The city of Beijing is more than 3,000 years old and was founded by the ancient state of Yan. What began as a provincial town eventually morphed to become the capital of one of the most important civilizations in world history. But that only took place about 600 years ago when the Ming dynasty (明朝) moved the capital from the southern city of Nanjing (南京) to be closer to the frontiers.
Why was this done is not exactly clear and rife with opposing views from historiographers. And it is not within the scope of this essay.
Today it is a city of more than 10 million people (much more if the transient population is included), the political and cultural heart of more than a billion people. A city of juxtapose, as it attempts to move forwards to a modern metropolis while preserving its ancient heritage which is said to hail from the 11th century BC.
Our first journey to the capital was for five days beginning with with an orientation to the sights of the city and ending with an introduction to the world famous and endangered Panda at the zoo. This essay will focus on the sights that we saw while in Beijing. Remember this was Beijing in the late 90s. So expect the following photos to be grainier and a little off focused, because it was only film culture then!
The center of the world
We started with a visit to the Great Hall of the Peoples. This building is like Congress in Washington DC. The legislative representatives fill the chambers whenever the National Peoples’ congress (NPC) convenes. Foreign dignitaries are also received in this building too. We are not sure about this but we recalled that private dinner parties can be arranged here too.
A little bird told us, because this little bird dined there… But that was in the late 90s and believe this is now not possible anymore? Perhaps readers from China can verify that.
Even till this day, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong is the final resting place of the strongman who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1949 till his death in 1976. Like other communist leaders of his time, his body was embalmed to be kept in posterity. We were actually very lucky to have been there in May. The mausoleum had been closed in 1997 and just reopened in January! No photography was allowed inside, so there was nothing we could take away beyond the blurry images that remain in our heads. To be honest we were filed out as quickly as we were filed in like soldiers. So there wasn’t really much to remember.
Now outside of the mausoleum is a great expanse called Tian An Men square (天安门广场).
This square is one of the largest in the world where parades are held every year to commemorate the founding the people’s republic.
The gate itself is actually part of the imperial city wall that surrounds the forbidden palace. But it was badly damaged in the last years of the Ming dynasty and rebuilt only later.
Extensive upgrades to its interior took place in the 1960s. When one gets to the top of the gate, one can only imagine what the leaders of China looked upon (ie the masses of people) on the square. And back in the day, when one bought the ticket access the gate, one would receive a certificate as a souvenir too. Not sure if this is issued anymore!
With that, it was time to go where
It is forbidden
Any visit to Beijing is not complete without taking a whole day to see the Forbidden Palace (紫禁城), also known as故宮. This city within a city was accessed from a grand square where we came from (Tiananmen lah!). The Meridien gate is the actual entrance to the forbidden palace.
Constructed from 1406-20, it is said to contain more than 10,000 rooms! Thus one can live here for 30 years in a different room each day and still not run out of rooms. Ok, the official count is 8886 rooms in 980 buildings if one believes Wikipedia. Whatever. That should still give some sense to the enormous size of this palace of 72 hectares. To be honest they say a moat surrounds the palace, but throughout our time there we did not notice it, except at the bridges just after the Meridien gate where the moat is said to run under.
Some of the most beautiful chambers are the grand chambers or halls. There is no one “throne” room. Each court, and there are two – serves a different purpose. There is one (outer court) where external visitors are received such as when foreign dignitaries and ambassadors visit. Largely ceremonial, it is also larger. The other is the inner court where the ministers and court officials line up to present themselves to the Emperor each morning to manage the day-to-day affairs of state.
Sadly, many of the rooms and chambers have been stripped of their treasures that now adorn museums around the world, though much had been recovered and now exhibited within the Palace museum. You have to know that in the 1800s, the forbidden palace was occupied time and again by foreign powers.
Yet the palace remains awe inspiring, for it retains the majesty that it was built to impress anyone who came. And it is full of symbolism too! If one were to observe the sloping ridges of the roofs one will see that there are statuettes.
The more of them represent a more important building! There was only one building allowed to have 10 statuettes, and that is the hall of supreme harmony. The color of the roofs should also be apparent. Notice that yellow is used extensively, because it is the color of the emperor. As we said earlier. You need to spend a whole day here.
Well, if you do not want to regret not seeing some of the palace chambers and halls in person anyway.
Technically not part of the palace, Jingshan (景山) at the back of the complex overlooks it. Also known as Meishan (煤山) or coal hill, its significance was more from Fengshui than anything else.
But it also offers wonderful views of the entire forbidden palace plus its surroundings. And it is more known as the place where the last Ming dynasty emperor hanged himself when the city was overrun by rebel forces in 1644. Such was the fate of dynastic rulers when their mandate from heaven ends.
