Story: New Olympics, Old Peking

Daniel Beekman

By Daniel Beekman
Written on 15 March 2008
1 favorite, 3127 views

Beijing is a global city and a city transformed. Still, this was China’s capital for five centuries. There are sites yet where an informed visitor may experience Old Peking.

A hundred years ago, Beijing was an imperial village – a jumble of narrow, stone alleys winding towards the East’s most imposing palace. Gugong (the Forbidden City) remains China’s symbolic center and the heart of 21st century Beijing. But Beijing is no longer an imperial village. It’s an economic miracle, a cosmopolitan boomtown and the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world. In 2001, Beijing won the right to host this summer’s Games. Seven years, 2.7 billion square feet of construction, 11 new sports venues and a US$2.8 billion airport later, Beijing is a global city and a city transformed. Still, this was China’s capital for five centuries. There are sites yet where an informed visitor may experience Old Peking.

Between Heaven and Earth
Beijing Ancient Observatory – 10 YUAN (student/senior discount, kids free)

Built in 1422, Beijing’s Ancient Observatory rises over a quiet courtyard just off the subway at Jianguomen. Chinese emperors and their subjects took astronomy seriously. The movement of planets and stars through the sky were thought to both affect and reflect an emperor’s ability to rule. The observatory now houses a number of fascinating old astronomical instruments – a gnomon, a sextant, an altazimuth, an azimuth theodolite, a steelyard clepsydra, an amillary sphere, a mechanical chronograph and a model celestial globe tower. European Jesuit missionaries introduced Galileo, the telescope and mathematical astronomy to China in the 16th and 17th centuries. Inside Beijing’s Ancient Observatory, green dragons slither up enormous bronze instruments of Italian design. The museum also offers a concise history of Chinese astronomy.

Twist and Turn
Qianmen Hutong - Free

Snap a photo of Qianmen - old Peking’s hefty front gate - tack south-by-southwest and plunge into a hutong. These crumbling, residential alleys once trailed throughout Beijing. Many have been demolished in recent years to make way for shopping malls, high-rise apartments and Olympic stadiums. The few that remain, cobbled and low, evoke a friendly lifestyle unique to Beijing. Take Qianmen Xihou west for five minutes. If this street seems bland, don’t lose heart. Reach a pair of public restrooms (hold your nose) and hang two lefts onto Qianmen Xi. Here you’ll pass slabs of shivering tofu, cooing doves, open-air butchers and street rolls – famian shaobiao. Snake deeper south and you’ll hear a handy man trolling for work on his tricycle cart. Approach a few smokers or card-players. They’ll point you towards a traditional Siheyuanr (four-sided courtyard). According to one elderly man who lives south of Qianmen - “This is the real Beijing. There are no Olympics here. Between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven is where we laobaixing (common people) reside.”

Head in the Clouds
White Cloud Taoist Temple - 10 YUAN

Beijing’s Buddhist sites are magnificent, particularly the Lama Temple – Yonghegong. But these places of worship are many, and busy too. For a less-hectic religious experience, make for the city’s rarely visited Xuanwu District and the White Cloud Taoist Temple. “We aren’t expecting more tourists than usual during the Olympic Games,” a clerk explains. “Everyone around the world knows about Buddhism. Not many foreigners are interested in Taoism.” A temple was built on the spot 1400 or so years ago to house a statue of Lao Tzu. Taosim’s first scholar taught action without action – wu wei. The temple burned down in 1202, and in 1224 Genghis Khan ordered it reconstructed. Today the site houses China’s Taoist association. Stroll through successive courtyards and peek in on the sculpted Taoist scholars and white lanterns inside. The monks, who sport wrapped-socks and topknots, speak only Chinese. But there’s a poster demonstrating proper conduct and incense for sale if you’d like to pray.

Forbidden Vista
Jingshan Park - 2 YUAN

If you’ve got just one day in Beijing, don’t tour the Forbidden City. Instead, buy a ticket to Jingshan Park. Climb the hill where China’s last Ming Dynasty emperor hanged himself (rebels had swarmed the city) and watch the Forbidden City spread majestically beneath you. It’s an enormous complex – you’ll save yourself a good three hours of walking. If the sky is clear, you’ll see central Beijing, skyscrapers and all. If its cloudy or heavy with pollution, you’ll pick out the curving rooftops of the Forbidden City and find yourself transported back in time. Imagine yourself a court official surveying your majesty’s domain. Jingshan Park is located behind (north of) the Forbidden City, just around the corner from Capital All People’s Healthy Body Park #1. Pick up a ping-pong paddle and rejoin the 21st century on your way out.

Marching Towards Communism
Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution - 20 YUAN (students half-price)

Temples, alleys and gardens are all well and good, if you’re interested in imperial China. But you may have other intentions. Head down Chang’an Jie (Everlasting Peace Street), the city’s main east/west drag, for a taste of old guard, communist Beijing. The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution displays restored equipment on loan from ancient tombs and the People’s Liberation Army. A dimly lit, cavernous building cased in marble, the museum also runs through China’s military history in brutal detail. Don’t overlook the fifty-year old, cloth soldiering shoes or the fighter jets on the ground floor. The museum’s military maps, all in Chinese, are close to indecipherable. But the yellowed photos of China’s leaders-to-be, including Mao Zedong, are cool. Perhaps most intriguing are the wrinkled propaganda posters from World War II and the Korean War (once known in Beijing as ‘The War to Resist America and Aid Korea’).

Intelligentsia Preserved
Guo Morou’s Former Courtyard Residence - 20 YUAN (students half-price)

From Di’anmen Xidajie (Place of Peace West Street) between the Qian Hai and Hou Hai lakes in north-central Beijing, proceed to the former courtyard residence of 20th century Chinese scholar Guo Morou. You’ll run a gauntlet of aggressive pedi-cab tour guides. Stay on foot - the residence isn’t far. Guo, born in 1892, attended college in Japan and joined the Communist Party of China in 1927. In 1948, on the eve of China’s ‘Liberation’ he wrote: “Before I was disdainful of literature and art, but now that I’ve awakened, I look on them as a powerful weapon to smash feudal thinking and resist imperialism.” A prolific poet and author, Guo was the first president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but was attacked during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He eventually confessed to having not properly understood the thought of Mao Zedong and agreed to have his books burned. Both of his sons were “struggled to death.” Also a playwright and an archeologist, Guo lived here from 1963 until his death in 1978. The courtyard is lush and spacious, the quarters simple and elegant. Very few homes like this still exist in Beijing – fewer are well preserved.

Other photos in this article...

Beijing's Ancient Observatory Inside White Cloud Temple Guo Morou's former residence View from Jingshan Park Near Guo Morou's former residence Down a Qianmen hutong An urn at White Cloud Temple A Taoist monk at White Cloud Temple Beijing Military Museum billboard Beijing Military Museum


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