A Piece of the Rock

The Chinese just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mao's revolution — with a dose of capitalism?

March 17, 2000

The Chinese just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mao's revolution — with a dose of capitalism?

According to rumor, in the weeks leading up to last October’s 50th anniversary celebration of China’s Communist revolution, it was easy to find souvenir stands selling all sorts of knick-knacks to foreign travelers. In fact, lining Beijing’s busiest thoroughfares, the stands were nearly impossible to avoid.

But on October 1, the day of the festivities, the only items available for foreigners to purchase were little plastic versions of the country’s red and yellow flag. All of the old souvenir stands had vanished. With such a throng of people on the streets, they seemed to be squandering what was surely a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity.

Or, perhaps because of the capitalist nature of their business — what with all the haggling over prices and such — they had simply been told to disappear on the Communist Party’s big day. Nevertheless, it turned out that a certain capitalist spirit was there all along. Right under our noses — or feet, as it were.

Professor Li Tang Tien, an historian of the Ch’in and T’ang dynasties, had thoughtfully acquired several thousand of the old paving stones that had been discarded during the recent renovation of Beijing’s historic Tian’anmen Square.

In the weeks after coming into this bounty, he had turned the rough paving stones into smoothly polished rectangles, measuring 12 cm by 9.5 cm. In Professor Li’s self-devised numerology, the dimensions paid tribute to the 1.2 billion Chinese living on the country’s 9.5 million square kilometers of land.

Professor Li’s plan was to send a thousand of these stones to colleagues and to important political figures around the world. The other 17,000 stones — boxed, as Professor Li proudly declared, in wood from Southeast Asia, and embossed with his own loquacious commemoration — were to go on sale just as soon as he found an marketing firm to partner with him.

The asking price? For locals, 1,999 yuan, or about $250. A lot more for foreigners. And buyers were to have the option of getting a date engraved on the polished stone — as long as they chose something between 1949 and 1999. It may be a capitalist venture, but even Professor Li can’t stray too far from the Party line.