The Mesmerizing Grandeur of China’s Great Wall and Forbidden City

“Ye Ye, don’t forget you promise to take us to climb the Great Wall of China and to see the Forbidden City in Beijing. Shall we go during this May-June school holidays?”. Our eight-year old grandson, CE, reminded me at the beginning of this year. This was immediately echoed by his four-year old sister LT. The two kids looked at me intently and expectantly for a favourable response. After consulting my wife and their parents, I said “Yes, we shall all go to Beijing during the May-June school vacation.” You could well imagine the unconcealed delight on their faces and they spontaneously hugged me lovingly and thanked me for keeping my promise. My honour stayed intact with them! From then on, our grandchildren began to take a keener interest in China and the world-renowned historic monuments in Beijing where we will spend an entire week sightseeing.This would enable us to cover the best known of these sights leisurely, among them are several coveted World Heritage Sites awarded by UNESCO, the cultural and educational arm of the United Nations. After many a weekend family lunch or dinner at our house, during which CE and LT were completely captivated listening to my stories about the legends of the Great Wall and the other famous sights of Beijing which will soon become very real and palpable to them. After what seemed to them a long wait, 29th May 2010 finally arrived and the six of us embarked on this Beijing discovery tour to educate our grandchildren on the history of their ancestral land.

Beijing, the capital of the Peoples’ Republic of China since its founding in 1949, has had a glorious but turbulent history. It was successively the capital of Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, spanning the 13th to the early 20th centuries. It is a relatively well-preserved ancient city with a population of 15-million. It is also a very modern metropolis with high-rise buildings and mega shopping malls sprouting out in all directions both within and outside the inner city. Those who had seen Beijing prior to the 1990s would now find it difficult to recognise the modern city of today. Fortunately for all who love Beijing, despite extensive demolitions of the centuries-old hallmark quadrangle-shaped hutong dwellings in the narrow lanes and alleys of the old city to make way for development, some parts of the old Beijing have been skilfully preserved for posterity to remind visitors of the original face of this colourful and fascinating ancient capital of China.

On our first day in Beijing, CE astutely remarked that the Mandarin spoken by the locals seemed different from that he was accustomed to back home in Singapore but was nevertheless quite intelligible to him. As our eldest grandchild, his parents had assigned my wife and I the unenviable task of giving him a reasonable foundation in Chinese, which would give him a good start when he enters the Nanyang Primary School, noted for its tradition of bilingual education, which his father and his two elder brothers attended in their younger days. Our joys and frustrations teaching him Chinese and Mandarin from the age of two-plus to four-plus can be gleaned from my earlier postings in August ’03 and May ’07. As our hard-earned reward, it has given us much satisfaction that, now in Primary 3, his attainment in Chinese is comparable to the level of his brighter classmates. He and his sister are growing up in an overwhelmingly English-speaking environment as this universal language is commonly spoken by many Singaporeans both at home and at work and it is increasingly the vehicle of communication among the multiethnic population that resides in this cosmopolitan city-state, just as in the United States. My wife and I later also taught LT the rudiments of Chinese language until she attended kindergarten last year. Even now, we have continued to speak to them only in Mandarin in the hope that they will become bilingual by choice later in life. To my delight, they immediately took to Beijing like fish to water and they were proud to show off their limited vocabulary in Mandarin whenever the opportunity presented itself.

We planned our tour programmes carefully in order to maximise our enjoyment of the capital’s renowned landmarks and not cramming too much into a day’s itinerary. As May and June are the start of the peak tourist season in Beijing, we decided not to go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the two most popular sights there, on our first weekend as tens of thousands of domestic and international tourists would descend on them and we would have to jostle with the throngs to have a close-up look at these two man-made wonders. This would have decidedly spoiled our appreciation of them and greatly disappointed the two kids. To experience and savour these places at our own pace on a weekday with much smaller crowds would therefore be a prudent and preferred option. To enhance one’s sightseeing pleasures, a comfortable and good pair of walking shoes is indispensable so as to withstand hours of standing and walking as nearly all the popular spots there are invariably vast in space. After a tasty dumplings and noodles lunch, we were ready to begin our Beijing adventure by going to the world-renowned Temple of Heaven, a world Heritage Site, which we the adults believed would be a good introduction to Beijing for the two youngsters.

