Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beijing: The Summer Palace

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

A short post for a short visit: our trip to Beijing's famous Summer Palace was cut short by intense humidity, high heat, and dense smog.

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace, located on the outskirts of modern-day Beijing, was the major country retreat of the late Qing Dynasty from 1750 on. In the popular imagination, the palace is forever associated with Empress Dowager Cixi, commonly know as the Dragon Lady, who ruled China as de facto empress from 1835-1908. She was a complex and ruthless woman, but then you have to be if you want to go from concubine to empress, which she did. In 1888, Cixi expanded the palace to its present size by diverting funds from the Beiyang Fleet, China's modernized naval force, thus indirectly contributing to China's disastrous defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. This defeat in turn fed the 1911 revolution in China which toppled the Qing, China's last imperial dynasty.

However, with the Summer Palace, or the "Garden of Nurtured Harmony" as it's called in Chinese, Cixi did leave behind one of the world's most spectacular gardens, a testament to the enormous wealth of imperial China even in its waning days.

The palace is dominated by two features: the sprawling Kunming Lake and the looming Longevity Hill. Both are man-made--Longevity Hill is made from the earth excavated during the construction of Kunming Lake.

Like most visitors, we entered from the southern end of the palace and crossed the lake in a motorboat done up to look like a 19th-century passenger barge.
Visibility was unfortunately very low: even in the heavily-edited photo below, it's hard to make out any details from about 200-250 yards.
One of the first things you see upon entering the palace from the south is its famous Seventeen-Arch Bridge, which connects a small man-made island to the rest of the park.
The centerpiece of the palace is a complex of temples, towers, and halls on a north-south axis from the lake up to the peak of Longevity Hill. Notice how thick the haze looks in the shot below, even after some tricky photography and some even trickier editing.
We declined an offer to climb to the Temple of Buddhist Virtue--in addition to the oppressive heat, we were also worn out from our Great Wall trek the previous day (upcoming post)--but we did tool around the base of the hill, which offers two of the Summer Palace's best-known sights.

The first is a riverboat-shaped terrace made out of stone, which is probably the most-photographed building in the Summer Palace--and one of the most easily recognizable.
The second is the Long Corridor, a covered walkway that runs along most of the lake's perimeter, allowing residents to enjoy the lake views (when available, of course) and move between buildings without getting drenched by one of Beijing's swift summer rains.The Long Corridor has been fully restored for the upcoming Olympic Games, and is full of pretty little details, as seen in the photo below of the interior roof of one of the junctions.
The grounds off to the side of the Long Corridor also feature some beautiful garden spaces. Below, you can see a typical Chinese landscaped garden scene, with its carefully planned sense of natural seclusion.

Correction: Yongle's Tomb

For those of you who get your posts by e-mail: I just corrected the story of Yongle's spirit tablet at the end of our previous post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beijing: Ming Tombs -- Yongle's Tomb

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

CORRECTION: Nana was apparently listening much more closely than I was: I've fixed the story of Yongle's spirit tablet--see the end of this post.

We're branching out now to some sights just outside Beijing: in the coming days, you'll see posts about the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, too. Remaining Beijing sites include the Olympic venues and Dongyue Temple.

Changling Tomb

Tourists usually visit the Ming Tombs complex as the second part of a Great Wall day-trip: the tombs are roughly halfway between Beijing and the nearest stretch of the Wall. However, in true Ming Dynasty style, the tombs are too many and too widespread to visit in one afternoon. 13 Ming emperors are buried in the region (that's Ming emperors #3-16, for those of you keeping score at home--the first two Ming emperors had their capitals at Nanjing in the south).
Of these thirteen tombs, none is more popular than the tomb of Yongle ("yong-luh"), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who moved the capital to Beijing. He ruled from 1360-1424, and his reign saw the construction of the Forbidden Palace, the construction of the Temple of Heaven, the final subjugation of the preceding dynasty (the Yuan, who, being Mongols, had fled to Mongolia), a major expansion of Chinese territory, the completion of the Yongle encyclopedia, and feudal China's only major attempt at world exploration. In fact, some hypothesize that explorers under Yongle mapped parts of the Americas and circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423, though the evidence is circumstantial, and the Chinese records that could have proven the hypothesis were destroyed by Yongle's successor, whose advisors didn't want the costly expeditions to continue.

But for all his hard work and dedication, he gets the biggest of the Ming tombs.

Yongle's tomb, also known as the Changling (or "long mausoleum") tomb, follows the traditional feng shui layout. There's a mountain at the back (north) and the main gate at the front (south). Behind the main gate is a courtyard and another gate, followed by a ceremonial throne room/worship hall, followed by an inner courtyard. The emperor's spirit tablet is kept at the back of the inner courtyard; his ashes are buried under a large mound behind that. (For a scaled-down version of the same architecture, see our post on the burial mound of Korea's Yongle, King Sejong.)

As you can see below, the architecture of Yongle's tomb is very similar to the architecture of the Forbidden City. The yellow-tiled roof is a special signature of the Ming Dynasty, and was a symbol of Chinese imperial power from the 15th century on.

This is the gate at the north end of the first courtyard.This is a bell tower in the first courtyard.
And here is the ceremonial throne room. Are you getting Forbidden City flashbacks yet?Now, the throne room is no longer used for ceremonial purposes. Instead, it's been turned into a small museum dedicated to Yongle's accomplishments. Unfortunately, most of the signs are in Chinese--though a few exhibits need no explanation.

For example: here's a giant statue of the man himself.Plus the obligatory close-up. (Sorry about the light--it was dark in there!)And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what East Asians traditionally thought of when they thought of a crown:The Korean kings had them, too--but they weren't allowed to wear as many beads. By treaty. Seriously.

And finally, at the very back of the tomb is Yongle's spirit tablet. (There's actually more to the tomb, but visitors aren't allowed to walk on the burial mound.) The soldiers of a subsequent dynasty purportedly tried to burn the tablet, but succeeded only in firing the stone to its present brilliant red. Of course, why anyone would try to burn a stone is beyond me . . . and upon close inspection, I'm pretty sure the stone has been painted. (Actually, the communists tried to burn the tablet during the Cultural Revolution and settled for painting the thing red when they failed. No word yet on Mick Jagger's plans to paint it black. Stay tuned.)
Just ask that kid there--he looks like he has a pretty good view.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beijing: I tong, you tong, we all tong for hutong!

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

Every visit to Beijing, I'm told, should include a tour of one of the city's traditional hutong neighborhoods (more detail below). So Shasha, Nana's host sister and our dedicated guide for the second half of our week in Beijing, arranged for us to visit one on the northern edge of Beihai Park, in northwest Beijing.

Beihai Lakes

The first stop of our hutong excursion involved a stroll along one of several artificial (or artificially-enlarged) lakes in the northwestern quarter of Beijing. (Forgive me--I'm not sure which one this is. There are a bunch.)
The lakes march off in a long string from the Forbidden City to the emperor's Summer Palace (upcoming post) further to the northwest, so that the emperor, if he so chose, could actually travel between residences by boat. Historically, the lakeside properties were owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country, a tradition that continues today (see our fleeting glimpse of Deng Xiaoping's daughter's house below).

Today, the lakes are lined in most places with trendy bars, catering especially to expats and embassy folks. We declined to stop for a morning drink.

We did, however, stop for photographs. Here's Nana doing her best Tintin impression outside Lotus Blue. (A special shout-out to the Massie clan, at Nana's request.)
And, um, here's Nana with a giant yellow duck. Outside a Peking duck restaurant, mind you. Why is it considered good marketing to anthropomorphize the thing you're serving for lunch?
The Hutong

Anyway. Our stroll brought us to a (heavily restored) traditional shopping district at the edge of the hutong. This, like most of the hutong that haven't simply been bulldozed, has been cleaned up and repainted in preparation for the Olympic Games.

The hutong are an interesting phenomenon in city planning and in the history of Beijing. The word translates roughly to "neighborhood," and can be used to refer to a city administrative unit, but in popular usage it refers to traditional neighborhoods with low buildings and narrow streets. Originally, the hutong were formed by joining packed-together courtyard houses along a narrow alleyway, often interspersed with small businesses. These original hutong generally ran east-to-west, with main gates at either ends, and normally had one or two north-south alleyways forming, in some cases, a few small internal plazas. In the Beihai district, the original hutong were also very wealthy, sitting as they did on some prime lakefront property.

Over time, though, unplanned (and generally lower-class) hutong grew up around and in support of the older hutong, offering lodging for servants, retail, professional services, etc. Though most of these newer hutong did include a staight (if narrow) east-west thoroughfare, the other alleys were a tangled maze, and today most people associate the hutong with these crooked, narrow streets.

To give you an idea, here's a narrow east-west passage in one of the hutong that sprung up around Deng Xiaoping's daughter's place.
Pedicab Tour
The Beihai district of Beijing is famous for its lakeside pedicab drivers, who are themselves famously aggressive--walk along the lake for more than 20 yards and you're bound to be accosted by someone. Shasha kindly handled the details and scored us a nice, long ride along the lake and through one of the wealthier hutong in the area.
Here are a couple short videos of the ride.

I have to admit, the whole pedicab thing was a little odd--sitting there with the breeze in our hair while this poor sweaty guy lugged us around. At least Nana was able to have a conversation with him, which made it feel less like we were treating him like a pack animal. And, of course, we paid him well.

Anyway, a few images from the ride:

First, here's a shot of the entrance to the prince's residence. This is also in Deng Xiaoping's daughter's neighborhood--the neighborhood is still home to some of the most desirable addresses in Beijing.Second, here's an old shirtless guy practicing martial arts beside the road. Because, awesome. (See this post for more on senior recreation in Beijing.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

200th Post! And, hidden Tiananmen Square post

Turns out that last post was our 200th. Cool! I wonder if we'll be able to keep the same pace this year.

Also, those of you who don't get School of ROK by e-mail (you can sign up at right) may have missed Nana's post on Tiananmen Square and Mao's Mausoleum (here).

For some reason, Blogger lists posts according to the date and time when they were first saved, not the date and time they were first published, so that if you work on a post over two different days, the post may not publish to the top of the page.