Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Alda Agustine Budiono
This August, the world’s eyes will turn to Beijing, as the Chinese capital will host the 2008 Summer Olympics. For those who have a chance to go there, you will not only watch the biggest sport event in the world, but also be reminded of the country’s long history.
The 1987 Oscar winning movie ‘The Last Emperor’ by Bernardo Bertolucci shows the inside of the Chinese Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City. The movie was in fact shot on the spot, and tells the story of the last Qing dynasty emperor, Pu Yi. For centuries China was ruled by emperors from 37 dynasties. The Ming and the Qing are the most well known.
Traces of the Chinese imperial glory can be found everywhere in Beijing; the majestic Imperial Palace, the beautiful summer palace, the sacred Temple of Heaven, the magnificent Ming Dynasty Tombs, and of course, the Great Wall.
Beijing became the capital of China for the first time when the Kubilai Khan established the Yuan dynasty. Then, the Ming dynasty emperor Yongle, known as the architect of Beijing, began a massive rebuilding of the city, including the Temple of Heaven and the Imperial Palace, which took 14 years to complete. He also built the walls complete with looming watchtowers to protect the city from enemies.
The Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644 and established the Qing dynasty. During their reign, the Imperial Palace was expanded, and several pleasure palaces were built on the outskirts.
In the House of the Emperors
To reach the Forbidden City, the house of Chinese emperors, I had to go through the Tian’anmen Square, the largest public square in the world, covering 1000 hectares. There are two buildings in between a central path which leads to the Imperial Palace.
The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world, with 9.999 rooms. It is so huge! Its Outer Court was designed to accommodate 90.000 people during ceremonies. There are three main halls; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the grandest of the three, stands in the center. This is where important ceremonies were held, including the emperor’s birthday. Inside is the famous Dragon Throne. Behind it is the Hall of Central Harmony, where the emperor dressed for functions. The last building is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, where the emperor would change into full ceremonial dress before granting the title of the empress and the crown prince.
Then I went to the Inner Court, where the emperor lived with his two empresses and concubines, served by thousands of palace maids and eunuchs. The main entrance is the Gate of Heavenly Purity which was built like a mansion. Since the reign of emperor Kang Xi (1662-1722) the emperor sometimes gave audience to government officials at this gate. The most important building however, is the Palace of Heavenly Purity which mainly served as the living quarters of the emperors who occasionally also attended state affairs here. This is the place where a dead emperor was laid in state. The empresses during Ming and Qing times lived in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. The bridal chamber is located to the east of its main hall; the emperor and empress spent two nights here after the wedding. Its decoration is the same as used at the wedding of emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) of the Qing dynasty. The Qing (1644-1911) was the last dynasty to rule China, founded by the Manchu clan Aisin-Gioro. Guangxu was the 11th emperor out of twelve.
At the back of the palace is the Imperial Garden. It was built in 1417 and is the oldest garden in Beijing, covering an area of 1.3 hectares. The main scenic spot here is the Hill of Collecting Excellence with the Pavilion of Lasting Splendor. Ancient cypress trees, some of them about 400 years old, stand in front.
The emperor, empresses, and concubines sometimes came here to worship the cowherd star and the girl weaver star on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. This shows that religion is an important part of life for the imperial court. The emperor was regarded as the ‘son of heaven’ who administered earthly matters on behalf of the heavenly authority. To show respect for this higher authority, sacrifices to heaven were extremely important. A temple was built for these ceremonies, mostly comprising of prayers for good harvest.
At the Garden of Nurtured Harmony
The Summer Palace started its life as the Garden of Clear Ripples (Qingyi Yuan) in 1750) during the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). It is dominated by the 60-meters-high Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, which was created by extending an existing body of water to imitate the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.
The palace complex suffered two major attacks – during the Anglo-French allied invasion in 1860 and again during the Boxer Rebellion by western allied powers in 1900. But the garden survived and was rebuilt dutifully in 1886 and 1902.
At the front yard, I saw some bronze statues of interesting creatures, among them are the phoenix, the crane, and the Qilin. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress. The crane is the symbol of longevity. The Qilin is a mythical creature which is said to bring good omens. Legend told that this beast punish the wicked and takes the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the skin and scales of a fish, the hooves of an ox, and the tail of a lion.
The beautiful surrounding view can be seen as I walked down the Long corridor, a 700 meters corridor that runs across the south shore of the lake. From a distance I could see the Temple of Buddihist Virtue. The combination of the lake and the temple was such a breathtaking view and I’m sure anyone will be amazed as I was.
The Summer Palace is closely linked to Empress Dowager Cixi from the Qing dynasty. She was a concubine of Xianfeng (1850-1861) and the only concubine who gave birth to a son therefore her rank was raised five times. When the emperor died, she became the empress dowager and ruled the country on behalf of her son emperor Tongzhi, who then died at the age of 19. So she installed her nephew, Guangxu as the emperor and he ascended the throne at the age of four. She however, continued ruling the country from behind the curtain and made the emperor her puppet. Before her death, she appointed the three-year-old Pu Yi to succeed Guangxu.
