Paris might have it Spring, I thought, but Beijing has its Autumn. The hot, humid days of Summer were gone, the smog-filled skies of Winter yet to come, and the dusty winds of Spring just a memory.Iwas standing on top of the Great Wall, just North of the Chinese capital, and the sky was the most brilliant of blues overhead, the air so crisp and clear, it was almost like one was able to see from end to end of the 1,500 miles of the Wall. After drinking in the view until I was more than full, I walked back down the steep stone steps to the street below. I was still marvelling at the sheer magnitude of it all when I walked directly into the path of a speeding motorcyclist.
As I laid in the street, feeling for any broken bones or injuries, the driver picked himself up and let loose a stream of words that most probably didn’t mean, ‘welcome to China’. But staring up- I was directly under an arch of the Wall – I didn’t hear a word he was saying. How could anyone pay attention to the present when they’re surrounded by so much of older times?
China has a way of doing that to the traveller, from Marco Polo to the present. Despite China’s huge economic growth over the last 20 years, no matter where you go in the Middle Kingdom, you’re surrounded by the past, even more so in the greater Beijing area.
If, however, it’s examples of feng shui which has you thinking of travelling to Beijing, be sure to leave room in your suitcase for your explorer’s hat and pocket compass. While there are examples enough of the ancient art to last a thousand vacations, unlike Hong Kong which knocks a visitor over the head with feng shui, in Beijing you’ll need to discover them yourself. But armed with that trusty compass, a dose of imagination and plenty of common feng shui sense, you’ll soon be able to make plenty of discoveries on your own. The following is a list of sights to get you going.
Beijing & the Forbidden City
While Beijing is an ancient city and was used as a capital by one warlord or another, surprisingly, it was during the short-lived Yuan (Mongol) dynasty that Kublai Khan created what we know today as modern Beijing. Called Dadu (Great Capital) by the Mongols, it was built to truly touch the imagination, with all inspiration emanating from the emperor’s Dragon Throne.
Right in the centre of Beijing is the huge rectangular palace area called the Forbidden City: a city within a city. As you enter into the Forbidden City by way of the southern Meridian Gate, despite the crowd of tourists and hawkers, it’s still very easy to imagine you’re back in time, entering these hallowed grounds only by special invitation from one of the Ming emperors.
As you walk in past guards and 70,000 eunuchs or so, you first notice a large courtyard. Whatever you do, don’t mention to the emperor what your first take is of the courtyard. When the Ming Dynasty first started, the capital was in Nanjing but then the third emperor decided to move it back to Beijing. His first step was trying to remove any traces of the Mongols from the Forbidden City; you can see with your own eyes how badly he failed.
The courtyard suggests the expanse of the Gobi Desert where Kublai Khan and his Mongol horde originated from, and with just a little more imagination you can even see in the swirling roof lines and pillared halls a reminder of the Mongolian felt tents. Now waiting to be crossed by you is the Golden Stream, shaped to resemble a Mongol bow, with five marble bridges spanning the water. The stream is, a course, the river which in Form School feng shui must be at the front of any site. The five bridges represent the Five Elements. This design also fit in well into Conjucian beliefs, the bridges representing the five Confucian virtues of humanity, sense of duty, wisdom, reliability and ceremonial propriety.
Approaching the emperor sitting on his Dragon Throne, slyly pull out your compass. You’ll see that it’s perfectly aligned North-South. While aligning the palace and surrounding city started with Kublai Khan – enough so that Marco Polo said the capital reminded him of a giant chessboard – it was during the Ming Dynasty this was carried to the extreme. The Ming rulers were attracted to the order and conservative nature of Confucism – as opposed to Taoism and the curves of feng shui – and streets were laid out almost perfectly straight, in a North-South, East-West network. The most important North-South axis actually ran directly through the Dragon throne itself. What better way to directly tie the Middle Kingdom to the Son of Heaven – who mediated between Heaven and Earth – than by having everything originate from him.
Paying your respects to the emperor and now going through the rest of the palace grounds with your compass, you’ll see that most of the important buildings in the Forbidden City and those Beijing itself face the beneficent yang influences of the South, as opposed to the yin North. Not only did icy winter winds blow down from the North but also marauding nomadic tribes and demons came from that direction. Not only the rulers knew this but the common man as
When you leave the Forbidden City and walk literally in any direction, you’ll start stumbling upon clusters of centuries old houses that you’ll swear look like micro villages, many surrounded by modern high rises. Trust your eyes, that’s exactly what you’re seeing. When Beijing became the capital, people naturally moved to where the power – and money – was located. Thousands of small alleyways and lanes – hutongs – soon surrounded the Forbidden City, with houses built between the narrow byways. In the hutongs directly to the East and West of the palace, beautifully constructed houses for imperial kinsmen and aristocrats were built, many since taken over by Chinese People’s Republic officials.
Cruder ones could be found to the South and North where merchants and ordinary people lived. Whoever the occupants might be, however, the homes were all constructed along a similar style: four houses – all trying to face South as much as possible to take advantage of the light and this auspicious direction – surrounding a courtyard. While previously owned by just one family, during the early 1960s they were divided up and many families moved in. Even the courtyards were filled in with brick huts and kitchens with their name being changed from hutong to da za yuan (big heterogeneous courtyards).
In more recent years, many have been pulled down to make way for modern buildings and roads. While some travel books say the hutongs are gone, don’t believe it. While their days are numbered with the rising population, hutongs still occupy one third of the total area of Beijing and they’re where close
to half the population lives.
“While today the Great Wall is viewed as one of the great wonders of the world, this hasn’t been until recently – at least in Chinese eyes”
The Summer Palace
A canal connecting the two would bring the Emperor to this beautiful site which was his residence during the summer months, by imperial barge along canals and rivers, it takes three days to reach Kunming Lake inside the Summer Palace. You’ll be glad to know that by bus, it only takes about 30 minutes. Located about 7 miles North-West of Beijing, the Summer Palace is actually a garden, encompassing a large hill, a lake, a river and numerous buildings, with most of the garden being built originally to Form School specifications.
Created during the Ching Dynasty in 1750 to give the emperor an escape from the summer heat of Beijing, it was destroyed by the British and French in 1860 and the ruins are still visible of this older Summer Palace. Then in 1873, the Dowager Empress Cixi began rebuilding it for her retirement, naming it Yi He Yuan – Garden of Peace and Harmony in Old Age.
As regent, she was able to channel funds wherever she wanted and money that was suppose to go to the navy instead went to the Summer Palace. Be it not said, however, that she totally ignored the navy. Cixi did construct a marble boat that still sits in Kunming Lake. The Dowager Empress wasn’t interested as much in creating a feng shui garden as she was in creating moments or experiences – the names of the structures reveal what she was hoping to create e.g. the Hall for Listening to Orioles Sing and the Gate of Welcoming the Moon. With near-unlimited funds, she even had an entire wall built just so she could install a window in it, enjoying the view of the garden that was framed by its construction.
To see proper Form School feng shui, you’ll have to leave the capital and head to the Ming Tombs, about an hour’s drive to the North-west. While most tour buses stop at the Ming Tombs as they head towards the Great Wall, if you go on one you’ll be hardly given enough time to explore or to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding area.
If you want a relaxing day surrounded by beauty and not hordes of fellow tourists trying to see as much as they can in 60 minutes, plan on going by yourself. On the drive out to the Ming Tombs, you’ll be amazed how quickly you come into rural China after leaving Beijing and if you go in the autumn, you’ll pass huge mounds of shucked corn drying in the sun, orange persimmons ripening in trees and farmers selling in roadside stands the most beautiful peaches you’ll ever see.
The Ming Tombs themselves sit on a plain at the foot of Tianshou Mountain. Thirteen of the MingDynasty’s 16 were buried here, along with their empresses and favourite concubines. The surrounding hills form a horseshoe, embracing the tombs, with the hills to the East called Azure Dragon hill while those to the West called the White Tiger – the names betraying their feng shui function. This same horseshoe configuration has been duplicated a thousand times over in other Chinese tombs.
If you’re up to it, the best way to approach the Ming Tombs is to have your driver drop you off at the beginning of the Sacred Way, which is a four mile walk to the tombs. This concourse was built to be used only for funeral processions and lining it are great stone beasts and figures of ministers and warriors. If it’s a warm day, you’ll be glad you bought those peaches earlier. Only one of the tombs has been excavated and you can venture down three stories underground into the massive burial chamber of Emperor Shenzong and his two empresses.
The chamber has yielded thousands of artefacts which are on display in a nearby museum. What you’ll find special at the Ming Tombs is not the tombs themselves but the surrounding 1- area. Pines) cedars and deciduous trees cover the II. hills and again in the autumn, the sight is stunning. More for quiet contemplation, unlike the circus atmosphere at the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs could become your favourite place in China.
The Great Wall
The first emperor of China had several problems. Besides the threat from both marauders and spiritual demons from the North, he also wanted to keep his farmers in. What better way to kill all birds with the same stone than to connect the series of walls that had already been built into basically one long continuous one – thus creating the Great Wall of China. And surprisingly, while today it’s viewed as one of the great wonders of the world, this hasn’t been until recently – at least in Chinese eyes.
The walls main architect, Meng Tian, bitterly regretted his life’s work, realising from a Form School point of view, he had cut across numerous dragons. Before committing suicide, he wrote: ‘I have made walls and ditches over more than 10,000 +(1,200 miles). In this distance it is impossible not to have cut through the veins of the earth. I have a crime for which to die’, preferring the idea of death more than the thought of violating the earth.
The Chinese peasant had more temporal views than Form feng shui. Due to the large number of men conscripted to work on the Wall and their appalling death rate from starvation, the elements and accidents, it’s been often called the largest cemetery on earth. When China was strong, it had no need of the Wall and when it was weak, the Wall’s 25ft heights and weak garrisons could not hold back the Mongol horde or the Manchurians.
So despised was the Great Wall that during the period of Chinese classic landscape paintings, the Wall was never featured in even one. When Mao decided to tear it down during the Cultural Revolution, few words of protest were heard. But that was then. Now the Great Wall is as popular with the Chinese as with foreigners. If you go to the most easily accessible portion of the Great all at Badaling, on almost any day you’ll be sharing the Wall with thousands of visitors, mostly all Chinese, many of them soldiers.
Which brings up the modern problem of the Great Wall. If you want to be surrounded by tourists, be offered T-shirts that say ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ and be pestered endlessly to buy Great Wall souvenirs, then by all means head out on the tourist bus to Badaling.
But if you have any desire to see the Wall in a more realistic setting, albeit more broken down, then head to Simatai portion, a good two and a half hour drive from Beijing. Just be sure to bring along a good pair of hiking boots and be prepared for a hard slog to reach the nearest watch tower.
Undisturbed by anyone trying to sell you postcards, you can enjoy the poplars swaying in the breeze and the maple trees with their golden leaves shimmering in the autumn sun. Armed with your compass and basic feng shui knowledge, you’ll enjoy these sights of Beijing and a hundred more besides. And if you go in autumn, the season for Beijing, you’ll be even more glad you went. Just watch out for the motorcycles!
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