Beijing's Da Vinci Code

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2006, 12:00am

As the third quarter begins, this year seems to be a time of introspection for the Communist Party. Facing an ideological crisis that strikes at the very heart of China's social identity, the party wants to re-engineer its character.

President Hu Jintao is trying cautiously to revive traditional Chinese values, without appearing to break with the party's roots in Marxist rhetoric. 'Social harmony' is the buzzword that encompasses this movement, which has the potential to become a social renaissance.

Almost every week, it seems, one research institution or another is hosting a social-harmony conference. Even the World Economic Forum - that symbol of the globalisation of American values - has chosen social harmony as the theme of its Beijing conference this year. What is happening here?

The super-growth economic model has transformed the mainland in two decades from a poor, ideologically driven nation to a rich, ideologically bankrupt nation. It has raised living standards and created huge modern cities, but left society in a state of discord.

To re-engineer its ideology, the party needs only to look over the north wall of Zhongnanhai, at Beihai and Jingshan parks.

Would anybody believe that Beijing has its own version of a political Da Vinci Code, written in architecture that stands next to the party's very seat of power? With the exception of Mao Zedong , probably nobody in the central government has understood that code.

The Da Vinci Code made much of meridian lines and symbols. In Beijing, there is a meridian line that runs from the Qianmen Gate through the centre of the Forbidden City, Drum Tower and out of the back gate. The highest point of the line is a pavilion on Jingshan hill. Under its roof is a massive statue of Buddha, its hand open, thumb touching index finger in the hand mudra position - a symbol of realisation.

The other key symbol is a white pagoda, rising in the centre of nearby Beihai Park. Most residents and tour guides will tell you this was once an imperial pleasure garden. But in fact, the entire park was designed in rings for walking around the pagoda, which is said to contain a relic of the Buddha.

These and other symbols converge near the pagoda, in the Eternal Peace Temple. It is a unique fusion of Tibetan tantric and Chinese Zen Buddhist architecture and symbolism. Within its central shrine are images of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama - the two highest ranking figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

Nearby hangs a tablet inscribed with the Chinese characters hui gen xiang yuan - 'the face of the root of wisdom is complete'.

This architectural imagery reveals the code underlying the success of Emperor Qianlong's rule in the 18th century.

Arguably, China reached its highest level of development under Qianlong's reign, when most of these monuments were built. And the source of political power in his China was traditional spirituality - which in turn served economic prosperity.

Qianlong's own Yinian Tang - an 'imagination pavilion' - inside Zhongnanhai is directly in line with the White Pagoda. Mao selected Yinian Tang as his private office and residence after 1949.

Certainly the root of Chinese culture was cut, if not completely uprooted, during the decades of westernisation and globalisation - preceded by the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.

For the party, there is nowhere to turn but back to China's own traditional and cultural roots. Those are the same values that were continuously dismissed over the past five decades by mainlanders who felt they were about China's past, not its future.

Maybe under Mr Hu that attitude is about to change. Maybe such values really are the future.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation