I’ve had a luxurious two months off from teaching, which gave me plenty of time to travel around China and other parts of Asia before the spring semester starts. After two weeks of IST (In Service Training) back in Chengdu, I flew off for the first leg of my trip: Beijing! I’ll be splitting the trip into two posts- the first will be about the city’s history and sites.
Beijing is the former capital of the final two dynasties of China – the Ming and Qing dynasties, respectively. For this reason some of the most lavish palaces, temples, and imperial parks in all of China can be found in central Beijing. The city has succumbed to the country’s real estate boom however (in addition to grievous damage from the cultural revolution decades before), and many of the centuries old alley way homes – hutongs – have been ripped up to make room for glossy million USD high rise condos (more on this in post #2). Still, a lot of historical sites remain in excellent condition; here are some highlights:
This temple was originally the home of a Qing dynasty prince, but was later converted to a lamasery for Tibetan monks. Around the Spring Festival, the temple was crowded with Chinese people praying for good fortune and health in the New Year. There was a small fee to enter and I received a large bundle of incense, which I could burn in front of various temples within the complex.
I found it strange that Beijingers would want to pray here, since most of them are definitely not Tibetan Buddhist (religious Chinese are mostly Daoist or Buddhist or capitalist, but for sure not Tibetan Buddhist!)
My friends gave two explanations:
- Since the temple complex was once the home of the imperial family and respected monks, it is the most “powerful” temple in the area, and prayers get answered more effectively here
- More importantly, Chinese people will pray to any god, at any site, anywhere, to get rich
Temple of Heaven
Probably my favorite building in Beijing- it’s surrounded by a vast 660 acre park full of cypress trees, so the 25 million people and chaos of Beijing seem to fade away into the far distance. This circular temple is where the former emperors would make sacrifices to the Heavens for good harvest. It is entirely constructed out of wood (with no nails!) and has been struck by lightning in the past, and burned to ashes as a result.
I went on a weekday during the late afternoon. The crowds were sparse and it was really a site to behold. The deep blues on the roof, and reds from the paneling, and gold foil all come together perfectly at the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”
The Forbidden City
A massive palace complex in the heart of Beijing- when I was young I read in Time for Kids that the Forbidden City had 999 rooms, but I’m not sure if this was proven to be true or not. It is enormous though, and as you walk through from the south entrance to the north exit gate, you will pass palace after palace, courtyard after courtyard, with smaller buildings and gardens on the east and west side of the main central axis.
I spent half a day wandering through the Forbidden City. it is closed at night- rumors are that ghosts and tortured spirits haunt the palace grounds… (throughout the centuries there must have been thousands of beheadings and poisonings of various ministers, eunuchs, concubines, generals, princes, slaves, and so on)
The Old Summer Palace, Yuanming Yuan
This was a massive private park, five times the size of the Forbidden City, which was built exclusively for the imperial family in the Qing dynasty. At its peak, hundreds of bridges, gardens, palace buildings, artificial islands and lakes were constructed in the park. In 1860 the entire park was burned to the ground by British and French troops during the Second Opium War. The only ruins left of Yuanming Yuan are the stone frames of a few European style palaces.
I overheard a mother telling her young son “look how wicked these foreigners were to the Chinese! They burned down our beautiful palace!”
My friend Maxim – a sinologist and translator based in Beijing – pointed out that at the time, ordinary Chinese citizens deeply resented the corrupt late Qing emperors- and the people would have been at most indifferent to the burning down of Yuanming Yuan, since none of them were ever allowed to step foot into it in the first place. (I trust Maxim’s judgement on this, but did he just whitesplain Chinese history to me? Also, I suspect he is trying to absolve himself of Russian guilt for its involvement in the Eight Nation Alliance)
The masterful French writer Victor Hugo wrote a damning letter in 1861 expressing his complete dismay at the objectionable actions of the French forces; a portion of his letter is now inscribed on a plaque near the marble ruins.
“One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.
“We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.”