Temple of Heaven

Completed in 1420 after 14 years of construction work, and later renovated and expanded during the 16th and 18th centuries, the Temple of Heaven complex occupies 2.7 million sq m of parkland and is twice the size of the Forbidden City complex, the seat of imperial power and the residence of the reigning monarch, which was also completed at the same time. This is so because the formidable Ming Emperor Yongle, who had this temple complex built humbly and piously, directed that his own royal palace must be much smaller in size than the abode of Heaven itself. The Chinese Emperor adopted the title “Son of Heaven” to emphasize his authority was conferred by heaven. The temple complex comprises three core structures, as well as several shrines and monuments, which collectively are called the Temple of Heaven. It is an architectural marvel worthy of the conferment of World Heritage Site status by UNESCO whose citation reads “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 civilisations …”. It is the most holy and revered of temples in China and a must-see when visiting Beijing.

Perfect in architectural proportions and craftsmanship and built with the finest quality wood throughout without using nails, the three core components  of the Temple of Heaven, comprising the Hall of Prayer For Bountiful Harvests, the Imperial Vault Of Heaven  and the Altar of Heaven are all circular in shape because the ancient Chinese believed that heaven was round and they sat on square-shaped areas below representing the earth. These temple buildings have roofs that are tiled blue in colour, reflecting the colour of heaven and sky. Separate ancient temples for sun, moon and earth were also constructed elsewhere in the capital.

Hall Of Prayer For Bountiful Harvests

This is a three-gabled structure measuring 38m in height. It is complimented by a circular three-tiered terraces of white marble base, with steps connecting one level to another. The Hall’s interior is wholly adorned with exquisite and colourful decorations and supported by 28 huge ornate columns representing the twelve months of the year, the twelve shicheng (hours) of the day by Chinese computation and the four seasons of the year. There is a ceremonial throne strategically placed in this vast hall. It is in this hall that the Emperor would pray to heaven annually to bestow good harvests in the year ahead. This is by far the most imposing and magnificent building of all within the complex and stands proudly visible from all directions. Visitors are not allowed in this hall and in the Imperial Vault of Heaven for preservation reasons. Our grandson was completely captivated by it, and took a long final look at it before leaving it.

Imperial Vault Of Heaven

This is a single-gabled building sitting on a white marble ground and it is smaller in dimension than the Hall of Prayer for Bountiful Harvests but no less elegant and alluring. It is encircled by the famed long Echo Wall, well-known for its acoustical qualities. If one whispers something at one end of the wall another person can hear it at the other end and vice versa. Much to my grandchildren’s dismay a barrier was put up to prevent access to the wall itself in order to prevent vandalism or other forms of abuse of it as had happened before the barrier was erected.

Altar of Heaven

This is a circular mound altar which stands on an empty triple-level white marble platform, also with steps connecting one level to another. This was where the Emperor would pray to heaven for good weather throughout his domains in the year ahead.

Before China became a republic in 1911, the Emperor, accompanied by his large entourage of officials, eunuchs and other palace servants (no females allowed) would make his twice yearly journey to the Temple of Heaven from his royal residence at the Forbidden City to pay homage to his heavenly father. Beijing residents en route must stay indoors as they were not allowed to watch the royal procession. Before embarking on this spiritual mission, he must abstain from any sexual activities for a prescribed period in order to cleanse his body and soul. After the Emperor’s arrival at the temple complex, he would stay in the royal quarters for an obligatory period and partake of only austere vegetarian meals during his pilgrimage there to demonstrate his sincerity and piety. At the auspicious time and date carefully chosen by the royal astrologer, the Son of Heaven would then beseech heaven for good harvests at the Hall of Prayer For Bountiful Harvests and for favourable weather at the Altar Of Heaven. Whether his heavenly father would grant the Emperor his petitions would be eagerly awaited not only by the Emperor and his court officials but also by his millions of subjects spread all over his extensive empire. As an agriculture based economy, weather conditions would determine whether the country was going to have a good or bad year. If a bad year ensued this would be perceived by the populace that the Emperor and his officials had failed to rule the land justly and effectively and therefore heaven had shown its anger by not answering the Emperor’s prayers in the way he and his subjects had yearned for. Worse still, if a bad year was followed by famines or other natural calamities like devastating earthquakes or widespread flooding, this could well be seen as a clear sign that the Emperor’s mandate from heaven to rule his country  had been forfeited  because he had shown himself to be unjust and incompetent and therefore an unworthy ruler. Such a situation could lead to popular uprisings to overthrow his dynasty and replace it with a more just and benign one. This had happened time and again in the course of Chinese history to even those once might dynasties like Tang, Yuan and Ming.

After having spent more than three hours at this complex, our grandchildren had truly enjoyed their first excursion immensely. They were most impressed with the grand structures and monuments there, but was sorely disappointed that they were not allowed inside the Temple of Heaven buildings and also they did not get to test the magic of the Echo Wall. They hoped that they would have an even more enjoyable adventure the next day at the Great Wall, which had already captured their curiosity and interest for almost a year as the highlight of their forthcoming vacation in Beijing.

Great Wall

We rose early the next morning in order to get to the Badaling sector of the Great Wall before the large crowds of other tourists get there. This is the most popular, best preserved and most accessible portion of the Great Wall from Beijing, about 90 minutes drive from the city centre. On the return journey we would see the Ming Tombs. We hired a 7-seater mini van and a bilingual tour guide from our hotel so as to make this memorable trip more interesting and informative for the two excited kids. The genial guide, Xiao Li, and our grandchildren hit it off immediately and they could converse with him in a mixture of Mandarin and English. Xiao Li had no problems answering all sorts of questions my grandson put to him about China. It was a misty day and traffic along the superb expressway was light and we arrived at our destination in good time. Thankfully, the mist suddenly lifted and the day brightened up. There are a number of entrances to the Great Wall, the most commercial one has a cable car network taking less energetic tourists to and from the wall with less walking. The experienced Xiao Li chose an entrance that was less used by the large tour groups so that we could have a more relaxed time to savour the wall and its scenic splendour. My wife and I had been to Badaling twice before in the past decades, once with our three boys when they were teenagers. The Great Wall was commissioned by the cruel but dynamic First Emperor more than 2200 years ago and was built on the hilly region of Northern China to safeguard the Chinese borders against the invading  Mongol, Manchu and other nomadic tribes. Hardly any part of the original wall remains today. Hundreds of thousands of conscripted labourers from all over the country were forced into constructing this gigantic wall in record time at the expense of thousands of lives. A popular legend is that a persistent and loving wife made arduous journeys to one of the sites where her husband was stationed only to be told that he had died of sickness there. Distressed beyond words she broke down and wept uncontrollably and the wall where he was buried beneath suddenly collapsed revealing the body of her late husband. She buried him properly and then committed suicide to join him in the afterlife. She became a household name in China and a shrine was later built in her memory at her hometown.  The Great Wall underwent very extensive revamp and reinforcement with bricks and stones to replace the original rammed earth and wood work structure during the 15th century and so the Badaling wall that we see today is essentially a Ming wall. The Great Wall had proved effective to keep off invaders until the 17th century when a disloyal Chinese general opened one of the wall gates to the invading Manchu armies and they managed to overthrow the fast declining Ming dynasty and founded the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911 when China became a republic. The Great Wall had numerous signal watch towers at different sectors to warn Chinese commanders and soldiers stationed there of any approaching invaders.

The first sight of the Great Wall almost took our breaths away. Our two grandchildren simply stared at the majestic wall in front of them silently for a while before CE said to me, “Ye Ye, what a big and beautiful wall this is! I can’t believe we are here at last. Shall we start climbing it right away?” Xiao Li then suggested that we would all climb up the wall leisurely until we reached the first watch tower at a hilltop, covering a distance of close to 1.5 km. After we had rested and seen enough of the scenery, we would start descending carefully as this would be more difficult than going up. The well-paved brick walkway was almost 10 m wide, with steps and railings on both sides for ease of walking and for safety. The kids were enjoying themselves being held by the hands by Xiao Li for the climb up and listening to his stories of the Great Wall and asking him questions every now and again whenever something interested them. The first 20 minutes walk up was quite easy and fun, as we chatted, stopped to admire the scenic beauty around us or to rest for a while or to pose for photographs. From then on the ascent became more demanding and steep .My wife and I then began to pant a bit shortly after passing the halfway mark. We decided not to go any further up as our tired bodies seemed to be warning us. Twenty years ago, to get to the top would have been a breeze for us. Xiao Li turned round and remarked sympathetically, “Uncle and aunty, you can’t fight against your venerable age, you know. You have already done better than many of your age”. With a tinge of envy, we watched the five of them quickening their pace up the wall without us and, before long, the two competitive youngsters were waving at us vigorously and triumphantly from the watch tower just ahead of their parents who had lovingly let them forge ahead of them to make them feel good! Walking on the steps going downhill, while easy for the rest, was even more challenging for my wife and I than ascending the wall and we had to hold on to the railings firmly until we were nearing the bottom of the entrance to the wall. As soon as we had completed the Great Wall climb, CE declared proudly, “Having gone up to the watch tower, Xiao Li said I am now a real man, no longer a boy. I can’t wait to tell all my friends and classmates of LT’s and my achievements.”  I patted my grandchildren on their shoulders and flashed a “V” sign at them, and that was reward enough for them. Our more than two hours at Badaling was an exhilarating experience for both our grandchildren and it will remain firmly etched in their memories for a long time to come.

Ming Tombs

On the return journey, we dropped in at the Ming Tombs, another World Heritage Site, to complete our sightseeing programme for the day. This is where 13 of the 17 Ming dynasty monarchs were buried in a huge expanse of premium land with a commanding landscape. It is the largest of all royal burial grounds in China. The site was personally chosen by the third Ming Emperor Yongle, who ruled China from 1403 to 1428, based on auspicious fengshui (art of geomancy) guidelines. All the 13 tombs are identical in plan, design and layout, but that of Emperor Yongle’s is the largest and the grandest of them all. His mausoleum complex took more than five years to complete under his watchful supervision. Of all the tombs  there, only that of emperor Wanli’s (Dingling) had been excavated but the artifacts found had been removed to a museum nearby and elsewhere for safekeeping. The empty tomb was closed to the public when we were there. Only Changling, the tomb complex of Yongle Emperor, and Zhaoling were opened to the public. To get to the Changling mausoleum, one must pass through an impressive seven-kilometer long Spirit Way, which is lined with life-sized stone statues of court officials, eunuchs and guardian animals of superb craftsmanship fit for an emperor. It immediately fascinated our grandchildren and we stopped to admire them closely. At the complex proper, we strolled through a series of imposing gates, pavilions, a tower and halls spread over three courtyards before, finally, reaching the round burial mound itself. This permanent resting place of the Emperor and his two empresses is one km in circumference and enclosed within a circular wall. Within the complex are 22 other tombs belonging to Emperor Yongle’s secondary consorts.

This Emperor is best remembered by posterity  for making China the most powerful maritime nation in the word during his reign and for spreading the fame and power of his country throughout South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and as far as East Africa. He did this by appointing the capable and trusted Admiral Zhenghe to command six epoch-making voyages between 1405 and 1428 to these countries to spread goodwill and power of China and to promote two-way trade between his country and theirs. These voyages were a resounding success and many of these far away countries started to send regular envoys to China bearing tributes and had continued to do so long after Emperor Yongle and Zhenghe had passed away. As a result of these maritime expeditions, more Chinese began to emigrate overseas, especially to Southeast Asia, and they were welcomed and well treated by the natives of these lands because of China’s prestige. The Admiral’s fleets had between 200 and 250 ships and a naval personnel of between 25,000 and 27,000, the like of which had not been seen before or since until the advent of World War I in 1914. The Chinese fleets, which predated the Westerners’ Voyages of Discovery by almost 90 years, completely outshone their small fleets and tiny crews of that period.

The top attraction of Changling is the Hall of Eminent Favours, which will bedazzle even the most discriminating visitors. It has two major claims to fame. It is the largest hall of wood structure in China, and was wholly constructed of the rarest of nanmu (camphor wood). Its gargantuan dimension exceeds the largest hall at the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. On entering this Changling hall, I was immediately struck by its intimidating size and the numerous fine columns, beams and brackets which firmly support the edifice. Its floor tiles are made of expensive gold-plated bricks which only royalty could afford and it still gives a glittering effect after a time lapse of 600 years. It is now a museum. Among the exhibits there are those that record Emperor Yongle’s illustrious life and significant achievements. Prominent among the many other exhibits are those depicting Admiral Zhenghe’s historic overseas voyages referred to earlier and their significance in Chinese history.  Others include the treasures and artifacts of the Yongle reign, some of the treasures found in the royal tomb of Dingling as well as rare objects brought back by the Admiral from his epic sea voyages.

On our journey back to our hotel, Xiao Li and our grandchildren had already established a bond between them. Our grandson then spontaneously started to recite popular Chinese proverbs and poems that he had learnt from me and from his teachers to the guide who was not only familiar with them but could also regale my grandson with the stories behind them. He graciously complimented my grandson for his ability to cite them fluently, just like young school children in China. I told CE half in jest that I would reward him with ten RMB if he could recite a less popular proverb that would stump Xiao Li. After repeated failures to do so, Xiao Li, in order to spur him on, then pretended that the last proverb cited had finally defeated him in order that CE could proudly claim the monetary incentive from me! This made CE feel really on top of the world and Xiao Li’s sporting gesture had succeeded in stimulating my grandson’s interest in Chinese proverbs and poems. At the hotel, the two kids reluctantly said their fond farewell to a tour guide they really liked as a friend and who returned their sentiments.

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City complex was the former royal palace of the Ming and Qing emperors and the seat of government of Imperial China. It is so called because it was a royal preserve and out of bounds to the residents of Beijing without the emperor’s authorisation. Today, it is a museum complex, the largest and grandest in the world, and both Chinese and other visitors from the world over can now traverse its extensive grounds and see for themselves the pomp and the extravagant lifestyle of Chinese emperors . It has 9999 buildings and rooms of varying sizes, both for work, leisure and as royal living quarters. it is enclosed by high red-coloured  walls on all sides, with watch towers at the four corners. At the rear of the complex is a man-made hill to provide the best fengshui (art of geomancy) for the emperor and his family  To have a good look at the Forbidden City, one would need to make at least two separate visits. Construction for this mammoth project began in 1406 and was completed in a record time of 14 years. Its buildings were the tallest in Beijing at that time, and no other structure could exceed their height. It is the second most visited tourist spot in Beijing, after the Great Wall, but has a lot more to see there than at its rival wall. Its architecture style is elegant and majestic and had influenced the imperial palaces in Korea and Vietnam. The Great Wall and the Forbidden City were the two places that my grandchildren had dreamed about seeing long before our trip  In this article. I would share with you  some of the principal sights at the Forbidden City that we had seen and our impressions of them. We arrived there as soon as it was opened and there was already a 15-minute queue at the ticket booths. We entered by the main entrance, the imposing Meridian Gate, and what greeted us was an exceptionally large square of 30,000 sq m in area and behind it on an elevated ground are three great halls that would impress even the most discriminating visitors. To reach them, one has to walk up  a long flight of stone steps onto a three-tiered terrace of white marble with magnificently carved railings and other stone artifacts adorning it. I turned to look at my grandchildren and they were spell-bound by what they saw ahead of them. So were us adults too. CE then remarked, “Why would the emperor need to live in such a big place, would he not be lonely and feel lost  here?”. I told him that he wanted to show his power and wealth. “Where would he get so much money from?” was his quick retort. The two kids were really eager to start exploring the Forbidden City as a dream come true for them.

Hall of Supreme Harmony

The largest and grandest of the three halls, it was here that the emperor exercised his absolute power and would hold court regularly to discuss affairs of state with his officials, to receive foreign envoys bearing tributes or to preside over special ceremonies or celebrations of  significant importance. It is the largest structure there. Inside the hall are 72 huge pillars in six rows supporting the gigantic gabled roof. Its decorations are dominated by painted dragons in clouds, dragon being the symbol of the emperor. It was the practice for the officials to gather at dawn at the large square below this hall according to their ranks, even during winter, to await the emperor’s arrival and to be summoned into the august presence at the hall. By the time they were called in, most, except the most loyal and outspoken among them, would have been completely awed by the imperial authority and would be in no mood to disagree with the wishes of the Son of Heaven. The emperor would sit on an elevated throne with elaborate royal trappings and officials must keep a safe distance in order to thwart any possible attempt to assassinate him. All petitions from his officials would be handed to the emperor’s most trusted eunuch who would then present it to his royal master for his decision. On the whole, the Qing emperors were more diligent than their Ming counterparts in holding regular morning court audiences with his officials. One ineffectual Ming emperor was known to have abstained from holding court for years as he found it too burdensome to do so!

Hall of Central Harmony

A short distance behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smallest of the three halls by comparison, the Hall of Central Harmony. It serves as the private retreat for the emperor prior to presiding at the morning sessions at the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Hall for Preserving Harmony

Behind the second  hall mentioned above, this hall was used for formal rehearsals of important state ceremonies as well as serving as a venue for the final imperial examination held once every three years to select the top three scholars for the whole nation. The emperor would personally preside over this examination to emphasize its importance. Successful candidates would be earmarked for the top appointments in the imperial civil service and would bring reflected glory to their family, clan and  home town.  (For more details of this examination, please refer to my posting of April this year.)

After spending five delightful hours taking in the above and many other sights but skipping the priceless imperial art collections at the museum as this would bore the kids, we had reached our saturation point and all we wanted was to find a quiet eatery to rest our tired feet and body and to fortify our stomachs.

For the record, the Forbidden City luckily had survived the large-scale senseless destruction of China’s national heritages by the fanatical Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), one of the darkest periods in Chinese history. We owe this to the decisive timely intervention by Zhou Enlai, the then Prime Minister, who personally ordered troops loyal to him to be posted in and around the Forbidden City, thus defeating the mobs’ diabolical plans to set it on fire. Beijing would never be the same again without this timeless and monumental national treasure which must be preserved at all times for the benefit of mankind.

The next day’s two destinations suited CE and LT to the hilt and delighted the adults no less. We spent a relaxing day exploring the internationally renowned Beihai Park and Summer Palace, which no visitors should miss.

Beihai Park

This park is about a 15-minute walk from the Forbidden City and originally part of it. It was then an exclusive imperial park for the enjoyment of China’s royal family and their privileged guests. It now serves as a much needed green-lung for this increasingly fast-paced and high-rise city of 15-million people. After entering the ornately decorated main entrance gateway, one is greeted with the serenely beautiful lake, which takes up half the park’s land, and the imposing white Tibetan-style pagoda on a hilltop, the twin dominant landmarks there. The lake was active with boating activities and other water sports and the lakeside was full of picnicking families as the sun shone brilliantly and a gentle breeze made their enjoyment more complete. Our two grandchildren were delighted with the surroundings and were keen to go boating but were discouraged by the two-hour waiting time. The Chinese did not seem to mind waiting in long queues, whether it’s at popular attractions as this or at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the largest in its long history. After walking around the attractively landscaped park, admiring many of its historic halls, temples, pavilions and other significant structures, we rounded up our relaxing sightseeing by climbing a winding stone-paved path of more than a hundred steps to reach the summit of a hill with the white pagoda standing proudly at its summit. After catching our breadths, our tiring ascent was amply rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of this historic city, its outskirts  and with the Summer Palace vaguely discernible at the distant horizon. After a pleasant rest stop there, descending was even more difficult than ascending it  because of the uneven steps but the two kids seemed to be more nimble than the adults in doing so! We were famished when we reached the ground level again and were more than ready to lunch at the famed Fangshan Restaurant right at the park. It was founded by a former chef of the Qing royal household in 1925 and is famed for its royal cuisine favoured by the Chinese royalties. The restaurant is housed in a commodious historic 19th century building, which was once shared between Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and the infamous Mdm Jiang Qing, the widow of Chairman Mao and the notorious leader of the Gang of Four, who nearly destroyed China during the Cultural Revolution era, when they attended meetings there. The meal was unusual and most delicious and we felt like the decadent Qing royalty if only while the lunch lasted. It was a shade cheaper than a comparable meal in a reputable Singapore Chinese restaurant. Our grandchildren were thrilled to sit on a fake dragon throne there for a memorable photograph which they looked forward to showing off to their school mates and teachers!

Summer Palace

As its name implies, the Summer Palace is regal in appearance and scope and is four times the size of the Forbidden City complex . It is in the outskirts of the city. A World Heritage Site, the UNESCO citation describes it as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.” In the traditional Chinese reckoning, its location offers the best fengshui for a royal retreat, with the hills behind it and a vast lake fronting it. In such an idyllic setting, the Emperor, his family and retinue of eunuchs and servants would spend the entire summer there. However, it was not just rest and no work for the Emperor. He would continue to summon his officials there whenever important affairs of state had to be discussed and his final decisions given. The resort is almost three sq km in area, three-quarters of which is covered by the man-made Kunming Lake and the excavated soil from it  was ingeniously employed to construct the Longevity Hill, topped by a magnificent pagoda.

This 18th century royal resort was twice attacked by foreign troops led by Britain and France in 1860 and again in 1900 and some of the buildings still bear the bullet marks. Much of the palace treasures were looted by the commanders and other ranks as war booties and taken to their home countries. Some of these ill-gotten gains had been auctioned in recent years and fetched millions of US dollars. The resort had to be substantially rebuilt in 1886 and again in 1902. With the help of an experienced tour guide, we explored the main buildings and structures and the surroundings of this park, admiring their different architectural styles of palaces taken from other parts of the country and were enthralled by the sublime beauty of this immense lake, which was so constructed in order to remind the commissioning emperor of a portion of the famed West Lake in Hangzhou, with the gracefully swaying willow trees and elegant pavilions lining its banks, which he loved so much. The landscaping too combined the best features of the landscaping arts in classical gardens elsewhere. The result is an incomparably uplifting park and a continuing feast for the eyes whichever direction you turn your head to. A unique feature of the Summer Palace is the covered Long Gallery, which measures about 800 m long, painted with themes and scenes from well-known episodes in Chinese folklores and history. This resort finally became the retirement home of China’s all-powerful Empress-Dowager CiXi, who virtually ruled the nation in the name of the puppet emperor appointed by her during the final years of the Qing Dynasty. She arbitrarily allocated the state fund for the rearming of the Chinese navy to face the growing Japanese naval might to rebuild this complex after the  second foreign invasion there.

CE and LT enjoyed our half a day outing there tremendously but was somewhat frustrated that they were not allowed to go boating on this historic lake on the advice of the guide as it was a very windy day and therefore unsafe to do so. At the conclusion of the tour, CE suddenly shot an unexpected question at the guide. “Why did these horrible foreign soldiers attack and steal so much treasures from this palace?”, he asked. The guide took his question seriously and said, “This was because China was weak and defenceless against these greedy foreigners who were after our treasures and resources. This will not happen again as China is strong now.”

Tiananmen Square and its vicinity

Half a day was set aside to tour this world-renowned landmark of Beijing and the several important attractions surrounding it. Many world shattering events in both Chinese and world history had taken place here, especially in the past six decades. On the way there, I told my grandchildren the places we would see so that they had some idea about them. When Tiananmen Square appeared in front of them, they were amazed by its sheer size and exclaimed, “It’s so big, much bigger than our Padang” where Singapore’s National Day parade is held annually. Indeed, it is the largest square in the world, exceeding Moscow’s famed Red Square in area, and can comfortably accommodate up to one million people for special celebrations or important gatherings. The jewel of the crown there is the majestic Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Tower). This grand and elegant three-storey 15th century Ming building stands proudly overlooking the Forbidden City and where the Emperor himself would traditionally preside over special ceremonies such as announcing to his subjects his enthronement and that of his empress. In more recent times, it was here on 1 October 1949 that Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed to the jubilant crowd below the official founding of the People’s Republic of China with the famous words “The people of China have stood up”. Again, It was here in 1966 that Chairman Mao launched his disastrous Cultural revolution with a million fanatical Red Guards waving their idol’s little Red Books and pledged to bring about a spiritually renewed China. The Tiananmen incident of 1989 also took place here with tens of thousands of determined youthful protesters encamping there to seek democracy for China. This unprecedented campaign was ruthlessly crushed by Chinese troops and many protesters were killed or injured as a result. This event had shocked the world  and damaged China’s international reputation.

We walked around this historic square and I tried to visualise those momentous happenings that had been so vividly captured in photographs and television programmes throughout the world as they occurred. In the centre of it is the prominent mausoleum of Chairman Mao, the man who made China great again despite his other failings and whose embalmed body now lies therein for the permanent remembrance of his countless admirers and followers the world over. As always, a long queue was forming in the hot sun and we decided to give it a miss  because of the waiting time and the very stringent security check we would be subjected to. It was also not an interesting sight for CE and LT. When we came to the finely sculpted Monument to the Heroes depicting the various heroic deeds of China’s revolutionaries, these caught the interest of our grandson and I had to explain to him some of the scenes depicted on the columns. We then headed for the Great Hall of the People, China’s version of a Western parliament, which I had promised to show our grandchildren and they had looked forward to seeing it.

Standing some distance from Tiananmen Tower is the mammoth Great Hall of the People, whose imposing and functional Soviet-influenced architecture stands in stark contrast with the classical elegance that the former exudes and instantly captivates its onlookers. This hall was hurriedly completed in a record time of ten months in 1959, just in time for China’s supreme legislative body, the National People’s’ Congress, to hold its annual sessions in this new permanent home. To give some idea of this enormous structure, it is 172,000 sq m in area, 320 m long, 267 m wide and 41 m high. After a tight security clearance, we entered an immensely large ground floor lobby and was immediately awed by its dimension which fully reflects the appropriate naming of this building. At the higher levels are numerous halls, reception rooms, meeting rooms, exhibition rooms, dining rooms and a concert hall and their walls are adorned with paintings, arts and crafts and other ornaments from different regions of China to reflect its 5000-year old culture. The 32 larger provinces and autonomous regions have their own meeting, reception and exhibition rooms to impress the visitors of their  own identity and development. After walking through numerous corridors and climbing lots of steps we finally found the three most important and interesting components that all visitors have come to see when no official sessions or events are being held there. We were lucky that day. The first is a tastefully furnished state VIP reception room in which the top Chinese leaders would receive foreign heads of state or government before serious discussions take place. We next entered the stupendously grand legislative assembly hall where 10,000 delegates representing 56 ethnic groups that make up China, with different languages or dialects of their own, would meet at least once a year to transact matters of both national and regional importance. We all gazed at the row upon row of seats and numerous isles separating them in total disbelief that such a huge hall exists in any public building! This was a revelation and a first hand lesson in Chinese history and culture for CE. I explained to him that the diversity of China meant that Mandarin, which all educated Chinese speak, is the common language of communication among them. China is also fortunate to have a common written script which is familiar to all literate Chinese too. Without these two vital language elements the various Chinese groups would cease to communicate with each other and the country would break up. The mega-sized dinning hall where state banquets and other significant functions are held also stunned our grandchildren as more than 5000 guests could partake of a multi-course feast together, with tons of food  coming out of the kitchens of this great hall. CE lamented that we were not allowed to view these kitchens. As a result of this visit, CE would like me to show him the Singapore Parliament Building in his next school vacation. On leaving this hall and coming down its concrete steps, I am reminded of the occasion in early 1990s when the ten British Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, fell from these steps after a tough and fruitless negotiation session with the Chinese supremo, Deng Xiaoping, on the future of Hong Kong. True to her reputation as “Iron Lady”, she quickly regained her composure and managed to flash a smile at the scores of reporters and cameramen who captured vividly her less edifying moment. The western media viewed this humiliating episode as a bad omen for her.

