Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flying Over Tiananmen

Goldfish. Dragon. Grasshopper. Butterfly. Eagle. What do you want to be?

“50 yuan,” he says to me. It’s the going price for the metamorphosis in Beijing. Though when the man declares the cost in English, it’s more like a bark I can barely understand - but for the wild spread of his palm, the splayed demanding fingers. 50! Understand!

I lean back in the wind. “50?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “20 yuan.”

He eyes me up and down. Then he says, “Okay.” He’s obviously not in a mood for bartering today. I’m taken by surprise. And half-aware I am probably being ripped off anyway. Otherwise why would he agree so fast?!

Creatures are spread in front of me, half-discernible forms clustered in clear plastic bags. They are all eagles. I’ve gravitated to this salesman for that reason. Across Tiananmen Square, amid a sparsely scattered few thousand people (a million stood here in 1976 to farewell Mao forever), he catches my eye with the first glance. He knows I want to deal with him, not the others. Not the dragon man or the fish man or the grasshopper man. No. He’s the eagle man and I belong to him.

He passes me my bird of choice and an old flat-winder hand-reel made of wood with some green string bound around it. Then he’s gone, back into the crowd. Barely leaving me before another woman is tugging at my sleeve with a more sophisticated hand-reel for sale. It’s vaguely fancy and modern looking, a white plastic spool with a small handle and a metallic bail arm to help feed out the shiny dacron line. “10 yuan,” she says to me like there’s not much time left for a bargain like this. Hurry, hurry…

I lean back in the wind. “10?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “5 yuan.”

“No!” she says, wrenching the reel from me with disgust. I try again to offer her 5 yuan but she starts walking away. And so I surrender apologetically, hoping no one nearby has noticed what a low-down dirty bargainer I am. “Alright, alright,” I cry out. “10! 10 yuan!” I call after her, waving my money pathetically. She snatches it, passes me the plastic spool, marches off haughtily.

I now have two hand-reels and an eagle kite I am yet to put together.

It’s a Beijing Spring day, early in the season, fresh and blue, with an icy zero bite to the breeze. But the sun is out. The early afternoon is beautiful and clear. It’s the best kind of breeze, unlike those summer winds from the Gobi desert, all sand and heat and bad light and nasty, gritty moods. Yeah, today is… today is perfect for kites.

I pack the wooden hand-reel away in my backpack, never to be used again. Set my more sophisticated reel – which I notice is looking a little tangled – down on the re-paved concrete surface of Tiananmen Square. Flat and wide, it spreads out forever, the ground marked out in big, cold square blocks that remind me of anonymous gravestones. It is the largest civil square in the world, doubling as a once-a-year carpark for the black Audis and BMWs so favoured by Communist Party cadres meeting at the annual National People’s Congress.

Just over the road is the Tiananmen Gate, or ‘Heavenly Peace Gate’, which acts as the southern entrance to The Forbidden City. Above it is a large imperious portrait of Mao Zedong looking back over the square towards the enormous mausoleum where he now lays in state for sporadic public viewings. A 36 metre obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, stands dead centre in the square itself, with bas-relief carvings of revolutionary events and calligraphy from Mao and Zhou Enlai. Either side of the crowds in the square is the Great Hall of the People and a furiously renovated Chinese Revolution History Museum netted in green.

People are everywhere, taking photos, laughing, meeting up. A great social weaving, full of joy. It’s infectious and I’m excited as I start unpacking my kite. Predictably, the eagle is not easy to assemble. I rack my brains over this physical mystery of wings, bamboo and wire clips, which also includes yellow attachable claws. But… um… er… this is a conundrum fit for a Zen master!

By some miracle I spot my kite salesman. So I chase after him, trying not to lose all the flapping pieces of my eagle in the strong breeze. The salesman is less than helpful. In fact he is downright antagonistic, having expended all his English language skills on the sale. And though I cannot speak Mandarin or whatever minority dialect he does speak, I know the language of his body and tone well enough – you paid what you wanted, now you can work it out for yourself you cheapskate! Get lost!

I fall to my knees. And begin fiddling again with my aerodynamic puzzle. I may as well be assembling a Concord with my bare hands for all the effort I am putting into it. Fortunately a young Chinese woman comes to my assistance. First, to show me how to attach the wings to the spine of the kite. Then when I fumble some more, to demonstrate how they unfold for an enlarged flying span. And when I can’t quite figure it out, how to finally add those bright yellow claws to the eagle’s belly. In other words, she has done the whole thing for me.

“You buy postcard now!”


“You buy postcard now!”

She smiles and thrusts a set of ugly postcards in my face. I look at her twice. And suspect she is the woman who sold me the tangled hand-reel, but I’m not really sure. I could swear she was her sister though. I really could. “Postcard. Good. You buy now!”

