Chinese History Field Trip in Beijing

I called this trip in Beijing a Chinese history field trip because I felt like I was attending a Chinese history lesson there. Beijing (used to be called Peking) is the capital city of China. The sticky rice Great Wall is still the most popular attraction there. I really mean sticky rice.

Recently, researchers discovered that the material that was used for gluing the bricks of Great Wall was actually sticky rice (you can find articles about this new finding on Google). It was amazing! Wasn’t it? It was ingenious and definitely environmentally friendly but when I knew that, I was thinking, ‘they wasted so much food’. However, I just Googled if there was any famine during that dynasty. The answer was No. Interesting. Because, even though the Qin emperor was notoriously cruel and brutal, he was extremely clever (although some people may not agree with me). According to the internet, he launched a pioneer (he was actually a pioneer in many different fields. Great Wall wasn’t the only one. I had goosebumps when I read Wiki – so many contributions during his 11-year reign which was not long at all, in retrospect. But living under his rule, the citizens must have felt like centuries) administrative system so that he would know precisely what was going on in each province in the entire country (provided that there was no corruption. But under this extremely cruel leader, I don’t think corruption existed), including food supply / stock in each province. Hence, if one province ran out of food, the emperor would order other provinces to distribute food to that province.  He was absolutely right by calling himself Qin Shi Huang which meant the first emperor of Qin.

Apart from the famous Great Wall (which took years to build), Beijing also has many palaces that were built hundreds of years ago. I went there before the 2008 Olympics because I wanted to avoid the crowds. The timing was perfect because the Chinese government had started to build necessary infrastructure for the Games, including the new metro which I got to try.

Before I went to Tibet in 2005, I flew to Chengdu (I call it the Panda city) and stayed there for one night. I remember walking around the city with another girl I met at the airport and we saw numerous traditional Chinese buildings. I really loved them. They were like those you can see in history books. In Beijing, the traditional Chinese buildings were even grander and more majestic. I used audio guides in museums / palaces and learnt so much. It was like a history lesson, as I said, or even better than attending a history lesson. However, it’d be better if you know Mandarin. The cost of renting the English audio guide was very high but it was very low for the Mandarin one.

1. Architecture

I walked around Beijing on my first day and saw many Hutongs.

The door of a residence house of a Hutong

According to Beijing Hutong Tour Company, “Hutong is an ancient city alley or lane which can only be found in Beijing. There are around thousands of them surrounding Forbidden City. Many of them were built during Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The buildings in Hutong are mainly ‘quadrangles’ – a kind of enclosed building complex formed by four houses standing on four sides forming a square. The quadrangles varied in sizes and were designed according to the social status of the people living within. The quadrangles of the high-ranked officials and wealthy merchants had front and back yards whereas the quadrangles of the ordinary people had simple design and low walls. The one in the photo is most likely one belongs to ordinary people. Hutongs are in fact the passageways formed by many closely arranged quadrangles. Some of the quadrangles were built facing south for better lighting. As a result, a lot of Hutongs run from east to west.

By the end of Qing dynasty, feudal system was the major economic system in China. Under feudal system, trading was considered as inferior. So most of the activities found in Beijing during that time were mainly leisure activities for the emperors and aristocrats. And these activities were mostly found inside Hutongs. Hutongs were the reflection of the society.

At the end of Qing dynasty, under the influence of the west, the arrangement of Hutongs was changed implying the collapse of feudal system. During the period of Republic of China, the society was very unstable. Quadrangles that used to be owned by one family became a compound of several families. After People’s Republic of China was founded, the condition of Hutongs was improved. However, during the ten-year Cultural Revolution, Hutongs were destroyed. The recent reform and open policy brought about a lot of changes to Beijing. Many of the houses in Hutongs were pulled down and replaced by new modern buildings. Many residents moved to new houses. Despite this, the houses in Hutongs still occupy one third of the area in Beijing, providing houses for half of its population.”

Drum Tower
Looking down from the Drum Tower. This photo was in my first solo photo exhibition.

The Drum Tower was built in Yuan dynasty. The drums were originally used for reporting the time to the public. It was on fire twice during the Yuan dynasty. The Tower was restored again in Ming dynasty but not long after that, it was struck by lightning. And then in the year 1539 (still in Ming dynasty), the Tower was restored for the third time. That was the last time it was restored (fingers crossed). Inside the tower stood around 10 drums in 2006. One of them was the largest in the world.

The Bell Tower was right opposite to the Drum Tower.

Bell Tower

I was too lazy to organise a trip to the Great Wall and since it was so long, I didn’t know which entrance I should take so I decided to join a local tour. The tour took all of us to Ming Tombs and the Great Wall (lunch was included and I remember taking a sip of the strong rice wine. No next time). Of course, we were also taken to some shops that sold jade which I wasn’t interested in. But that gave me some time to chat with other people from my group. Two of them were boy and girlfriends travelling in Beijing together. We became friends since then. (Yes, I am talking about you :D) I ‘saw’ them getting married and having kids. 😀  I am now ‘witnessing’ their kids grow up. Time flies!! 