Summer Palace & Yuan Ming Yuan
Now the emperors of China were not just tyrants who lived in luxury within the confines of the forbidden palace. They also built for themselves gardens and palaces to enjoy the seasons too. Because the summer around the area of Beijing can get really hot and humid, the nearly treeless (except for the smaller gardens) forbidden palace were not refuge to get away from the heat.
Thus the summer palace was built. Well this hails back slightly less than 1000 years ago. And at first it served not just the imperial families but also the common folks. You see, the palace was built with lakes (three of them), water coming from springs and rivers. It was to function as both a reservoir for both imperial and local agricultural use, and surprisingly – also as the source for water transportation around the city.
It was certainly built as a home away from home for the imperial family, replete with its own grand opera house.
Said to be where the empress dowager Cixi (慈禧) watched shows. Many pavilions dot what is now a museum, some with breathtaking views. Walking around the biggest of the three lakes – Kunming (昆明湖) is recommended, as one will be able to look back at the entirety of the palace across the water. Certainly a place for at least half a day.
And nearby would be the ruins of the Yuan Ming Yuan (圆明园), a more recently constructed palace from the Qing era (清朝) from 1707. It is said to have been the working office of the Qianlong emperor while the forbidden palace was largely ceremonial. If one looks at the plan outlay of the palace, one would see it is made up extensively of gardens and interconnected lakes. It does have palaces and old records illustrate that a European style palace was added in the 1750s.
Today there is hardly any building left except along the fringes of the palace grounds. For much of it was destroyed in 1860 by invading British and French troops.
Especially a three-day blaze set by the British near completely obliterated the palace.Today we have mostly ruins and old paintings for guidance as to what must had been like to walk amongst the gardens and palaces. This relic of a palace remains one of the important reminders to the Chinese about their humiliating history over the last 150 years.
Temple of Heaven 天坛
As the ruler of a continental sized empire, the emperors of China was considered the patriarch of China’s peoples. Thus their wellbeing is paramount, because the ancient emperors branded themselves as the father to the people. Of course, while he (the emperor) could surely command the resources of millions, sometimes the divine had to be consulted.
Now the emperor is the ‘son of heaven’, thus the greater power remains the heavens from which calamity may strike should it be displeased. Thus twice yearly a ceremony had to be conducted to specific protocol, mistakes from which harks bad omens for the year.
Such elaborate ritual and practices is what the temple of heaven was dedicated for. In fact, this serves as a private temple to the royal family – particularly for the Emperor since no commoners were allowed to watch the proceedings. Ok, so the eunuchs would be there… So each year, the Emperor made his prayers and offerings to Heaven here. At a specific point, he gives his request to heaven often asking for good weather to facilitate bumper harvests for the peasants. For no Emperor wants famine in a huge empire of hundreds of millions.
Remember that the population of China exceeded 100 million during the Sung dynasty in the 1200s just as technology facilitate multiple harvests of the rice crop in the same year. Famines and floods had often been harbingers of dynastic change. So this must had been serious business! Today, all are entitled to bring their wishes to heaven here. Remember to ask for world peace!
Much much more
Now these were just some of the main attractions that we visited while in Beijing.
There is so much more. Back in the day we had not seen Pandas, so it was a novelty to visit Beijing zoo and see them up close. Well not so close, but enough to make us smile! Actually we did not realize that this Zoo was set up in 1906 and on nearly 90 hectares of lakes and ponds. In fact when we were there, we had thought that the Zoo was placed there over the site of a former palace (or something like that). And indeed it was. It was a former imperial manor during the Ming dynasty!
But that is not all that the city offers. If one have more time to get off the beaten track, one might find the underground city (地下城) an intriguing place to visit. However as we wrote this we realize that the city has been placed under renovations since 2008 and not accessible.
Long story short, these network of tunnels lead to large chambers that could have functioned as hospitals, living quarters etc in the event of nuclear war (it was China vs Soviet Union in the 70s). There was even shopping with loads of souvenirs too!
Lastly, one cannot be in Beijing without walking the old alleyways of the traditional homes of Beijingers. Called ‘Hutongs’ (胡同), these are lanes that form with the courtyard homes lining up to each other. It makes for an interesting day to walk through these mazes while visiting local courtyard homes. Do be there, because they are fast disappearing as the city marches ever more towards modernity.
Beijing is a city where one must spend at least five days if not a week. Being here for less would be a shame, since so much of what one can see of the richness of China cannot be done in a short time. If one cannot stay so long, make multiple journeys. It’s worth it.
Our journeys to Beijing took place in April 1998 and November 2011
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