This city has a long history, but many people know very little about it. Before the first emperor Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, Beijing was the capital of the kingdom of Yan. At the time the city was not called Beijing, but it was known as Jicheng or Yanjing. Part of the Old City Wall dates back to this time, but otherwise there are few remnants.
According to urban and rural planners, Beijing is an excellent example of Chinese urban development. This extraordinary construction can be traced back to the time right before the dynasties, also known as the Warring States Period (476 – 221 BC). After Qin Shi Huang had proclaimed himself emperor in 221, this method of construction became the standard.
The city is notably rectangular in shape and is surrounded by a straight wall. The palace and the government buildings are in the centre. The location is also well chosen. The city is open to the east and to the south. The mountains to the north protect the city, and water can be found at the front side. So according to the rules of Feng Shui, Beijing is a safe place to live.
Nowadays, Beijing is the imperial capitol, taking over from Xi’an, which had that role for centuries, during the Qin dynasty. Most monuments in the city are from the last two dynasties: Ming and Qing, just like the world-famous Forbidden City in the centre.
This forbidden city, which in fact used to be a palace, was Beijing’s best-guarded secret for many years. Not until the last emperor (Puyi) was dethroned in 1911, did it become accessible for everyone. Up to that time nobody was allowed into the Forbidden City, except for staff at the emperor’s court. The latter were not allowed to speak about it to anyone.
The wealth of the palace only became apparent after its doors were opened, and it is enormous: the yellow roofs, the abundance of gold, vermillion (red-orange) walls make it a real sight to behold, and the story behind it enhances its grandeur. Each building is richly decorated. There are golden bridges, countless sculptured dragons and glazed tiles with of scenes of day-to-day life.
The city was home to the entire royal household, including thousands of concubines (or mistresses) and eunuchs (castrated men who had to serve the women). The area surrounding the palace was called the Imperial City, and nobody was allowed to enter except for staff. Many local craftsmen worked here, making all sorts of quality products for the court. In the meantime, the majority of this area has disappeared.
Although a visit to the Forbidden City is on top of the list of most tourists, Beijing has so much more to offer. It is an ideal city to explore on your own accord, and you will notice that present and past are constantly intertwined. You will be surprised at the wealth from the past.
The central part of the Forbidden City takes up 750 by 960 metres of Beijing. The main complex comprises of three palaces, most of which were built in the 18th century. This is where the emperor ruled his country from. The largest and most open part was meant for state business, the northern part, with its many alleyways and smaller chambers, was for private use. Everybody had to follow strict rules, including the empress, and was restricted to certain parts of the city.
Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace)
Tiananmen Square is 880 metre long and 500 metre wide. It’s right in the middle of the city and is the seventh largest square in the world. In the middle of the square is the is Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. The layout of the square has varied over the passing years, though its use has changed little. The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen’s Gate Tower) is one of the few original parts of the square. The brick base of this gate rests on a foundation of sparkling white marble. This square became infamous for a pro-democracy protest against the communist party in 1989. This protest, which lasted for longer than a month, came to a bloody end when it was violently shut down using tanks. It’s part of Beijing’s past, where past and present meet on many a street corner, and sometimes even collides. These days the square is most used for the flying of kites, a symbol of peace.
Temple of the Earth
The Temple of Earth was built in 1530 was built by emperor Jia Jing during the Ming dynasty. It was restored during the Qing dynasty, but it’s a lot less extravagant than the Temple of Heaven. This temple takes up around 42,7 hectares and has a remarkable history. Yongle, the third Ming emperor, had the Temple of Heaven and Earth built in 1420 in the south of Beijing. As was the tradition, he brought offerings here to heaven (in winter) and to earth (in summer). But Emperor Jiajing had a different view on things and changed this temple to be the Temple of Heaven, and had another temple built in the north of the city in 1530, the Temple of the Earth, with a special altar,Fangzetan – the Altar of the Earth. After this, all Ming and Qing emperors used these temples for their offering to the gods of heaven and earth.
It’s also worth visiting the summer palace, Yiheyuan, beautifully situated in a neatly laid-out classical Chinese garden in the north-west of the city. Its buildings are ornately decorated, with lots of marble, most of which date back to the start of the last century, though this site was already in use during the 12th century.
Temple of Heaven
The four most important temples of Beijing are located around the Forbidden City in the four directions of the compass: the Temple of Sun in the east, the Temple of the moon in the west, the Temple of Earth in the north and the Temple of Heaven in the south. The Temple of Heaven is often considered the most beautiful temple in china. The impressive building dates back to 1420, and served as a holy place for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The temple wasn’t part of the city at first, but the city walls were moved further out during the Qing dynasty.
Temple of the Sun
This is another one of the four great temples of Beijing, and was built in 1530, and as the name suggests it was designated to make offers to the Sun God. It was first used by the emperors of the Ming dynasty, and later by those of the Qing dynasty. This temple is in the Ritan Park, with large gardens and a small lake. As in all the temples, the most important place is the altar, which is surrounded by a large wall. The Temple of the Sun is located in the east of Beijing.
Temple of the Moon
The Temple of the Moon is the fourth great temple of Beijing. This one also dates back to 1530 and was built so the emperors could make offerings to the God of the Moon. These days the temple is part of Yuetan Park. Large parts of the park were restored over the years 2004 to 2007, and was reopened in 2007. This temple is located to the west of Beijing.
