Beijing (11 – 13 April 2016)
Beijing was not supposed to be stranger to me, as I had been there before. However the city was almost a stranger to me on this second visit and it had nothing to do with the long time gap between visits.
The last time I was there, the city was preparing itself for China’s grand coming out ball in the 2008 Olympics. Although my visit was in October 2005, almost three years before the big event, the city was already covered under a mess of construction works almost everywhere. Of course we all know that all of that paid off since the coming out ball was the talk of the world for a long time after that.
The Beijing that I saw the second time however was a little different. I would not say that it was entirely different. I could still recognise much of the city. But I could definitely see and sense the mass and rapid development that had taken place there. It was no longer the Beijing of 2005.
I started my visit at the Temple of Heaven. I was there in 2005 but the grandest monument there, the Qiniandian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (what a cumbersome and inelegant translation but this is probably the best that one can get), was covered up for restoration. This time I got to see the hall in all its splendid glory.
Oh another thing that was still the same in Beijing: the immense crowds everywhere, though this time with their smart phones with camera functions and selfie sticks.
Since ancient times, the reigning monarch of the day had always been careful to make annual offerings to Heaven to ensure that there would be good harvests in the land that year. This was one of the most important duties of the monarch. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the emperor carried out this important duty in the Temple of Heaven.
Symbolisms abound in the temple. Both the Qiniandian and Yuanqiutan are round and standing in square yards. This fulfils the traditional Chinese cosmological belief that Heaven is round and Earth is square. Unlike most other imperial buildings that have yellow roof tiles, all the buildings in the compound have blue roof tiles to symbolise Heaven.
Rituals were also carried out by the emperor in other temples or altars for the benefit of the nation. There are eight such other places in Beijing and I visited one of these: Shejitan (translated as the Altar of Land and Grain). This is now part of Zhongshan Park, named in honour of Sun Yat-Sen.
Shejitan is where offerings were made to She, an earth god, and Ji, a god of grains. The altar is a platform covered with earth of five different colours representing the five cardinal positions (the fifth one being the centre) and implying that all of the earth belongs to the emperor.
Another popular park in the city is the historical Jingshan Park just behind the Forbidden City. This used to be the emperor’s own backyard and was directly attached to the palace. In 1928, long after the last emperor was overthrown, a road was built which separated the palace from the park.
The hill in the middle of the park is an artificial one. This was created from the earth excavated when building the palace moat. The hill served two purposes. Firstly it was a place for relaxation and leisure. Secondly it contributed to the good fengshui of the palace since it was, and often still is, believed that placing a building in front of a tall landform is good fengshui for that building.
Jingshan Park is significant in history for being the place where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hung himself when his empire was lost.
Today Jingshan Park is a public park and the central point of Beijing city is on the hill. It is a good place at which to enjoy not only the flowers in spring but also a grand view of the Forbidden City and old Beijing around it.
From Jingshan Park, if one keeps walking north, it is possible to reach the drum and bell towers in no time. West of the towers lie the lakes of Shichahai. This used to be prime commercial estate all thanks to the lakes being the northernmost portion of the Grand Canal which linked Beijing to Hangzhou. There are still hutongs nearby and these looked like they had been refurbished recently.
South of the Forbidden City is of course the humongous and utterly crowded Tiananmen Square. There were security checkpoints around the square where bags and persons were scanned like at the airport. This was something new for me, all credit to the terrorists appearing in recent years. I should add that the same security checks were carried out at all subway stations too.
Walking further south is Zhengyang Gate. This is quite a typical city gate of the Ming/Qing era consisting of a gatehouse and an archers’ tower in front. The two structures were originally connected by walls but are now separated by a busy road. I read somewhere that the old city walls of Beijing were once monumental and complex. But much of these have been demolished thanks to development.
After Zhengyang Gate one arrives at Qianmen Street, today a pedestrian street. When I last walked down the street in 2005, it was still opened to traffic and lined by somewhat rundown buildings. Everything looked so new and fresh now. It in fact felt almost like a modern shopping street in any Chinese city except with more historical(ish) architecture.
