What is authentic

We walked through the Forbidden City and came across some renovation going on. A whole wall was being plastered with the lovely red colour that this palace is famous for. The wall was built in fired brick and the worker applied coats of plaster swiftly and efficiently. The work was clearly of high quality, and when finished, would be hard to distinguish from the other walls we saw.

The Family and I had already discussed the question of authenticity before. How does China have so many well-preserved monuments, when India finds it hard to preserve the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal? Part of the answer is a different notion of authenticity. In China authenticity seems to be a fluid notion. The Forbidden City periodically falls into ruins and is rebuilt, but still said to be the same. Buddha’s statues in temples, even the temples themselves, are often rebuilt, but said to be a thousand years old. Some things are recreated from ancient descriptions and then said to be the same as the original.

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One can think of degrees of change. Is the material used the same as before? Some castles in Germany have been reconstructed in this fashion after the war. Do we see them as authentic? The temples of Abu Simbel were moved when the Aswan high dam was constructed. Do they remain authentic? The prehistoric wall paintings of Lascaux have been recreated for tourists in Lascaux II, so that the originals remain undamaged. How authentic is the feel of walking through this cave? The Taj Mahal was recreated by Donald Trump in Atlantic City. How authentic is that?

One may say that authenticity resides in the social function of a monument. Then Abu Simbel cannot be authentic, since it has been recreated and the social system which gave it symbolic meaning has disappeared. The Forbidden City is certainly no longer forbidden. So is it just a disneyland? The Great Wall of China was rebuilt many times during its 2000 year history, but it has no function now except as an anchor for vendors of selfie sticks. Are the modern renovations then more inauthentic than the sections which are crumbling away into ruin?

One may say that historical authenticity resides in the material. Is Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, with its stone-by-authentic-stone reconstruction of the Ishtar gate, more authentically Babylon than the vandalized spot in the walls of Babylon from where it was taken? Does a tribal house transported from the rain forests of the Amazon into a museum in the frigid north of Europe retain its authenticity?

I have no answer. But I suspect that either the material or the function must remain. The Forbidden City feels like the Louvre: a museum within a disneyland. The Great Wall has a more authentic feel.

Is it worth it after all?

If you guessed that this photo was taken outside the Beijing South Railway Station you would be morally correct. The crowds there can be quite fierce sometimes. But actually, that’s not where I clicked the photo, as you can see when I pull the focus back just a little, as below.

Yes, this is the Great Wall of China at Badaling, near Beijing. Badaling is the easiest to reach. Taxis will take you there. Numerous bus tours serve this point. On a weekend the crowds can be daunting. Many travellers despise the crowds, sneer at Badaling, and go off to further points. I’m from Mumbai. I love crowds. Chinese crowds are even better, since they seem to be more well-behaved than Indian crowds. So I went to Badaling.

You can climb up to the wall, or save time and zip up in the cable car. I’m not much for needless exercise, so I took the cable car and was up in a few minutes, walking along with the crowd. Is it worthwhile?

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I think it is. The scenery is just so spectacular! Lines of hills roll away from you. You see the wall straddling the ridges, marking a line of military control over the hills. The panoramas are spectacular, and the crowds are just a small part of the whole picture. Why would I miss this? I think the stalls selling water and ice-cream on the wall are pretty convenient on a day when the temperature touched 33 Celsius. Having toilets up there is pretty useful as well.

As far as I’m concerned, it is Badaling forever.

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