Shichahai (Lake of the ten Temples)
Shichahai is a historic and picturesque area in the north of Beijing with three lakes. It’s famous because the Mansion princes and their officials built many temples here. These days its known for its vibrant night life, as it has many bars and restaurants. Remarkable is that this area didn’t really become popular until the SARS virus broke out. Many residents of Beijing were convinced that spending a lot of time outdoors would protect them from contracting it, so they would spend their evening here, in the outdoors. Now that the virus is long gone, the area is still full of life. The most popular areas are Lotus Lane and around the Yinding bridge.
Old city wall
The old city wall is not a very well-known attraction in Beijing. This wall is also often confused with the Great Wall of China, which is located to the north of the city. This city wall was built between 1370 and 1419 to protect the city from attacks, and it’s 23.5 kilometres long. The city grew out of its walls in 1553, so the wall had to be adjusted, so it would also protect the Temple of Heaven. Archaeologists say that is was twenty metres wide at the base and twelve metres wide at the top, and around fifty metres high in most places. It stood for about 530 years until the ring road around the city was laid, which brought an end to most of the wall. But you can still spot restored watch towers that belong to the wall around the city. The only part of the wall that is still standing to this day is in the south-east of the city, near the station. It has been restored in recent decades, and there are plans to restore more of it, bringing back some of its old glory.
Jingshan Park is an artificial hill near the Forbidden City, with an interesting background. It was created in the 15th century, using the soil that was excavated when Ming-Emperor Yongle had canals dug around the Forbidden City. Strictly following the rules of Feng Shui, the soil was deposited just so, to make sure the Forbidden City was protected from bad influences from the north. For a long time the hill was part of the imperial garden, but in 1928 it was opened to the public. These days it’s a popular location to get a good view of the Forbidden City, and the rest of Beijing if the weather is clear enough. This is also the place where the Chongzhen emperor took his own life in 1644.
The Bell Tower (Zhonglou)
This bell tower, together with the Drum Tower, was built in 1272 for time-keeping as well as musical reasons, during the reign of General Kublai Khan. It’s in the north of the city and was once the most northern point of the city. They were rebuilt around 1420 in the dynasty of the emperor Yongle, but the wooden drum tower was destroyed by fire in 1747. That’s when the current towers were built, the Bell Tower is now a stone 33-metre high structure, and its location is slightly more to the east than its predecessor. The bell would ring every morning at 7 am to announce the start of a new day. As the city grew, so did the bell tower, which is still evident today.
The Drum tower (Gulou)
The Drum Tower was also used to make music and for time-keeping in the olden days, for example to announce the closing of the city gates for the night. At 7 pm there were thirteen strokes on twenty-four huge drums, after which the gates to the city were closed. After that they would beat the drums every two hours. Of all the original drums only one remains and is on display. There are 25 replica drums now in use, and still beaten in ancient tradition. The tower is around 46 metres high and has steep stairs. The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower are right near each other.
The Summer Palace in the north-west of Beijing is almost a city in itself, a huge leisure resort for the emperors. It has many pavillions and a lake. But there are also several curiosities, such as a large marble ‘boat’ (it’s a building, not an actual boat) on the edge of Kunming Lake. It’s also known as the ‘Boat of Purity and Ease’, a very poetic name, like many of the sites at the Summer Palace. There are also the ‘Hall of Dispelling Clouds’, and the ‘Garden of Harmonious Pleasures’, to name but a few. The original palace in the Longevity Hills was built in the 12th century, but many of its current structures are only around 100 years old. The palace grounds are so large, that you almost need your own tour guide to learn about it all.
Beihai Park and White Pagoda
Beihai Park is famous for its White Pagoda, a remarkable temble built in 1278. It’s a design of a Nepalese architect whose name has been lost during the passing of time. There are several imperial gardens, once layed out for the Qing dynasty. It’s to the north-west of the Forbidden City, and once played an important role. It was the centre of the Mongol city of Dadu, founded in 1267 by Kublai Khan. Dadu was also a forbidden city once upon a time, but eventually developed into the capital of the state. The only remains of this city is the jade water basin at the entry of the park, the rest has disappeared.
Lama Temple (Yonghe Temple)
The Lama Temple is remarkable because it’s a Tibetian buddhist temple in a very prominent place in Beijing, which is interesting considering the contention around Tibet. But the government is intent of building peace, including here in Beijing. The Lama Temple was built in 1694 as part of the city wall. The emperor Kangxi lived here before he was crowned in 1722. According to Chinese tradition the fact that he lived here would signify it as a temple after. These days, it’s one of the most important temples outside of Tibet.
Temple of Confucius
Confucius is a famous ancient Chinese philosopher, he was born in Qufu in the year 551 BC, long before the Chinese empire was formed. His theories were based on personal and governmental morality, correct social relationships, justice, order and sincerity. They are considered to be fundamental to the beliefs and traditions of current Chinese culture. The Temple of Confucius is part of the Capital Museum, and is the largest Confucius Temple outside of the one in Qufu where he was born. There are 198 stone tablets here with 51.624 names of scholars from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties who graduated following his teachings.