Under a hot, shining sun, the bus escorted us to an icon that has represented the days of old when emperors wielded and fell by the fiery hand of the Mandate of Heaven but that has remained as a monument to the modern epoch of the transformations in China. This icon is the Forbidden City and the adjoining Tiananmen Square.
The Forbidden City was once the estate of the emperor of China, and it has continued to essentially be the commemorative house of Chairman Mao Zedong since his assumption of leadership and continuing past his death forty years ago. Our tour guide, Joe, mentioned to us that many Chinese people still have profound respect for Mao, who has become a sacred person of the people. His mausoleum stands large and prominent in Tiananmen Square, which is also flanked by a museum, a government building, and the outer gate of the Forbidden City featuring the portrait of Chairman Mao.
Red and yellow-gold dress the Forbidden City, colors of happiness, good fortune, and nobility. Ornate decorations of yellows, reds, greens, and blues grace the protruding pieces near the overhangs of the archways and building roofs. A male and a female lion guard the gate after the one boasting the portrait of Mao. The colors and lions, among other features, symbolize the might, power, and wishes – for longevity, children, supremacy in the Middle Kingdom and the world – of the emperor, the son of heaven.
The Forbidden City felt endless, a self-contained city for the emperor, his family, his concubines, and his government officials. We walked through gate after gate, encountering large plazas bridging the gates. The last section of the Forbidden City was the Imperial Garden, a thriving forest of trees, shrubs, and flowers engulfing pagodas and walkways in living green, all within the walls of a plaza. The garden was beautiful and relaxing, a private, partitioned utopia in the middle of the sprawl and bustle of Beijing.
The exit of the Forbidden City spit us onto a bridge crossing the complex’s moat, overlooked by the Coal Hill where the emperor’s coal was dried and stored.
On our way to lunch and during our meal, I began to sense the weight of being in a country so different from my own. As a more introverted person, I felt unable to find an isolated space where I could be alone with my thoughts, in a city where people occupy every inch of space. It’s similar to living in a non-single-room dorm at college. At college, you enjoy the company of your peers and the ability to see many of your friends very often, but there is no space to which you can retreat if you want to be alone to recuperate and to reflect.
Lunch itself was quite tasty. I enjoyed the tea, which appeared to have dandelions in it, but I couldn’t distinguish what it was for sure. The restaurant served us one dish that resembled the classic American chicken wing, another that seemed to be Chinese-style calamari, and one of cut fruits in a sweet milky liquid.
The conclusion of lunch shipped us off to a nearby hutong, a typical Beijing neighborhood, where we saw a drum tower and bell tower, which used to sound to denote the hour of day and when the city gates would close. Via rickshaw, we arrived at the lodging of a man in his 70s who has lived in his house for a long time. His father, 99 years old, lives in a house, which are all one-story houses, at the north end of the courtyard. The courtyard comprised the central facet of the lodging, which was surrounded by about four other family residences. Our host talked about his family and his life in the hutong and showed us old pictures of his family and of his hutong.
Our friendly host showed us out of his house, the courtyard, and the two gates, which opened up on the space of narrow, cluttered road where our rickshaw drivers were waiting for us. We rode the rickshaws back to, I think, the drum tower (as opposed to the bell tower). The bus then escorted us to the Temple of Heaven.
The grounds of the Temple of Heaven sprouted many shady trees that rustled in the breeze, as well as some flowers and shrubs. The grounds around the temple produced a very relaxing park-like atmosphere. Apparently, people would go to the temple grounds to play chess, to do tai chi, and, at one time, to sing.
Passing through the second checkpoint gate, we entered the ring in which the Temple of Heaven resided. Rising from the stone surface at the top of the third tier, the temple stood as a blue and reddish brown testament to the sacrifices and prayers of the emperor, the son of heaven. The emperor would go to pray to the god of heaven twice per year, and sometimes a third in times of drought or floods.
After considering the temple from all angles and exploring the smaller accessory buildings, the group found a shady spot surrounded by trees just off of a pathway outside of the second checkpoint. There, a guest teacher instructed us on a tai chi routine, and we followed his graceful, disciplined movements. Before we parted with the teacher and departed from the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, the teacher demonstrated a tai chi routine to give us an idea of what it is and how it is done.
Later that evening, Sophie, Chloe, Angeline, and I met Frances, one of the program coordinators for the Beijing leg of our trip, for dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant. We had seen in Beijing a restaurant with hibachi cooktops for each individual table, so I expected the barbecue restaurant to be similar. In some ways, it was; there was a stove burner in the middle of each table, but it wasn’t a hibachi cooktop. Instead, the waiter brought a circular golden apparatus with a gutter around the outer edge that rose to a peak in the center. In the gutter, a seasoned cooking liquid flowed, and on the slopes of the apparatus, the waiter cooked the meats, rice, and vegetables that we ordered. I was pleasantly surprised when the meats were tender, juicy, and slightly spicy but flavorful. I sampled beef, octopus, mushrooms, and a rice and vegetable blend, among other foods. Socially, we conversed and asked Frances questions about observations we’ve made, life in China, and personal preferences.
Periodically since the Korean barbecue, I’ve craved the taste of the flavored meat. The food was a little bit spicy for me, but Frances thought that the food was very spicy, which illustrates the variety of spices, food, and palettes throughout China.
Seeing prominent emblems of China added a lot of new spatial, historical, and cultural information to the picture of Chinese life and society that I have been painting throughout the trip. Starting tomorrow, we will see another side of China through the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province.
P.S. Many of us have noticed that the wi-fi in China has been very fickle and slow, even in the hotel.