I stand with the giant eagle kite in my hands being pulled away by the wind. Feeling a little guilty as I say, “No thank you.” I nod to her in appreciation for the help and walk off. All the time I want to run back to her and buy that set of postcards now! I’m a little ashamed at my habitual resistance to a local salesperson, by the way I conduct myself automatically - at the same time I am sure the whole square is thrumming to the stings and dodgy deals craftily worked out by the kite and postcard Mafia of Tiananmen Square.

With my supposedly spiffy hand-reel, I begin trying to get my eagle air-borne. The kite goes well, delicate and firm in the air. But my hand-reel becomes an ever more obvious and sloppy tangle as I try to unfurl it. The eagle climbs but I can barely enjoy its rise. Down on the earth I am jiggling with the dacron line, seizing knots free and slowly realizing that the whole reel is coming apart in my hands.

Eventually the spool cover completely rolls off, which solves my problems with knots as the string just slips crazily off the open side of the reel. The eagle shoots up into the sky and suddenly I have a runaway kite on my hands along with a busted reel – which feels something like flying without brakes. While my bird careens sideways across the sky like an angry bullet, then madly down over peoples’ heads, I try to reach to the ground with my right hand and pick up a fallen nut and bolt as well as the other half of the reel. I frantically maneuver the bird back upwards with a jerk of my left hand, forcing a gust of wind up under its wings, my right hand grasping for all the lost pieces. I’ve managed to slip off my backpack in the process as well, freeing me totally to concentrate on what I am doing. I’m fighting for my life here. Reassembling the entire reel while the bird continues to dip and climb with every loss of concentration and refocusing of attention.

To my great relief the entire handline is now played out. No more knots! No more string left! Problem solved. The eagle is way up, up, up. I screw the reel cover back on along with the metal bailing arm that catches the string and helps it run smoothly like a fishing line. I screw it in extra tight. And quickly start adapting my kiting style to the reality that this handset comes apart constantly. Eternal vigilance on that vital, ever-loosening screw is required. Yes! Yes, I’m flying!


A less masterful kite enthusiast than I has driven a giant butterfly straight into my guts. No great pain, but a definite shock to the system. I stand there stunned, then look to see my bird going down again fast, straight for the crown of a little old lady’s head. I stumble back wildly, running and pulling, colliding with a couple but not daring to take my eyes off the eagle. They move on as if it’s nothing. Another hard jerk of the line secures my eagle’s place back up into the sky, then I start looking for my bag – camera gear, passport, the whole deal, all inside of it. Oh hell… but then I see it some ten yards away, safely on the ground – lucky me! - so I slowly shuffle and jiggle my way towards it, keeping the eagle aloft, slipping the backpack on with a deft motion that pleases me ridiculously.

I’m really on top of my kiting game now. But I can see something affecting the flight of my bird. An odd, angular bend to its flight pattern whenever I try to get it moving. An old man who looks like a Chinese Picasso storms over, grabs the whole contraption out of my hands, flips his reel and mine over each other a few times, untangles both of them, then gives me back my line without a word.

I try to move away but the kite has a life of its own. I get caught in the old man’s line again immediately - and I make matters worse by trying to move backwards away from him. He rushes over to me again, repeats the process of moving the lines over and over one another, then moves off sharply muttering something under his breath. Amateurs!

I suspect he is one of the great old kite flyers who competes annually in the international competition at the nearby coastal city of Tianjin. And I feel rather humble after the lesson he has given me. Later I will find out that the kite or ‘fang zheng’ is a Chinese invention, some 3000 years old. It’s said that Marco Polo brought it back along with the pizza and spaghetti (noodles) to Italy in the 13th century, and from their the kite spread across Europe. The Chinese passion for kites is life long, and steeped in stories and tradition. The city of Wiefang calls itself ‘the kite capital of the world’, while Tianjin, Anhui and Beijing all have their unique forms of kite making and flying styles.

Untangled and free at last, I feel like I am now the Master’s Apprentice – albeit with his somewhat cranky blessings. But at last I do completely control my kite. It’s a relief, I must say. I can enjoy what I am doing – and revel in what is around me for the first time.

There’s a sudden and deep pleasure in being with everyone in the square – the lovers, the children, the old men, the parents, the tourists from all over China and a few from overseas. Moving my eagle among the other birds, dragons, fish, grasshoppers and butterflies that pull us ever upwards. All of us watching the changing wind, all of us thrilling to a warm Beijing sun. Something good is going on here. Something unexpected and subtle. The qui (air) dances with creatures. Tethering us to the sky. A celebration of people’s spirits rising from the earth, lifting each of us up with a tiny shiver in the breeze, joining our eyes and hearts over beautiful Tiananmen Square. Reminding us of free things inside ourselves. And people who have flown here before.

- Mark Mordue

No comments: