Day Five: Heavenly Cultural Visits

Today was a day packed with cultural sites, led by the one and only Uncle Joe. Our first stop was at the Tiananmen Square, where we stopped to have Joe explain some of the relevance of some of the buildings and monuments. The Square houses the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where citizens and tourists queue for hours to spend only a minute in front of the Communist leader’s perfectly embalmed body. In the center of the square, there is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, an incredibly tall pillar erected in honor of those lost during China’s revolutionary struggles. Flanking the square stands the Great Hall of the People, a government building that is used for both parliament meetings and for ceremonial occasions. On the other side of the square is the Tiananmen, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, a large ornamental gate to the Forbidden City adorned with a massive 20ft oil portrait of Mao.

The flagpole where the National Flag Raising Ceremony occurs every morning, featuring the Tiananmen Gate in the background

We crossed through the Tiananmen Gate to enter the Forbidden City. We were greeted by a huge courtyard surrounded by wide red buildings with yellow tile roofs. I’m not sure I can accurately get across how large the city was, but I can give you some impressive numbers: the city covered an area of 178 acres, surrounded by a 100ft high wall on all sides, as well as a moat 27ft deep. The city had 90 palaces and courtyards, and nearly a thousand buildings. In these thousand buildings, the emperor ordered that there be a total of 9,999 rooms, as only the great palace in heaven may have 10,000 rooms.



This complex was used by the emperor’s family, concubines, advisers from the Ming dynasty in the 1400s to the last emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Through this time, it was forbidden for anyone to enter the city without the emperor’s permission, giving the site it’s name. There was a large amount of movement in and out of the city, as “no real men” were allowed to stay within the city’s wall after sunset. Of course, to work around this rule, the emperor kept hundreds of eunuchs as servants. While the throne room and other impressive palace buildings were very cool to see, I was also fascinated by the smaller things that made the Forbidden city unique. Since nearly every building in the city was made out of wood, hefty metal basins of water lined the courtyards for use in a firefighting emergency. Rainwater runoff from the palace’s patios were funneled into drainage spouts shaped like dragon heads. Copper statues of different animals flanked the throne room, including this dragon-turtle hybrid.

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I was also fascinated by the construction of a lot of the buildings. Most of the buildings within the Forbidden city were built using an ancient form of wood joinery that didn’t require glue or nails to stay together. Using special interlocking brackets called “duogong”, the walls were able to distribute the weight of the roof. These brackets were strong but not stiff, so when they were shaken or shifted during an earthquake, they wouldn’t shatter, a fact that has allowed the Forbidden City to weather hundreds of earthquakes over its long history. I also learned that many of the buildings had hollow walls so that during the winter, servants could warm ovens to send heated air to the emperor’s quarters.

Our final stop in the Forbidden City was the private garden. In addition to the many trees and plants, there were towering rockeries made with porous sedimentary rock. It was such a beautiful area and my personal favorite out of the entire complex.

After the Forbidden City and lunch, we visited the ancient Hutongs of Beijing. We began our rickshaw tour with a short introduction, with our guide pointing out how status was often indicated by the number of beams over the door, with two to zero typically being lower class citizens. She also pointed out how all the brick walls were painted gray, as red was a color of power, and something that was typically reserved for the emperor. We then broke into pairs and hopped onto our rickshaws.


As we toured the streets, we saw many broken bicycles lining the road, and cars with covers and boards covering their tires. We found out later that this was to prevent the street dogs from peeing on their cars. There were public restrooms at the end of every block, which made me think that they were meant for the residents of the neighborhood. While riding through these narrow streets, and looking at what looked like a run-down low-income area of the city, I noticed that some of these cars parked outside the dense housing were very high-end. Mercedes, BMW, Audi: makes and models that just didn’t seem to fit the area.

At the end of our rickshaw ride, we were led through a small courtyard and into the living room of a hutong resident. The room was very small, but lavishly decorated. Elaborate artwork hung on the walls and many of us sat in intricately carved hardwood chairs. Our tour guide went on to explain that the Beijing hutongs were not low-income areas at all, but multi-million dollar properties passed down through family lines for generations. It was such a desirable place to live due to it’s location in the very center of Beijing, mere blocks from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The Chinese government recognized the historical relevance of these areas, so residents aren’t permitted from renovating the exterior of their homes, which preserves the impression that we first got on our ride. Many older people live in the hutong, and they gather outside in their courtyards to spend time with family and play mahjong. We were  treated to a performance on the guzheng, or Chinese zither, and given a Chinese knot, a symbol of good luck.

From the hutong we bussed to the Temple of Heaven, situated in its own park. Our group stopped and met our tai chi instructor, who led us through four series of movements. The order of flowy movement was surprisingly hard to follow, but after repetition we were able to make it through with only a small bit of guidance from our instructor.

We then walked along an ornate decorated pathway to the Temple of Heaven. The temple was used twice a year by the emperor to make sacrifices of animals, food, and jade to the gods. Through this semi-annual tradition, the emperor was not only encouraging a good harvest, but also affirming his divine right to rule. The first eight Qing emperors were so respected, they were worshiped as accessory deities following their death. The Temple of Heaven was also built using wood-joinery, and therefore water basins surrounded the temple’s circular platform. The temple was also accompanied by several buildings that would store grains and other offerings before the ceremonies. It was a beautiful building, one that I wish I could have spent more time exploring.

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