Beijing is the capital of China, but it’s not the largest city. That may seem surprising given the population of over 25 million people and considering the never ending traffic congestion. Beijing is not only the cultural and political center of China but is home to over 100 of China’s largest companies. Its economy is based on the high-end manufacturing and service sectors. The tourism, media and IT industries are particularly prosperous in the Chinese capital. Although it does not have any exchanges for securities or other financial derivatives, Beijing is where China’s market watchdogs and regulators are based. Alongside Shanghai, Beijing attracts multinational companies to base their China or Asia-Pacific headquarters as it is said “If you want market go to Shanghai; if you want connections with the government go to Beijing.”
We weren’t visiting to do business; rather, we had two days and two nights as tourists to see as much as possible, so we crammed in the highlights: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City/Imperial Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall and the Summer Palace.
On our first day, which was rainy, we were met at the airport by our private tour guide Lisa from a company we found ranked #1 on Trip Advisor, “Tours by Jessie.” We immediately drove from the airpot to Tiananmen Square but made a quick stop at Starbucks for some caffeinated energy to boost our dampened spirits from the rain. Thanks to the raindrops from above, the tourist traffic was extremely low.
Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the center of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the square on October 1, 1949; the anniversary of this event is still observed there. Tiananmen Square is within the top ten largest city squares in the world (109 acres). It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history.
Outside China, the square is best known in recent memory as the focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended on June 4, 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the shooting of several hundred, or possibly thousands, of civilians by soldiers.
After solemnly strolling through the square, we visited the Forbidden City, which is also the former Imperial Palace that served as the Emperor’s estate. Lying at the city center and called Gu Gong in Chinese, it was the Imperial Palace for twenty-four emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was first built throughout 14 years during the reign of Emperor Chengzu in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Ancient Chinese Astronomers believed that the Purple Star (Polaris) was in the center of heaven and the Heavenly Emperor lived in the Purple Palace. The Palace for the emperor on earth was so called the Purple City. It was forbidden to enter without special permission of the emperor. Hence its name “The Purple Forbidden City,” usually “The Forbidden City.”
Now known as the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City is to the north of Tiananmen Square. Rectangular in shape, it is the world’s largest palace complex and covers 183 acres. Surrounded by a 170 foot-wide moat and a 33-foot-high wall are more than 8,700 rooms. The wall has a gate on each side. There are unique and delicately structured towers on each of the four corners of the curtain wall. These afford views over both the palace and the city outside.
Next we visited the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is considered the most holy of Beijing’s imperial temples. It has been described as a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design. The Temple of Heaven has also been listed as World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
The Temple of Heaven was built in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1420) by the emperor Zhu Di in the royal garden. Once a year, at winter solstice, the emperors came here to worship Heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest. Since his rule was legitimized by a perceived mandate from Heaven, a bad harvest could be interpreted as his fall from Heaven’s favor and threaten the stability of his reign. So, it was not without a measure of self-interest that the emperor fervently prayed for a very good crop.
In line with the Confucianist revival during the Ming dynasty, the sacred harvest ceremony was combined with the emperor’s worship of his ancestors. According to the Confucian pattern of social organization, just as the emperor respected his ancestors, so a younger brother should respect an elder brother, a wife her husband, a son his father, and a nation’s subjects their ruler.
Incorporating ancestor worship within the most solemn ceremony of the imperial ritual calendar indirectly reinforced the social philosophy that preserved the emperor’s power.
The design of the Temple of Heaven complex, true to its sacred purpose, reflects the mystical cosmological laws believed to be central to the workings of the universe. Both the overall arrangement and the buildings themselves reflect the relationship between sky and earth, the core of understanding of the Universe at that time. Hence, complex numerological permutations operate within its design. For example, because the number nine was considered to be the most powerful, the slabs forming the Circular Altar have been laid in multiples of nine.
Similarly, within the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the interior twenty-eight columns are divided into four central pillars to represent the seasons, twelve inner columns to represent the months, and twelve outer columns to represent the two hour sections that make up a day. There are many such examples of this intense numerology at play. Another interesting fact is that the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is built completely without nails.
After a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep at the Beijing Ritz Carlton, in the Chao Yang District (the district, itself, is larger than Singapore), we awoke early to have a breakfast before driving about two-and-a-half hours with our guide to one of the seven wonder’s of the world, The Great Wall of China. We were blessed with 70 degree weather, blue skies and plenty of sunshine.
There are several options for a visit to The Great Wall, and we did our research ahead of time. We chose Jinshanling because it is relatively isolated, and, consequently, less crowded. Its terrain offers breathtaking views and photo opportunities of the wall snaking across the mountainside. The Great Wall at Jinshanling was initially built from 1368 to 1389 in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and in 1567 and 1570 rebuilding of the Wall was mainly directed by General Qi Jiguang (1528–1588).
Poems and tablet writings can be found on the Great Wall there, left from the time when Qi Jiguang directed its rebuilding. The Great Wall at Jinshanling is one of the best preserved parts of the Great Wall with many original features. It got its name because it was built on the Greater and Lesser Jinshan (‘Gold Mountain’) Ranges. A tablet with the Chinese inscription for “Jinshanling Great Wall” was set into this section.
The most special features of this section are the 31 watchtowers. According to the different terrain, the watchtowers were built in different shapes: tall or short, rectangular or square, with three to five embrasures. Most watchtowers are one or two floors.
Jinshanling is also a favorite of hikers. Though some of the steps on the Wall are very steep and uneven with loose stones at times, the Jinshanling section is still very safe. A private tour, with experienced tour guide and driver, will mean you won’t have to waste time on transport, getting lost, or worrying about emergencies. In fact, we were able to drive the three hours from Jinshanling to the Summer Palace the same day because we had an experienced private tour guide and driver.
Destroyed during the Second Opium War of the 1850s, it was reconstructed by Emperor Guangxu for use by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace. Although damaged again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 it was restored and has been a public park since 1924. The central feature of the Administrative area, the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity is approached through the monumental East Palace Gate. The connecting Residential area comprises three building complexes: the Halls of Happiness in Longevity, Jade Ripples and Yiyun, all built up against the Hill of Longevity, with fine views over the lake. These are linked by roofed corridors (containing some 800 paintings) that connect to the Great Stage to the east and to the Long Corridor to the West. In front of the Hall of Happiness in Longevity a wooden quay gave access by water for the Imperial family to their quarters.
The Summer Palace is a monument to classical Chinese architecture, in terms of both garden design and construction. Borrowing scenes from surrounding landscapes, it radiates not only the grandeur of an imperial garden but also the beauty of nature in a seamless combination that best illustrates the guiding principle of traditional Chinese garden design: “The works of men should match the works of Heaven.”
This tradition continues today, as the city of Beijing is covered in roses everywhere you look. Even in the medians on the expressways, there are perfectly manicured gardens with roses, rocks and bonsai trees, framed by perfectly trimmed hedges. If only they could do something about the traffic and curtail the surprisingly high number of Chinese people who still smoke, Beijing would match the works of heaven. There is world-class sight-seeing, shopping, dining and accommodations.