Entrance of Ming 13 Tombs – Ling En Men. Ling En means to worship and give thanks to the ancestors and to be blessed, and Men means door. I added 13 in the middle of the official name of this place because I want to emphasize that 13 emperors were buried in this place. Other than emperors, the empresses and a concubine of one of these dead emperors were also buried here.
The structure of Ling En Hall. According to the tour guide, not a single screw was used in the building. The wood used in this building cannot be found in China or in other places in the world anymore.
A replica of the statue of Zhu Di, an emperor in Ming dynasty
This wasn’t an ordinary object. This belonged to the emperor. All the clothes worn and objects used by the emperor were of this golden yellow colour. This doesn’t apply to China only. It also applies to Bhutan. I will write about Bhutan later. 🙂
The colour tells you who these objects belonged to. They were buried with one of the emperors in Ming Tomb.

After visiting the Ming Tomb and the jade factory, we headed to the Great Wall!!!

The Great Wall, snaking through the mountains!
I think I saw a star at the Great Wall. 😀 Actually, one of the guys in my tour group said, ‘some Chinese think I look like Tiger Woods.’ 😀 So you can imagine how he looked.

The next day, I went to the grand Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.

I don’t remember the purpose of each room. There were so many of them.
The interior of Qian Qing Gong
The four Chinese characters on the big tablet were inscribed by the first emperor of the Qing dynasty. They mean ‘impartial, just and open’.

Qian Qing Gong was one of the biggest halls in the middle of Forbidden City and it was the grandest in this section. It was first built in the year 1420 during Ming dynasty. However, it was burnt down a few times during Ming and Qing dynasties. The one you can see here was built in 1798 in Qing dynasty.

It had always served as a living room and bedroom of the emperors since it was first built until the third emperor of Qing dynasty. Over those years, 14 emperors had lived here. When an emperor died, a wake would be held in this room.

Because the hall was huge, the emperors divided it into many small rooms. In Ming dynasty, it was divided into 9 small rooms with 27 beds. The concubines could come in to serve the emperor. Since there were so many rooms and beds, it was very hard for people to know where the emperor would sleep. This helped to increase the security of this place. What a good excuse for the emperor. 😛

Even after the second emperor of the Qing dynasty (Kang Xi), the hall was still seen as a very important one. The emperor received guests or ministers (including local and foreign ministers), handled daily administrative work, and sometimes held important banquets here. The halls surrounding Qian Qing Gong were served as study rooms for the princes.

According to some records, the third emperor of Qing dynasty put a will, in which the name of his heir was stated, behind the big tablet. After he died, the ministers would climb up and take that will out and announce the name of the next emperor.

The tablets at the entrances of the halls were inscribed in two languages: Chinese and Manchurian.

During the Qing dynasty, the emperors were all Manchurians. They were actually the minority (in terms of the ethnic group) in China. The majority in China back then was the Han people. When the Manchurians ruled China, instead of forcing the Han people to adopt their Manchurian culture and language, they learnt from the Han people and even continued to promote the Han people’s culture and language while introducing their own to the whole country. The bilingual tablets reflected all these.

The two Chinese characters written by the emperor Kang Xi on the big tablet meant laissez faire, let things take their natural course. It was a Taoist idea. Those Chinese characters underneath the big tablet were written by another Qing emperor, Qian Long, the grandson of Kang Xi.

This laissez faire hall was built in Ming dynasty and it served as the emperor’s bedroom during that time. Inside this hall, there was a big bell for reporting the time of the whole palace. All the people in the palace lived according to this time. The purpose of this hall was changed in Qing dynasty. It was turned into a place for the empress to receive guests (including the concubines and the princes) on her birthday.

Another hall. It looked so grand!
I arrived at Temple of Heaven one hour before it was closed. It was actually not too far from the Forbidden City but because I took a bus and the traffic was terribly congested, this 20 to 30-minute journey turned out to be an hour.

The temple was built in 1420 for the emperors to worship ‘heaven’. In the past, Chinese people believed that the ‘sky’ (or ‘heaven’) was very powerful. It was as powerful as god. It had its emotion and it punished or blessed the people. So they were afraid of it. Since the emperor was called the son of heaven in China, worshipping heaven became the responsibility of the emperor.

During early Ming dynasty, both ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ were worshipped here. Later, the emperor built another temple for worshipping the earth. During the Qing dynasty, the worship still continued. The Qing emperors renovated it several times to make it grander. The worship lasted until 1911 when the government of the republic of China abolished it.

Entrance of Summer Palace

Summer Palace was first built in the year 1750. It used to have a different name because originally, it was built for an irrigation project (the site had a river). Later in the same year, the emperor Qian Long made another excuse – to build a place for his mother as a birthday gift. The emperor himself was also involved in the project – signing off the drafts and the models. It took 15 years to finish building it and 440 millions silver was spent on the construction of this place. Qian Long was a very disciplined emperor. He only allowed himself to ‘play’ in the palace for a few hours and he never spent a single night in the palace. The Qing emperors after him stuck to this rule until Ci Xi, the notorious dowager.

