Every heart that listens to the call of the distant shore wishes, fantasises of travelling through the mysteries of the Forbidden City, climbing the impregnable ramparts of the Great Wall, basking in the suaveness of Shanghai, and cruising through the mist-clad gorges of the Yangtze, but at least once in their lives. My month long solo journey through China was an answer to such a call.
Beijing, or Northern Capital has a powerful allure. The seat of power in China and proud capital of the Middle Kingdom was not at all what I expected it to be. I had arrived anticipating blue-attired homogeneous masses frantically cycling through a cluttered, crowded, chaotic city. Beijing instead was the complete antithesis. Wide tree-lined avenues, colossal squares, and huge palaces left me in awe. Blond-haired Chinese youths complete with earrings left me a wee bit amazed. Harmony and elegance were the order of the day.
The name of China’s capital has changed much over the centuries. At one time or another it has been known as Yanjing, Dadu, and Beiping. Indeed you could be forgiven for thinking Peking and Beijing were two different cities. Peking is simply the old transliteration of the Chinese pronunciation for ‘Northern Capital’. Beijing is the officially sanctioned pinyin spelling based on the Mandarin dialect.
Temple of Eternal Peace
Though buried under jet lag compounded with lack of sleep, I rushed to discover the finer nuances of the city as soon as I arrived in Beijing. 🙂 I am not too sure if it was such a good idea or not since the whole day felt like a hazy dream wrapping me gently layer by layer, till I could not fathom if I was awake and dreaming or sleeping and dreaming. But it was still enchanting. To peek behind the curtains which everyone viewed, and grasp an understanding of the real ordinary everyday world of China.
My first stop was the Lama Temple, Beijing’s premier Buddhist attraction. It was converted from a palace to a temple in 1744. The whole complex is a vivid jewel like edifice painted with intricate tabular patterns on walls topped with filigreed sloping red-gold roofs. Despite being called the Temple of Eternal Peace, the Lama Temple formerly had a rather sinister reputation stemming from its colourful fusion of Lamaism, Buddhism, and Shamanism. Until the 1930s, the practice of devil dancing [marking the Tibetan New Year] and the tearing apart of a baby-shaped lump of dough full of fake blood was still on the agenda. Today, the joyful Future Buddha greets all, accompanied by the four Heavenly Kings on either side. Above him is written: “If the heart is bright, the wonderful will appear.”
Sacred role of the home
In ancient China home and family were held in such high esteem that they were considered almost sacred. Much of this reverence of the home was bound in the emphasis on ancestor worship, and its outgrowth filial piety. It was believed that when a person died, their spirit lived on in the upper regions and influenced the fate of their descendants on earth. In order to invoke the blessings of these spirits, their descendants brought them offerings of food and wine in ritual vessels of richly ornamental bronze. In times of trouble or need, special prayers would be made. Kings made the most lavish and frequent offerings to their god-like predecessors, often seeking favours for the whole community. Each father recognised that someday he would be an ancestor, and only by training his children to revere him while he was alive could he be sure that his spirit would be honoured upon his death. The young, thus, obeyed their parents without protest, and even a wealthy lord whose house might be staffed with many servants, would patch his aged father’s robes with his own hands.
I entered the unique world of Beijing’s hutongs in the late afternoon, whirling through the grey walled angular lanes on a pedicab. Hutongs [from the Mongolian word for ‘passageway’] are a mesh of narrow lanes that thread across the city. Their often fanciful names give an idea of their original function or the people who once lived there. Most of the lanes run east to west in accordance with the dictates of feng shui, with doors and portals facing south. Hutongs are honeycombed with siheyuan, four-walled courtyards, which for centuries were the standard housing units in the capital. These picturesque nests consist of a communal roofless courtyard, hugged on four sides by homes. Often they are clustered together, or laid out in strings, with whole communities living in them. Some courtyards are wonderfully adorned with Chinese characters or religious motifs. My guide led me to one such hutong residence where we had endless cups of tepid Chinese tea amidst homely scenes of family life shared by three generations living together in a meagre space of a few cramped rooms, and a glowing white Pomeranian which jumped from chair to chair in pure glee.
Past local bars lining a lake, I reached the Drum Tower built on the remains of an original 13th Century structure, and from which a drum used to, once upon a time, beat the hours of night and day. Time was measured with a water clock. Up countless steps through the gigantic structure, I had as a reward for my efforts a beautiful view over the old grey tiled rooftops of the historic quarters, and very tired legs.
Life was rapt
Dinner comprised primarily of me wondering what I could possibly eat since all 30-odd dishes laid out on the table were far too exotic and strange for my inexperienced closed-minded taste buds. Where was the chopsuey and chowmein I had come for? Apparently they do not exist anywhere at all in China! I later walked by the lake I had traversed just this morning. It had magically transformed itself into a completely different world in the darkness of the night. Thousands of people danced the waltz in the squares whilst onlooking crowds clapped and cheered. Classical western music draped itself in the warm placid air. Coloured lanterns competed with lights reflecting in the still waters of the lake, enveloping the whole setting and enactors in a festive air. Life was rapt, celebrating itself in full mirth and delight.
My very first and most acute realisations about everyday life in China was the permeating sense of camaraderie, community and fellowship that binds the Chinese. No matter where I travelled, sophisticated metropolises or rustic backwater towns, people—friends, family, strangers—were continuously interacting with each other, relating to each other, reaching out to each other, forming a whole, talking, laughing, playing cards, badminton or Chinese games, engaged in simple social communal activities, and deriving sincere pleasure from it. It was a heart-warming sight for a world wherein we live in segregated coffins right through life, cutting ourselves off purposefully from the rest of humanity. There is little that is hard-edged and technocratic about the Chinese; they are emotional, haphazard, unpredictable. Torn between the poles of extroversion [Taoism] and restraint [Confucianism/ Communism], they constantly surprise and appeal.
Temple of Heaven
A supreme example of Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) architecture, the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing’s most prized landmarks. A diagram of Chinese cosmology, it is both a transmitter to the heavens and an icon of the city.
Set in a vast 660-acre park, this sacred plot of land was where the emperor conducted the most significant ceremonies and rites of the year. The rituals performed established the divine link between Heaven and the Son of Heaven, channelling eternal law to the earth. The Temple of Heaven was a regal domain and out of bounds to the common people. Buildings are spread throughout the park, but the principal structures lie along the south-north axis, as with all temples in China.
The Circular Altar to the extreme south resonates with astronomical significance and was the site of the annual winter solstice ceremony. The rituals involved sacrificial offerings of animals to the accompaniment of music. The altar was also used during times of natural disasters to entreat the heavens. Built in 1530 of blue stone [later replaced with the present white stone], the mound consists of three tiers: earth, the mortal world, and heaven. Nine steps separate each tier, nine slabs are laid on each tier, and the upper tier is adorned with nine stone rings. The number nine has special significance in Chinese cosmology, for it is believed there are nine layers in heaven. The Imperial Vault of Heaven lies ahead, a round hall tiled in blue and standing on a white platform. The Echo Wall ingeniously conveys sound around its circumference.
The central and most striking edifice in the complex is the tall, circular Hall of Prayer for Bumper Harvests, built in 1420 during the reign of Yongle (1403-1424), when Beijing was designated capital. The emperor’s feng shui masters determined this as the exact point where heaven and earth met. The hall was the focus of sacrificial rituals and prayers for fruitful harvests in early spring. It was rebuilt in the 16th Century into a triple-eaved structure that glistened with blue, yellow, and green glazed tiles. This chromatic scheme signified heaven, earth and the mortal world. In the 18th Century, the Qing emperor Qianlong replaced the tiles with the present azure blue roofing. The conical roof is a beautiful sight, its roundness suggestive of heaven’s extent; the 36.5 meter high vault has been skilfully slotted together sans a single nail. Four inner pillars represent the seasons, and two additional sets of 12 columns denote the months and division of the 24-hour day into two-hour units. Their concentric configuration supports the roof’s three tiers.
Post exploring the complex, I sat in the shadows of the adjacent halls, cross-legged, gazing at the graceful monolith. There was an air of such serenity and calm about the place. Heaven and earth indeed did meet here. ❤