Beijing Highlights: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, and finish off the day with the Legend of Kung Fu.
5 June 2016
Today we are visiting Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. It is a Sunday so they will be crowded but The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays so we don’t have any choice. We set off fairly early as it is going to be a hot day with lots of walking. It is about 30 minutes walk to Tiananmen Square but following feedback from previous groups that the amount of walking in the heat all day is too much, we are lucky to have a bus to take us.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square but we didn’t hear of any particular activities. It is the largest public square in the world with a monument to the People’s Heroes and Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in the centre, Tiananmen Gate (or Gate of Heavenly Peace) to the north, National Museum of China to the east, Zhengyangmen Gate Tower to the south and the Great Hall of the People to the west.
After a group photo in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we head through to the Meridian gate into the Forbidden City, designed to be the centre of the ancient walled city of Beijing. It is called the Forbidden City because in the Ming and Qing Dynasties no commoners were permitted to enter – it was the preserve of the Emperor and his entourage. There is a Hall of Supreme Harmony where invited high ranking officials and other dignitaries were able to meet with the Emperor when he held court or on ceremonial occasions but beyond this area only the royal family and their servants were permitted – the Palace of Heavenly Purity.
The Forbidden City is designed to impress and it certainly does. As you enter the imposing Meridian Gate, a courtyard opens up in front of you with the meandering Inner Golden Water River, which is crossed by five bridges, in the middle and the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the rear. Passing through that gate you enter the absolutely spectacular Hall of Supreme Harmony Square with three tiers of white marble terrace leading up to the enormous Hall of Supreme Harmony and behind that the smaller Hall of Central Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony. There are ceremonial ramps leading up the tiers and one of these has a carving made from a single piece of stone over 16m long, 3m wide, and 1.5m thick.
At the north end of this square is another gate leading through to the smaller Inner Court which houses another three halls that were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress: the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. And at the north end of the inner court is the Imperial Garden.
At that time the Empress, the concubines and the eunuchs were restricted to being within these walls for the whole of their lives. I am particularly interested to see this area because I have been reading “The Dowager Empress Cixi” by Jung Chang. This is an absolutely fascinating read that describes life at that time and is based on documents recently released that shed a whole new light on this inspiring woman who has been much maligned in popular history. Unfortunately we don’t have time to see all of the smaller buildings but we do exit through the gardens that were bigger than I had imagined.
From the Forbidden City, our bus takes us to the Pearl Market area (avoiding a hot 45 minute ride on a local bus) where we have lunch and people can do any last minute shopping. As the name suggests, there are multiple levels of jewellery stores with an amazing array of pearls and other gemstone jewellery – mostly well out of my budget. There are also bags, clothes, sunglasses and just about anything you could want to buy, as well as a huge food court area.
Then we drive to the Temple of Heaven park. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and I love the description: “A masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations. The symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.”
In ancient China, the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven, who administered earthly matters on behalf of heavenly authority. To be seen to be showing respect to Heaven through sacrifices at the Temple was extremely important. At the winter solstice the Emperor would move from the Forbidden City to the complex, wearing special robes and abstaining from eating meat. No ordinary people were allowed to view this procession or the ceremony. In the temple complex the Emperor would personally pray to Heaven for good harvests. The ceremony had to be perfectly completed: the smallest of mistakes was believed to constitute a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year. There are now exhibitions showing the ritual of how this was conducted and recorded.
The Temple grounds now are a huge park with three main groups of buildings:
- The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a spectacular round building, built on a base three levels of marble stone, where the Emperor prayed for good harvests.
- The Imperial Vault of Heaven is similar but much smaller. It is surrounded by a smooth circular ‘Echo Wall’ that can reportedly transmit sound over large distances but there were too many people there for us to try it out.
- The Circular Mound Altar is the altar proper. It is a circular platform on three levels of marble stones decorated by carved dragons. In the center of the altar is a round stone called the Heart of Heaven where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather.
There are huge gardens here and many people come here just to enjoy the park. It has a reputation for being ‘free daycare for the elderly” as entry is free for retirees. Here we see people enjoying Sunday afternoon dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, doing Tai Chi, and playing cards or Chinese chess.
Despite having our bus transfer, we have done nearly 20,000 steps and it is very hot so most of us are wilting and looking forward to a shower and a rest. Jing has booked for Emily and I to go to a show on “The Legend of Kung Fu” (Chris and Fran were going to come too but decided that they need an early night). Jing takes us to the theatre using a Chinese ‘Uber’-like service on her way to having dinner with a friend. We aren’t quite sure what to expect but are very impressed with the very professional performance that is a mixture of song, dance, acrobatics, story telling and of course Kung Fu demonstrations. It tells the story of the legend of Chun Yi and his journey to full enlightenment through Kung Fu. There are several young boys in the show who are delightfully cheeky and enchant us with their acrobatic skills including a series of back flips where they land on their heads rather than their hands. The adult performers are extremely strong and flexible, and we are astounded and somewhat horrified by some of their moves – in one, one man lies down across 3 sharp swords, has a double sided bed of nails put on his stomach, another man lies on top and a concrete block put on top of him, and the block then struck and broken with a large mallet (!!!!).
After the show we manage to hail a taxi and (thanks to Jing’s instructions) get back to the hotel. We find an ATM for Emily nearby and then retire to bed for an early start in the morning.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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