As with the rest of China, Beijing is undergoing enormous regeneration and much of its historical past has been unsentimentally obliterated to make way for its glittering high-rise future. Nevertheless, the most iconic historic structures of the ancient past still remain.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

In the centre of Beijing, the rectangular 440,000 sq. metre paved public space of Tiananmen Square was built under Chairman Mao, and carries obvious echoes of Soviet architectural style, though traditional Chinese principals are also imbedded in its layout.

The sheer scale of the square is clearly intended to project power and is capable of containing mass gatherings of up to a million people, vast assemblies which were common during Mao’s early years.

In later times the square has also occasionally hosted huge crowds, notably after the death of both Mao and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976. For many foreigners, however, the square is forever remembered for the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and their aftermath.

Still to this day presiding over the square in death, Mao’s mummified remains are housed in the square’s Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.

Directly east of the square, The National Museum of China is a vast homage to China’s long civilisation, with an outstanding display of its precious historical artefacts. Just south of the National Museum, the European era buildings of the Legation Quarter are accessed through an archway, and are now the home of some fine restaurants and shops.

THE FORBIDDEN CITY

Few locations anywhere carry the gravitas of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage site and onetime inner sanctum of China’s mighty Emperors, from the Ming through to the end of the Qing Dynasties, with certain death being deployed as the customary disincentive for uninvited access to the citadel, from which it acquires its evocative name.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

From Tiananmen Square, the portal for visitors into the once secretive world of Dynastic rule is through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, flanked by Zhongshan Park, a former imperial garden, now open to the public, which contains many temples, pavilions and gardens, passing beyond through the Duan Gate and yet further, to the edge of the citadel itself, surrounded by an impressive 52 metre (170 feet) moat.

Public entry into the Forbidden City itself is through the following Meridian Gate, once the exclusive preserve of the Emperor himself, from which one passes into an enormous courtyard, capable historically of holding assemblies of one hundred thousand people. A distinctive feature of the courtyard is the bow shaped Golden Stream over which five marble bridges lead the way onward toward the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

Within the courtyard, the Hall of Martial Valour houses a collection of paintings and calligraphy, whilst the Hall of Literary Glory plays host to a fine collection of ceramics.

Passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, another courtyard greets the eye, beyond which a vast three tiered plinth provides an elevated pedestal for the Three Great Halls, The Hall of Supreme Harmony, The Hall of Central Harmony and The Hall of Preserving Harmony.

Inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, China
       
Within the Hall of Supreme Harmony sits the Mighty Dragon Throne, where the Emperor would preside over his court. In the smaller Hall of Central Harmony, reserved for meetings with the Emperor’s closest ministers, sit two Sedan Chairs, whilst the Hall of Preserving Harmony was chiefly used for ceremonial banquets.

The buildings that run along the side of the Great Halls courtyard were used to store the Emperor's treasures, and nowadays often host interesting periodic exhibitions.

Beyond the Three Great Halls, the thrillingly ornate marble imperial carriageway leading from the Hall of Preserving Harmony is incredibly and beautifully carved from a single block of stone, 16.5 metres (54 feet) long, 3 metres (10 feet) wide and with a depth of 1.7 metres (5 and a half feet), weighing some 200 tonnes, and was originally rolled into Beijing upon beds of ice.   

Beyond, the following three halls, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, though less grand in scale than the Great Halls, represent the core of administrative power within the Forbidden City, beyond which lies the Imperial Garden at the rear of the complex and finally, the North Gate, by which visitors leave the rarefied world of the past.

Alongside the entire precession of halls and courtyards, numerous other buildings lie on either side, some of which are open to the public and reveal the true vastness of the imperial complex, containing many interesting features of the imperial era such as the lovely nine-dragon screen of the Palace of Peace and Longevity.

Nine Dragon Screen, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Just beyond the North Gate exit, Jingshan Park was originally created from the mound accumulated through the excavation of the Forbidden City moat, and provides an excellent view over both the Forbidden City and wider Beijing.

Alongside the western flank of the Forbidden City moat, a series of lakes, collectively known as the Houhai Lakes, are a great open space to wander around, watching the locals at leisure and contain a number of places of interest, such as the Great Hall of the People and the White Cloud Temple.

TEMPLE OF HEAVEN 

A kilometre south of Tiananmen Square, is the park of the Temple of Heaven, another UNESCO World Heritage site, a highly ordered architectural layout based on Confucian principals, where the Emperor, as part of his role as the ‘Son of Heaven’, would come to pray for good harvests.

The structural similarities to elements of the Forbidden City are due to the construction’s origins with the Yongle Emperor who also commissioned that space.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is an architectural marvel constructed of wood, without the use of nails or mortar. Originally built in 1420 AD, the faithful reconstruction of today was built in 1889, following the devastation of the original by fire from a lightning strike.

Other notable structures in the park are the octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and its surrounding Echo Wall, the Round Altar, the sacrificial Animal Killing Pavilion, Divine Music Administration and the Fasting Palace.

THE HUTONGS

A way north of the Forbidden City, the Hutongs are the surviving authentic areas of backstreet Beijing, the charming traditional alleyways and courtyards of ancient Beijing, which encircled the Forbidden City, with the ‘upper classes’ predictably living closest to the imperial seat of power.

Many of the original Hutongs have been destroyed in the modern era and in the future probably all will be eventually redeveloped. Of what does remain, the hutongs provide the visitor with a remarkable insight into the reality of both contemporary Chinese life and its connection to ancient times, and is a thoroughly fascinating adventure best enjoyed by a bicycle or on a walking tour.

Beijing Hutong, Beijing, China
   
Aside from the general ambience of the area, one of the central features of the Hutongs is the Drum Tower, originally built by the Mongols in 1272 AD, when the city was known by the pre-Beijing name of Dadu. Destroyed by fire, the 1420 AD reconstruction was also further modified in the later Qing Dynasty.

The original purpose of the Drum Tower was to keep time in the city, with drums being sounded at various times during the day. Next door, the Bell tower, achieved the same ends with the use of bells and is of similar antiquity. Inside you can view the impressive 63 tonne bell.

SUMMER PALACE 

To the northwest of the city, the former summer retreat of the Emperors enabled an escape from the claustrophobic confines of court at the Forbidden City, and offered its residents fine vistas over Lake Kunming, a man made waterway backed by Longevity hill, raised from the excavated material.

Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Another great place to stroll, the park is full of gardens and beautiful structures such as the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion, Cloud Dispelling Hall, Great Opera Hall, the beautiful seventeen arch bridge and garden of Harmonious Pleasures. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Bridge at the Summer Palace, Beijing, China
   
A little way to the northeast, lies the ruined site of the 12th century Old Summer Palace, destroyed by British and French forces during the Second Opium War which, despite the destruction, are worthy of exploration. Some of the site has been restored and plans to expand the reconstruction are partially stalled by many of the original features being in the possession of foreign museums and private collectors.

Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Not far from the Summer Palace, Fragrant Hills Park was originally yet another Imperial retreat, and is a visual delight, particularly in the autumn, when the maples turn delirious golds and reds, imbuing the pleasant countryside with beautiful hues. Yet another nearby delight in this area is the Botanic Gardens. 

 

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