Summer Palace witnessed a lot of history in Qing dynasty. After Qian Long, Qing dynasty started to become very weak. There were revolutions within the country and also invasion from foreign countries. To save his own country, the then Qing emperor, Guang Xu, without getting Ci Xi’s permission, secretly started a reform. However, one of his subordinates betrayed him and told Ci Xi’s party about this secret plan. Ci Xi was very angry and put Guang Xu in ‘prison’ (a place within Summer Palace) and continued to control the country. Because the reform only lasted for one hundred days, people called it ‘Hundred Days’ Reform’.

During Opium War II, the English and the French looted Summer Palace and they even set fire to it. Ci Xi was the one who demanded to restore the place and made it a palace for herself. She renamed this place to ‘Summer Palace’. She spent most of her time here doing administrative work, meeting the officials, controlling the whole country behind the emperor who was appointed by her. Because of that, the status of Summer Palace became as important as Forbidden City.

However, Ci Xi was not a good leader. She was a spendthrift. She only indulged herself in the grandeur of the palace. Even when China was under the threat of foreign invasion, she still demanded to spend the money on restoring Summer Palace and celebrating her birthdays instead of using the money to aid the army and navy. According to the audio guide, she was hated by many but at the same time, if it weren’t because of her, we wouldn’t have the chance to see the Summer Palace now.

A pagoda overlooking a lake
Another view of the lake
This whole temple was made of copper. Its height is 7.55 metres and it weighs 207 tonnes. There is a copper table inside this temple. When China was invaded by U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Austria, U.S., Japan and Russia, those countries wanted to take the table away but it was so heavy that they couldn’t move it. In the end, they had to give up.
This western style double-decker boat was entirely made of marble. It was built during the reign of Qian Long. Qian Long cited a poem written in Tang dynasty to describe it: ‘water can carry boats but it can also wreck one.’  By that he wanted to warn his offspring and at the same time, he wanted to tell people that Qing dynasty was strong like a foundation stone and it could not be wrecked. He would never have guessed that his dynasty ended up falling into the hands of Ci Xi, a spendthrift and a disgrace to the country. When Ci Xi was in power, she liked to hold banquets here. During summer time, she loved to come here for breakfast and supper.
One of the six bridges in Summer Palace
The highest tower in the Palace
Every painting on the beams was different. Some of them were even illustrations of stories and fictions.

2. Food

Dinner on my first night in Beijing. Steamed dumplings have always been my favourite. I had them almost every night when I was there.
That was my dinner on my last night. 😀
Look what, little kid! Haven’t you seen anyone finishing all these baskets of steamed dumplings before? 😀
Wang Fu Jing is a street in Beijing. You can find all these stalls selling street food, including insects. No, I didn’t eat any insects. And no, these are not insects.

3. Transportation

The metro looked so new, modern and clean!!  But it was extremely crowded. Back then, there weren’t many stations. I think the number of stations has increased exponentially since then.

Other than metro, I also tried the public buses. I really don’t recommend it especially during rush hours. It was, as expected, crowded. But that wasn’t the main reason. The main reason was the traffic! It was so congested!!!  The underground was much better, faster and more efficient.

It looked a bit like the one I took in Cambodia in 2019. That’s right. China and Japan ‘donated’ buses to Cambodia. You can see ‘China Aid’ or ‘Japan Aid’ on the bodies of the buses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Those ones from China usually have a QR code scanner so that when you get on the bus, you can pay the bus fare by simply scanning the QR code. Back in 2006, of course, it wasn’t that advanced yet.

4. Daily life

People rushed to Tiananmen Square to watch the ‘flag raising ceremony’ before sunrise on the national day, 1 October.
I had never seen kites that long before!!
Sunrise
Staff in Summer Palace
Mascots of 2008 Beijing Olympics
Mascots of 2008 Beijing Olympics

5. Arts and crafts

There are many of them like those ones I saw in the palaces and museums but I put this photo here instead because they reminded me of my trip in Iran. 😀

Beautiful carpets displayed in the jade factory that we went to after visiting Ming Tomb. They reminded me of the trip in Iran.

A short trip between 28 September 2006 and 1 October 2006

Source: I found some facts about Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace in http://www.chiculture.net

It took me nearly one day to finish one place except for Temple of Heaven where I could only spend one hour. I remember I was so tired at the end of the day. Back in 2006, you could still see the haze but I did a quick research online and found out that the air quality has improved quite a lot over the past decade and it is in fact, more convenient and much faster to travel within China now as the high speed rails are now connecting to most of the major cities. I tried it once when I was having a business trip in Shanghai. It was sooooo fast and convenient! It was just amazing!

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