over. Walking through I’m now behind the closed first door. There’s probably some logic to this setup, but it eludes me.
Anyway, the Grand Auditorium is the centrepiece of the Great Halls. It seats 9,700 people in the audience and another 300-500 on the raised dais. Filled to capacity on TV it’s an impressive sight.
It’s not as impressive when it’s empty.
Rather like the Houses of Parliament in London, it all looks a bit dated once inside. Many of the seats appear to be broken and the speakers for translations may still be the originals from the 1950’s. I often find that Castles and Palaces exude a sense of power and respect, but these political buildings feel more like glorified offices. Still, it’s better decorated than a few I’ve worked in.
The ceiling of the Grand Auditorium is a sworl shape, leading to a large red star. I guess this represents something, but there’s a complete lack of explanatory signage in either Chinese or any other language.
Leaving the Great Auditorium, it’s possible to visit some of the other meeting rooms named after provinces of China. Many are bare, some are stunningly beautiful.
Outside there’s still no-one entering. I’d have thought more domestic tourists would want to see where their hard-earned taxes are going. There’s enough tiny-fist-shaking internet outrage at the annual conferences held in the Great Hall when a delegate turns up in a $1000 Hermes belt or handbag, which seems small change compared to the opulence of the building they’re entering.