One of Beijing’s most visited sights, the immense park of the Summer Palace requires at least half a day. Nowadays teeming with tour groups from China and beyond, this dominion of palace temples, gardens, pavilions, and lakes was once a playground for the imperial court. Royalty came here to elude the insufferable summer heat that roasted the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace with its cool features – water, gardens and hills – was the palace of choice for vacationing emperors and Dowager Empresses. It was badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War (1860) and its restoration became a pet project of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last of the Qing dynasty rulers. Money earmarked for a modern navy was used for the project but, in a bit of whimsical irony, the only thing that was completed was the restoration of a marble boat. The boat now sits at the edge of the lake in all its immobile and nonmilitary glory. The Palace’s full restoration was hampered by the disintegration of the Qing dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion. The place is packed to the gunwales in summer, with Beijing residents taking full advantage of Kunming Lake, which takes up three-quarters of the park. The main building is the lyrically named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, while along the north shore is the Long Corridor, with over 700m (2300ft) of corridor filled with mythical paintings and scenes. If some of the paintings have a newer patina, that’s because many of the murals were painted over during the Cultural Revolution.
Temple of Heaven
More park than temple and fairly overrun with tour groups, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) is well worth a visit for its exceptional Ming buildings. This sight has become a symbol of Beijing, decorating tourist literature and loaning its name to products ranging from tiger balm to plumbing fixtures. The temple was built in 1420 as a vast stage for the solemn rites performed by the Son of Heaven (the emperor), who came here to pray for good harvests, to seek divine approval and to atone for the sins of the people. Similar ceremonies were performed as early as 2600BC and remained an important part of imperial life through to the early 20th century. The dominant feature of the whole complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a magnificent piece mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace. Amazingly, the wooden pillars support the ceiling without nails or cement – for a building 38m (125ft) high and 30m (98ft) in diameter, that’s quite an accomplishment. The hall was hit by a lightning bolt during the reign of Guangxu in 1889 and a faithful reproduction based on Ming architectural methods was erected the following year.
This is the world’s largest public square, the size of 90 American football fields (40 hectares/99 acres), with standing room for 300,000 people. It is surrounded by the Forbidden City in the north, the Great Hall of the People in the west, and the museums of Chinese History and Chinese Revolution in the east. In the center of the square stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes (Renmin Yingxiong Jinian Bei), a 37m (124-ft.) granite obelisk erected in 1958, engraved with scenes from famous uprisings and bearing a central inscription (in Mao’s handwriting): THE PEOPLE’S HEROES ARE IMMORTAL. The twin-tiered dais is said to be an intentional contrast to the imperial preference for three-tiered platforms; the yin of the people’s martyrs contrasted with the yang of the emperors.
The area on which the square stands was originally occupied by the Imperial Way — a central road that stretched from inside the Forbidden City, through Tian’an Men, and south to Da Qing Men (known as Zhonghua Men during the Nationalist era), which was demolished to make way for Mao’s corpse in 1976. This road, lined on either side with imperial government ministries, was the site of the pivotal May Fourth movement (1919), in which thousands of university students gathered to protest the weakness and corruption of China’s then-Republican government. Mao ordered destruction of the old ministries. The vast but largely empty Great Hall of the People rose from the rubble to the west, and equally vast but unimpressive museums were erected to the east, as part of a spate of construction to celebrate 10 years of Communist rule. But the site has remained a magnet for politically charged assemblies; the most famous was the gathering of student protestors in late spring of 1989. That movement, and the government’s violent suppression of it, still defines Tiananmen Square in most minds. You’ll search in vain for bullet holes and bloodstains. The killing took place elsewhere. Brutal scenes were witnessed near Fuxing Men and Xi Dan (west of the square), as workers and students were shot in the back as the regime showed its true colors, bringing a halt to a decade of intermittent political reform. Today, stiff-backed soldiers, video cameras, and plain-clothed police still keep a close watch on the square.
If you only visit one temple after the Temple of Heaven, this should be it. A complex of progressively larger buildings topped with ornate yellow-tiled roofs, Yong He Gong was built in 1694 and originally belonged to the Qing prince who would become the Yongzheng emperor. As was the custom, the complex was converted to a temple after Yongzheng’s move to the Forbidden City in 1744. The temple is home to several rather beautiful incense burners, including a particularly ornate one in the second courtyard that dates back to 1746. The Falun Dian (Hall of the Wheel of Law), second to last of the major buildings, contains a 6m (20-ft.) bronze statue of Tsongkapa (1357-1419), the founder of the reformist Yellow Hat (Geluk) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which is now the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism. He’s easily recognized by his pointed cap with long earflaps. The last of the five central halls, the Wanfu Ge (Tower of Ten Thousand Happinesses), houses the temple’s prize possession — an ominous Tibetan-style statue of Maitreya (the future Buddha), 18m (60 ft.) tall, carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. Once something of a circus, Yong He Gong is slowly starting to feel like a place of worship, as there are now many Chinese devotees of Tibetan Buddhism.
Originally built in 1273, marking the center of the old Mongol capital Dadu, the tower has been repeatedly destroyed and restored. Climb up the incredibly steep steps for long views over Beijing’s rooftops. The drums of this later Ming dynasty version were beaten to mark the hours of the day – in effect the Big Ben of Beijing. The building came close to ruin during the Cultural Revolution, when it was reviled as an artifact from a feudal past. The Drum Tower has survived both Swiss engineering and Maoist scorn and are now protected treasures. On display is a large array of drums, including the large and dilapidated Night Watchman’s Drum (being one of the five two-hour divisions of the night) and a large array of reproduction drums.
The Forbidden City, so-called because it was off-limits to most of the world for 500 years, is the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. The old world of concubines and emperors, eunuchs and conspicuous wealth still hovers over the lush gardens, courtyards, pavilions and great halls of the palace. Most of the buildings are post-18th century; there have been periodic losses due to an injudicious mix of lantern festivals and Gobi winds, invading Manchus and, in this century, pillaging and looting by both the Japanese forces and the Kuomintang. A permanent restoration squad takes about 10 years to renovate its 720,000 square meters, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms, by which time it’s time to start all over again. The palatial former living quarters now function as museums. Opening hours are irregular and no photos are allowed without prior permission.
Beijing Underground City
By 1969, as the USA landed men on the moon, Mao had decided the future for Beijing’s people lay underground. Alarmist predictions of nuclear war with Russia dispatched an army of Chinese beneath the streets to burrow a huge warren of bombproof tunnels which has now been put to use as warehouses, hotels and restaurants. There are roughly 90 entrances to the complex, all of which are hidden in shops along Qianmen’s main streets. A fluorescent wall map reveals the routing of the entire tunnel system. You can visit a section of the tunnels and, although there’s not much to see, you’ll pass chambers labeled with their original function (cinema, hospital, arsenal, etc.) as well as flood-proof gates. You can also make out signposts to major landmarks accessed by the tunnels (Tiananmen Sq, the Forbidden City), but these routes are inaccessible.