This palace is where the emperors of China went to escape the heat of Beijing in summer. This is also where Cixi spent most of her time during her life. However, a tragedy happened here. Emperor Guangxu, trying to break free from his aunt’s control, launched reform movement in 1898. Cixi found out and didn’t like it, as she was highly conservative. So she put Guangxu under house arrest in the Hall of Jade Ripples. He remained there until his death in 1908 at the age of 37, allegedly poisoned by the empress dowager herself, who died a day later. This is just one of the stories from behind the walls of the Summer Palace, passed on from one generation to the next.
Praying for Good Harvest
Sacrifices and rituals are important parts of life to the imperial court. Therefore they needed a place to do these and it is the Temple of Heaven. Built during the reign of the emperor Yongle (1402-1424), the third Ming emperor, it took 14 years to complete.
The Temple of Heaven was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998. According to the Chinese news office Xinhua, it underwent a 47 million yuan ($5.9 million) face-lift in preparation for the summer Olympics. The restoration began in early 2005 and was completed in May 1st, 2006.
The first building I saw upon entering the temple was the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest, standing 39 meters tall, supported by 28 wooden pillars and topped by three conical roofs covered with blue jade tiles. Inside, the Altar of Heaven, where the emperor would offer sacrifice to Heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice every year, a ceremony to thank Heaven and hope everything would be good in future.
Another important building is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which looks like a blue umbrella with a gold head when it is viewed from a distance. It is smaller than the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest and used to store tables for ceremonies.
The Echo Wall is a very interesting thing to see. It is a circular brick wall surrounding the Imperial Vault which has the acoustical ability that enables two people standing on the opposite side to hear each other in whisper.
I saw some people praying at the altars on the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. I hope the Heaven will hear their prayers.
Visiting the Ming Emperors
The famous Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644. There were sixteen emperors in the dynasty, but only thirteen are buried in the site known today as ‘Shisan Ling’ or the Thirteen Ming Dynasty Tombs.
They are located some fifty kilometers north of today’s Beijing, the site which was chosen by the third Ming emperor Yongle, when he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. After the construction of the Forbidden City in 1420, he selected his burial site here and created his own mausoleum, Changling. It is said that sixteen concubines were buried alive with the emperor to accompany him to the ‘next world’. The practice was later abolished fortunately.
Dingling, which is about 27 meters deep underground, is the burial site of the thirteenth Ming emperor, the useless Wanli emperor, Zhu Yijun. He is said to be ‘useless’ because he left matters to corrupt officials and allowed the country to collapse into malaise and general suffering. The site took six years to finish, and when it was completed in 1581, Wanli gave a grand feast in his own funeral chamber, 38 years before his death.
The coffin of the emperor and his two empresses, along with more than 3000 artifacts are displayed in two small museums. Among them are eating utensils made of gold and silver, the emperor and empress’ ceremonial dresses, the crowns, armed suits, and swords.
A Wonder of the World
It is of course the Great Wall. One of the man’s greatest engineering achievements, it stretches along 5900 kilometers from the Bohai Gulf in the Yellow Sea to Jiayuguan in the green mountains of Giansu. That is perhaps why it was originally named ‘Changcheng’ or the Long Wall.
The wall was built to keep out the barbarian (the Huns) invaders from the north by Qin Shi Huang, the emperor from the Qin dynasty and the one who unified China. It was mainly using taipa, stones, and wood. However, during the Ming dynasty period, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall. Their size and weight made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction could be quickened. Additionally, bricks could bear more weight and endure better rammed earth. Stone can hold under its weight better than bricks, but is more difficult to use. Consequently, stone cut in rectangular shapes were used for the foundation, inner, and outer brims, and for the gateways of the wall.
About every 100 yards down the Great Wall, the workers were forced to build a watchtower 45 feet high to spot the enemies and light a signal fire to warn all the soldiers along the wall to prepare for an enemy attack. Those that had died were buried inside the wall. The wall was worked on throughout hundreds of years. Later on in the Ming Dynasty (about 1,000 years after Qin Shi Huang), the Ming emperor extended the wall’s plans to make it run to cover more of the provinces and to Juyongguan (gate to the famous Silk Road).
Much of the wall in northeast China today dates back to the Ming dynasty that paid great attention of it. They strengthen the wall’s construction by using bricks instead of rammed earth.
The Great Wall is said to be the only object on earth that can be seen from the moon. Richard Halliburton’s 1938 book Second Book of Marvel makes a similar claim, but it is not true. The belief has persisted however, assuming true urban legend status, sometimes even appearing in school textbooks. Arthur Waldron author or The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, has speculated that the belief might go back to the fascination of ‘canals’ once believed to exist on Mars.
Whether the stories are true of not, the Great Wall continues to fascinate people and lure them to come and see this wonder of the word. There is a saying ‘He who has not ascended the Great Wall is not a true man.’