The Ten Great Buildings of China, and Their Gruesome Pasts

In 1959, Mao was one hell of a proud man. As the new Emperor of China, he’d led an unbelievable boom in food production, completely eliminated the need for medicine and science, and “enticed the snakes out of their caves” with a hundred flowers — all in just ten years!

So he decided to erect ten great buildings to honor his grand achievements. They would represent the people, the peasants, the army, the minorities — each building had a great semantic purpose. He would name them The Ten Great Buildings!

And for 18 months I’d been talking with the Professor about hosting a 十大建筑 bike tour. 40km of self-guided Beijing history in 4 hours. (I put up a map here.) This was going to be historic.


10:10am – The First Great Building: Mao’s Wife with a Knife

The Diaoyutai State Guesthouse

Symbolizing the foreign friends of New China, this 800-year-old imperial vacation home was a perfect choice for the Great 10. Emperor Zhangzong loved fishing here, and Ant-Eating Emperor QianLong left his tag on one of the buildings. Instead of opening it to the public, Mao thought this would make a perfect home for visiting dignitaries.

54 years later, we still weren’t allowed in. We were barely allowed to snatch a single photo of the entrance before armed guards corralled us.

“No photos,” one said.

“Why not,” asked the Translator.

“It’s the rule,” said one khaki-clad gatekeeper with a smile. An Audi with tinted windows edged past us, through the gates.

You see, this is a rest stop for foreign dignitaries classier than us. Reagan, Thatcher, Papa Bush, Yeltsin, Putin, The Queen, Charles & Di have all stayed here — as did Kim Jong Il, repeatedly, with a 50-person entourage.

In February 1972, Tricky Dick stayed in Villa Number 18 – and over dinner with Zhou Enlai showed off his ability to use chopsticks. (It took Nixon six months to master this skill.)

Today it costs $50,000 a night to stay in Villa Number 18.

It’s not just a hotel – it’s also a negotiation hotspot. The UK and China duked out Hong Kong on these grounds. The Six Sides talks about North Korean Nuclear Disarmament are also held here. And you know how well those went.

But best of all, Jiang Qing — Madame Mao — lived here from 1966 to 1976. She gorged on Hollywood movies, and ran the cultural revolution, right from her apartment here. Regularly she’d explode in violent tirades, and run through the hallways screaming, “I wish I had a knife in my hands!”

Well, there are now 10 executive chefs, 100 Sous Chefs, and 200 master chefs. So there are probably enough knives to go around. Even if we weren’t allowed to see them.


10:30am – The Second Great Building: Big Guns

Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution

Again, foiled. The Military Museum — huge, apparently gorgeous, and built to commemorate the unstoppable power of The Red Army — was sheathed in scaffolding. But I was sure the Professor would wow us with historical anecdotes and curiosities, even if we couldn’t see the building. (He and I had split the list of buildings in half.)

The Professor blanched.

“It was built in 1959,” he offered, and his eyes flicked as he tried to remember anything else. Failing that, he changed the subject. “Have you been to the Imperial War Museum in London?”


11am – The Third Great Building: Mass Murder on the Hotel Steps

The Minorities Hotel

“Bathing under the gleam of the morning sunshine,
with one hand embracing the magnificence of Tiananmen Square
and the other touching the prosperity of Chang’an Avenue,
Minzu Hotel has come to fruition after years of effort!”

So said Chen Guoyao, General Manager of Minzu Hotel. He was justly proud of it — it was the first hotel of the People’s Republic of China, and is reported to have been Beijing’s tallest building from 1959 to 1964: the city’s original skyscraper! Nixon, Ford and Kissinger have all stayed here, and it has the city’s only Turkish Barbecue (with traditional Turkish dancers!).

Originally, the hotel was conceived of as a home away from home for representatives of each of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups. The Han Chinese, the Tibetan Tibetans, the Xinjiang Uyghurs. Zhou Enlai thought up the welcoming name himself. Perhaps, as Mao would live for 10,000 years, this hotel would welcome 10,000 guests.

Thirty years after the hotel was opened, on the night of June 4th, 1989, over 10,000 Tiananmen protesters came face-to-face to riot police outside the hotel. The cops threw tear gas grenades into the crowd, and started beating at the protestors — frightened students ran into the hotel, while foreign journalists peered from the windows above.

And then the cops ran out of tear gas. And they were far outnumbered. And the demonstrators began to fight back.

Armored Personnel Carriers arrived, soldiers fired live ammo into the crowd, and people dove or fell or dropped to the ground. There were Molotov cocktails. Screaming. And then the crowd quietly began to sing The Internationale, the song of the revolution.

It’s been said that this hotel is where the largest number of protesters met their end. But the Professor disagreed.

“It’s back that way,” he said. “We just cycled past it.”

And he’s a Professor, so he probably knows.


11:07am – The Fourth Great Building: Minority Antiques, I guess

Cultural Palace of Nationalities

The 56 minorities of China are so important that Mao put up two buildings in their honor. This was just a short walk from the hotel.

“They’re hosting an antiques show right now,” The Professor read from a nearby sign. “It was built in 1959. Wait — did I tell you about the wizards?”

“You didn’t research this one either?” I asked.

“No. Actually, I didn’t research any of them.”


11:22am – The Fifth Great Building: Mao’s Secret Sex Parties

The Great Hall of the People

In Yan’an, living in the caves, Mao dreamed of a day after the revolution, when he’d see a great hall built for the people. (Of the people? By the people?) Well, ten years later, he had it.

It was built in a remarkable 10 months by 30,000 “volunteers,” and each province and region received its own hall, designed and furnished in the style of that province. The Uyghers would get rugs and paintings of mountain ranges, the Taiwanese would get mirrors and gloss. The banquet hall could seat 5,000 — as happened for Nixon’s dinner here –- and the main conference room could fit 10,000.

This was the highlight of the Ten Great Buildings. Zhong zhong zhi zhong, it’s said in Chinese, “The crown of the most important.”

It was also the biggest and the most expensive of the ten. The problem was, it was too big. You couldn’t hear other people during meetings, so few were actually held there.

Instead, it was used for dances.

Every Saturday night, “cultural work groups” — dancing girls and pretty singers from the Beijing Military, the PLA, the Railway Construction Corps — would be brought in to entertain Mao and his pals. But once a week wasn’t enough for the Chairman, so he invited the girls to return every Wednesday night too. Cha cha cha.

Room 118, The Beijing Room, was where Mao would entertain these young women privately, in small groups. And what happens in Room 118, as we all know, stays in Room 118. (Unless you read Li Zhisui’s Private Life of Chairman Mao, that is. Then it’s all rather sordidly illustrated.)


11:37am – The Sixth Great Building: The Building So Nice They Named It Twice

Museum of the Chinese Revolution and National Museum of Chinese History

Now it’s just called the National Museum of China.

As we pulled up, I looked at The Professor with eyebrows raised.

“Nope, nothing on this one either. But have you noticed all the fire extinguishers in Tiananmen Square?”

I glanced across the street, and saw extinguishers spaced evenly across the perimeter of the cold concrete square. There was nothing flammable in sight. Except people. Lots, and lots, of people.

“I came down here on the 4th of June,” he said, “as I do every year. There was a big storm, but no-one else was here. I was a little surprised.”

And outside a building erected to remember China, we remembered 1989. Then we clambered back on our bikes, and headed for…


11:56am – The Seventh Great Building: Cultural Beatings and Bomb Blasts

Beijing Railway Station

In 1959, this was the largest train station in all of China.

“They had a big problem with bombs here,” the Professor interjected. “Many years ago.”

“Wait, you researched one of mine?”

“No, I just read that somewhere.” Phew.

I’d thought the Great Hall — erected in 10 months by 30,000 “volunteers” — was impressive, but an unlikely 2 million people are reported to have built this train station in 7 months. Zhou Enlai thought up the smart turrets, and Mao himself penned the calligraphy on the sign. During the 60s and 70s, the clocks would play the Cultural Revolution anthem, The East Is Red, on the hour.

During the 60s and 70s, it was also from this station that questionable communists were sent away for re-education. And in the mid-60s, it was here that the Red Guard — Mao’s student army — reigned supreme. For all purposes, they owned the station. Thousands would pace and guard the hallways, searching and beating and robbing any “hidden landlords” and “counterrevolutionaries” passing their way.

Today you too can pace the hallways, on your way to Dongbei, Shandong, Moscow and even Pyongyang.

“I have a flight to catch in four hours,” I told the Professor and the Translator, wiping sweat from my brow. “The time is getting short. Should we just call it a day?”

“No,” said the Professor. “We’ve been talking about this for a year. More. You will see this through.”

So we climbed back on our bikes, and set off.


12:21pm – The Eighth Great Building: The One That Got Away

Overseas Chinese Hotel

Of the Ten Great Buildings, only nine remain standing. We needed to pay homage to the missing sister.

“It’s now called The Prime Hotel,” the Professor said with a smile.

“So why did they knock it down? And when?”

He shook his head. “I promise I’ll research these buildings, and send you the answers. In October. When I actually have free time.”

I really hope he does…


12:46pm – The Ninth Great Building: Jean Michel Jarre and the Public Executions

The Workers Stadium

Twenty stalls outside the stadium sold green scarves and t-shirts for GuoAn, the Beijing soccer team with a game here in four hours. Posters promoted upcoming shows for Justin Beiber and the Australian DJ Havana Brown. Olympics soccer was held in these grounds, and Jean Michel Jarre played a legendary new age concert here.

But the Workers Stadium wasn’t always so sporting.

On the afternoon of Thursday, August 18, 1966 — in the heat of the Cultural Revolution — Mao welcomed a reported million Red Guard students here.

Sure, there are only 64,000 seats — but the Chinese press was always prone to hyperbole. Some wore their parents’ old Red Army uniforms, and all of them wore red armbands. They cheered, and cheered, as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were dragged into the crowd, and a million voices hurled abuse at them.

Other counterrevolutionaries were beaten, handcuffed, and suffered heavy weights tied around their neck. In Chinese, this form of torture was called “The Fairy Maid Presents Fruits.” Elegant, eh? Others were forced to “Fly Airplanes,” bending at right angles with armed stretched behind their backs.

Others weren’t so lucky.

“I know what you’re going to say,” the Professor said, trying to stop me.

But I wouldn’t stop.

Yes, before Justin Beiber and Jean Michel Jarre played here, the Workers Stadium was used for popular public executions. There are horrific photos of mass executions held here on display in the Police Museum, but I have none to show you. Instead I only have a story…

Yu Luoke was a 25 year old, the son of “counterrevolutionary rightists.” He publicly argued that the children of accused rightists shouldn’t be struggled against. For this, he was arrested. He was tortured for three years. And on Thursday, March 5th, 1970, he was dragged out before tens of thousands of Red Guards. The crowd waved their little red books, chanted revolutionary slogans, and, there in the stadium, Yu was shot in the head.

“Do you want a ticket to the game,” asked a tout wearing a green GuoAn scarf.

We said no. We had a mission to complete.


12:59pm – The Tenth Great Building: It Ends Here

National Agriculture Exhibition Center

“I actually have a story about this one,” said the Professor. “I once went inside for a show. It’s bigger than you’d think.”

It didn’t look that big at all. But we didn’t go inside to test his tale. I had a plane to catch. So I said goodbye to the Professor, and goodbye to the Translator, and goodbye to Beijing.

See you later, guys. I’ll miss you three.

Historical Wonders / ,

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