Reflections on Rapidly-Changing Beijing


An excerpt from "China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture" by May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai.

Beijing, formerly known as Peking, is the capital of China and perhaps China's most famous city. Because of the 2008 Summer Olympics games, the city has experienced a massive influx of government cash so that it will become China's massive showcase to the world. As soon as the International Olympic Committee announced Beijing as its choice in 2001 for the 2008 games, the government announced a new goal: that each resident of the city would learn one hundred English phrases. Construction of the massive and impressively modern Olympic facilities began soon after. As a result, such architectural wonders as those dubbed "the Bird's Nest" (the National Stadium) and "the Water Cube" (the National Aquatics Center) have been keenly debated in popular and architectural journals around the world for their avant-garde designs. The city has also revamped its public transportation system so that several million people will be able to be transported daily from Beijing's hotels to the Olympic events on the outskirts of the city.

Beyond the obvious appeal of the Olympics, Beijing is a most fascinating city that has been at the center of some of history's most important events. The most visible architectural wonders date from the last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), when the Manchus who ruled China left their distinctive cultural aesthetics on the city. In addition to the Forbidden City, where the various emperors traditionally lived, the imperial family's pleasure palaces remain as well, including the Summer Palace, with its multicolored, exquisitely painted buildings, lush grounds, and perhaps most impressive of all, Marble Boat, which the Empress Dowager Cixi famously built using the funds supposedly earmarked to build a real navy for China in the last nineteenth century. Prince Gong's Mansion, the garden palace of one of the princes from the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1851-62) is every bit as opulent as Versailles, with its lakes, swans, halls, and private opera house (with daily performances for visitors), as well as mysterious life-prolonging feng shui symbols like the bat-shaped pond, the Longevity Pavilion, and calligraphy carved into stone. Domestic tourists from as far away as the Burma border flock to this exotic place, so it is also a fabulous place to people watch, as Han Chinese and ethnic minority tourists far outnumber Westerners.

For even older historical sites, one can visit the Ming dynasty (1388-1643) Drum Tower or the many altars of the Temple of Heaven, which also has the famed Echo Wall, where a word whispered at one end of the curved wall can be heard at the other end.

Even older yet, the Mongol-built Beihai Park, which is believed to have been the original location of Kublai Khan's palace, now holds many historical treasures including the White Degoba—built for a seventeenth-century visit by the Dalai Lama—and the famed Nine Dragons Screen, a symbol of imperial power.

Because Beijing was the capital of China under Mongol, Han, and Manchu rule (three different ethnicities), the city's diversity is present in its architectural history. It is likewise very obviously diverse in the present. There are mosques, Daoist temples, Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and of course the most famous landmarks of Communist party power.

The Great Hall of the People, located on the western side of Tiananmen Square, is where the National People's Congress meets. Also off Tiananmen, Mao's portrait still hangs on the Gate of the Heavenly Peace, where Mao first proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. And Chairman Mao himself is still available for viewing, as his mausoleum is located on the southern end of Tiananmen.

For those interested in contemporary politics, the vast Tiananmen Square, where pro-democracy demonstrators lived, danced, and were driven away at gunpoint in 1989, is fully open to the public. Today, however, families are more apt to be flying kites, riding bicycles, or taking pictures in front of Mao's portrait than staging political protests and the square is well guarded by soldiers and plainclothes policemen.

Of course, Beijing is also a very modern city replete with dance clubs, jazz clubs, bars, world-class restaurants, art museums, galleries, shopping malls, glittering five-star hotels, Western and Beijing opera houses, and all the other hallmarks of contemporary urban society. However, it would be a shame to visit Beijing without investigating some of the city's remaining hutongsmazelike alleys with courtyard homes that represent the nonimperial, pre-Communist Party Beijing, the true essence of Beijing's residents. Most of the hutongs have been razed to make way for businesses and high-rise apartment buildings, but near the Forbidden City, a historical zone has been created to preserve some of Beijing's most famous indigenous architecture.


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