This coming weekend is the Chinese New Year and this will be the year of the Snake. I am told that the text above is pronounced “Gong Xi Fa Cai” and it means “Congratulations and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!” This seems like agood time to finish writing up the last bits of my visit to Beijing.
While in Beijing last October, I visited several other places that I have not yet written about. On my second day in Beijing, my guide took me to the Summer Palace (point A on map below) and the Lama Temple (B) after we first visited the Temple of Heaven (C). On my last day, we walked through Beihai Park (D), stopped at the Nine Dragon Screen (E), and explored the Hutongs (F) after first touring Tian’anmen Square (G) and the Forbidden City (H).
The Summer Palace was originally built in the 1750s by the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The palace was destroyed twice — first in 1860 by British and French troops at the end of the Second Opium War and then again in 1900 by the allied troops from Japan, Russia, the U.K., France, the U.S., Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy who had come to China to put down the Boxer Rebellion. The Palace was rebuilt in 1886 and once again in 1902.
The Summer Palace is perhaps best known as the residence of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who effectively, but unofficially, controlled the Qing Dynasty from 1861 (after the death of Xianfeng Emperor, her spouse and the ninth Qing emperor) to her death in 1908. Cixi was mother of Tongzhi Emperor, the tenth Qing emperor, and aunt of Guangxu Emperor, the eleventh Qing emperor. The Qing Dynasty ended in 1912 when Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor also known as the Last Emperor, abdicated thus ending over 2,000 years of imperial rule.
The palace grounds span over one square mile in the northwest portion of Beijing, just inside the current Fifth Ring Road. Three-quarters of this area, however, is covered by the Kumming and Nanhu Lakes, both of which are man-made. The earth that was excavated when these lakes were dug was used to construct Longevity Hill upon which the 125 foot tall Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, the highest structure in the palace, was built.
The day that I visited was overcast and rainy, definitely not ideal, but what can you do? We entered the palace on the northwest side through the Tower of Cloud Retaining Eaves and walked south and then east through the palace grounds. There are over 100 pavilions, terraces, pagodas, temples, gazebos, long, covered corridors, and bridges on the grounds. One of the more interesting pavilions is the Marble Boat, also known as Clear and Peaceful Boat, is a 110 foot long structure built on solid stones but made from wood and painted to look like marble.
A covered walkway called the Long Corridor runs along the northern edge of Kumming Lake. This walkway is just under 2,400 feet long (a bit under one-half mile); it has four octagonal pavilions, one for each season; and 273 sections as demarcated by the crossbeams under the roof. Over 14,000 colorful paintings of famous people, buildings, and landscapes as well as depictions from Chinese literature and folk tales adorn the ceilings and beams.
As you walk east, you ultimately leave the beautiful gardens of the palace and enter first into a residential area and ultimately into the more functional administrative area. Immediately in front of the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the main administrative building, are two statues — a dragon that represents the emperor and a fenghuang (or Chinese phoenix) that represents the empress. To symbolize that the Empress Dowager Cixi was the ruler, the phoenix is in the center while the dragon is off to the side. There is a also a statue of a Qilin, a mythical animal with a dragon’s head, a deer’s antlers, a fish’s scales, an ox’s hooves, and a lion’s tail. According to Chinese mythology, the Qilin is the third most powerful beast, behind only the dragon and the phoenix. I think that the last time that I saw one of these was a night when I drank way too much tequila.
From the Summer Palace, we took the subway to the Lama Temple in northeast Beijing. The temple, built during the Qing Dynasty, is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. The temple was originally the home to Prince Yong who went on to become the fifth Qing emperor. After he took the throne, a portion of the former palace became a monastery.
Inside the temple complex are five major halls — the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Hall of Harmony and Peace, the Hall of Everlasting Protection, the Hall of the Wheel of the Law, and the Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses. The halls are separated by courtyards and smoke from burning incense seems to be everywhere.
Behai Park is a 170 acre imperial garden, including a man-made lack of nearly 100 acres, that sits just northwest of the Forbidden City. Although the park dates back to 938 and the Liao dynasty (916-1125), it has only been open to the public since 1925.
As you enter the park, you immediately notice a white stupa sitting atop a hill on Qiónghua, or Jade Flower, Island in the southern part of Beihai Lake. This 118 foot tall stupa is part of the Miaoying Temple and it contains relics from Buddha. The White Pagoda was originally built in 1651, but has been rebuilt three times after it was damaged by earthquakes in 1679, 1730, and 1976. The Hall of Beneficent Causation is located in front of the White Pagoda. 445 glazed tiles, each with the image of Buddha, cover the four walls of the Hall. Panoramic views of not only the Forbidden City but also much of Beijing are found atop the White Pagoda.
After visiting the White Pagoda, we walked first north along the eastern edge of the lake and then west along the norther shore in order to get to the Nine-Dragon Screen. This 84 foot long, 19.5 foot tall, and 5 foot wide wall was built in 1756 during the Qing dynasty and it contains images of nine different dragons. Chinese dragons are depicted as long, scaled, serpentine creatures with four legs. Since the dragon is a symbol of power, strength, and good luck, it typically was used as a symbol of the emperor. Nine is also considered a lucky number by the Chinese as well as another symbol of the emperor, and thus nine-dragon screens are found in imperial palaces and gardens.
The none large dragons are shown in the sky above the sea. There are supposedly over 600 dragons on the wall. Since there are nine large dragons on each side and about 40 smaller ones above them in the eaves, so I can easily get to around 100. However, I am not sure where the other 500+ dragons are located; perhaps they are in the edge tiles that border the roof.
We ended our day with a walking tour through the hutongs, traditional houses with courtyards line narrow roads and alleys in Beijing. The hutongs date back to the 15th century when the higher-ranking officials were permitted to live closer to the Forbidden City while commoners lived further away. Over the years, many hutongs were torn down to make way for urban development, and the ones that remain have become tourist attractions. The hutongs near Beihai Park occupy very valuable real estate, but the owners refuse to sell since this is the only way of life that they know.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.