Although we were all quite tired by then, we decided to walk to the other end of the square in order to ascend the three-storey Qianmen Tower which would give us a bird’s eye view of the Qianmen quarter, where parts of old Beijing way of life have been carefully and artfully preserved in its traditional shops, streets, theatres, alleyways and old dwelling houses  to remind residents and visitors of the original facade of this city. Thank goodness, it is without yet another collection of high rise buildings that have mushroomed up in other parts of Beijing to propel it into the front ranks of a modern city. In such a process, it has also destroyed its original character in the name of progress. Having completed our sightseeing of this world famous Tiananmen landmark, our grandchildren were more than happy to sample the famed Peking duck for a late lunch and afterwards to have a leisurely rest and swim at the inviting indoor pool at our hotel.

Yonghe Lamasary

All too soon, the final day of our exciting holiday in Beijing arrived. I decided to bring them to see the renowned Yonghe Lamasery, the largest and  best preserved Tibetan Lama temple outside of Tibet, a self-governing region of China. Built in 1694, it was originally the official residence of a favoured son of Emperor Kangxi who later succeeded his father as Emperor Yungzheng. It was later converted into the present lamasery. Lama Buddhism is a sub branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which is popular in China, Japan and Korea. The Qing Dynasty royal house was enthusiastic supporters of this Tibetan form of Buddhism and many Lama temples were established in different parts of China in its 270-year reign. Its spiritual heads are Dali Lama and Panchen Lama. Beijing’s Yonghe Lamasery is the national centre for Lama Buddhism Administration in China, outside of Tibet itself.

This colourfully adorned Lama temple is divided into several sections, with striking architectures and forms of worship that reflect the culture and fervent faith of the Tibetan people. Today, it still functions as an active place of worship and devotion, with many devotees participating in the daily chanting of the Buddhist sutras and rituals, led by monks in their traditional saffron robes and head wears. The temple  exudes an air of spirituality and I felt at peace with myself in its tranquil surroundings. There is an interesting and informative museum, with rare Buddhist treasures and artifacts on display. It is a good place for a discerning visitor to gain an insight into the history and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. On the whole this temple was of greater interest to us adults than to our two young grandchildren. Nonetheless, the visit was quite educational for them and a novel experience.

To complete our educational and cultural journey to introduce China to our grandchildren, I asked our friendly taxi driver to drive slowly through some of the historic districts of this great city. These included Ox Street, with its Islamic residents, an ancient Chinese-style mosque, shops and eateries and its distinctive ambiance, the old legation quarter, the scenes of fierce and bloody fighting between the Chinese Boxer warriors and the Western allied troops in 1900, as well as the former hutong residences of some of the famous personalities who had made Beijing their homes and who had left their indelible marks there.

In the afternoon, we spent our time at the bookshops in the Wangfujing area, the Orchard Road of Beijing. Our son and daughter-in-law purchased many books on Chinese literature, proverbs, poems and folklores suitable for our grandchildren to digest. Hopefully, these will help increase their knowledge and deepen their interest in China and its culture.

On the homeward journey, I asked CE and LT to rank the places they had visited that they had both enjoyed most. After conferring with each other, here are their unanimous choices. Great Wall first, then Forbidden City, followed by Temple of Heaven, Beijhai Park, Summer Palace and the Great Hall of the People. Their least favoured sights were Ming Tombs and Yonghe Lamasery.

Lam Pin Foo

2 thoughts on “The Mesmerizing Grandeur of China’s Great Wall and Forbidden City

  1. Dear Chan See

    Many thanks for your comments. I am glad you brought Jonathan there too.

    Yes, we did see Luguo Bridge in 1982, when Lay Yong was a conference speaker in Beijing. We were given special permission to visit it, as it was then out of bounds to foreign tourists.

    Pin Foo

  2. Dear Pin Foo,

    This is a very comprehensive travelogue, and reminds me of the trip I made last year with my grandson (Jonathan) and his father (Gregory). We saw very much the same sights as you did, only that we did not have the thorough knowledge that you have of the histories of the various places.

    I have been to Beijing many times, but never before visited the Marco Polo Bridge where the war with Japan started. So during our visit last year I made it a point to do so, and was not disappointed. You should also make a trip there when you are next in Beijing. Warm regards,

    Chan See.

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