I decided to leave central Beijing for a day and chose to visit the Ming Tombs. There is a group of thirteen mausolea clustered around the basin south of Tianshou Mountain in the northwest of central Beijing where the bodies of thirteen Ming emperors, and their consorts, were interred.
Three of these mausolea are open to visitors but I chose to visit only Dingling and Changling out of time constraints. In any case, all the Ming tombs have more or less the same layout with the same buildings and architecture.
Dingling is Emperor Wanli’s tomb. This is the only Ming tomb to have been excavated and also the only one to have been excavated while fully intact since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. For tourists, of all the Ming tombs, only the underground chambers of this one can be visited.
Wanli is not the only person to be buried in Dingling. With him are his Empress Xiaoduanxian and, the mother of Wanli’s successor, Empress Dowager Xiaojing. Traditionally, only the empress got to be buried next to the emperor. Xiaojing was never an empress during Wanli’s lifetime. However she was fortunate that her son became emperor and was made empress dowager by her son. That gave her almost the same status as a former empress and the right to be buried next to her husband.
According to some sources, building Dingling cost over 8 million taels of silver, about the same as the amount of tax income collected by the then government in two years. Ming China might have been filthy rich, but this is downright ridiculous. Fancy spending all of that money to house a couple of dead persons.
Visiting Changling was an obvious choice for me. For here lies Emperor Yongle, one of the superstars of Chinese history. He usurped the throne from his own nephew, moved the capital of the Ming Empire to Beijing, built the Forbidden City and sent Zheng He on his sea voyages.
Changling is the first and biggest of all the thirteen Ming tombs in the area. It is renowned for the massive Ling’en Hall which was where sacrificial ceremonies were conducted in honour of the deceased emperor and his empress. Today the hall houses a small exhibition of artefacts from the mausoleum.
No tomb of an important person in ancient China was considered complete without a spirit way leading to it. Obviously the Ming tombs have a spirit way although all thirteen share a single seven-kilometre one which was originally built for Changling. The typical spirit way is lined by statutes of civilian and military officials and animals both real and mythical.
In ancient times, the statues of the spirit way would have seen solemn and grandiose processions. Nowadays they only see people taking leisurely strolls past them in the park-like place. I really did enjoy my stroll there that beautiful spring afternoon.
Modern Beijing, if not all of modern China, is probably best represented for me by the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. This was the ballroom where China’s coming out party was held. And even after so many years, with the world preparing for the second Olympic Games after the 2008 one, the stadium still attracted many visitors.
The Bird’s Nest will apparently be used again in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
When I started on this visit I had the expectation that it would be a continuation of the previous visit. Little did I know that it would be more of a reacquaintance. I had to try to understand the city all over again. Beijing is quite a different city from the one ten years ago. Then it was more a combination of classical Chinese with subtle stalinist overtones. Ten years later it was more a combination of classical Chinese with strong capitalist overtones.
Another issue I had, as with other very historical cities, is that one never knows when one has “finished” seeing them. But after a total of eight days from two visits I am not sure that I have obtained a sufficient grasp of the city. I think this is made worse by the fact that I am ethnic Chinese myself and although I am not a Chinese national so much of China’s history and culture still have at least some sort of relevance to me. Everywhere I go there seems to be something that hints of something else and then I am left feeling like I have only scratched the surface.
Nevertheless, what is comforting for me is the fact that Beijing’s rapid development has not obliterated the old and beautiful entirely. I do hope that the city remains that way in spite of the rush to fulfil the Chinese dream.
But no, I am not sure that Beijing is beckoning me back a third time. China is huge and so extremely diverse in culture even if it is all considered Chinese. To say that the Chinese are culturally homogenous will be akin to saying that the Europeans are culturally homogenous. There has got to be other pieces of the Chinese puzzle that lies in other Chinese cities. There is only so much time for one city in a lifetime.