There are 14 districts and two counties subdividing the urban mass that is Beijing. Last week I took a look at the Xicheng district – you have to start somewhere. Continuing with city centre area, it’s now the turn of Dongcheng.
Two familiar and iconic locations that stand out to us Westerners are located here: Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, the former grimly famous for the unknown individual facing off to a column of tanks on 4 June 1989. Incidentally, and hauntingly, the Tank Man has never come forward to reveal himself, though second hand reports of his escape and continued existence – and his use of the alias Wang Weilin at the time of the Tiananmen uprising – continue.
Of the famous resulting images, we are rarely shown ones depicting the sheer extent of the Square itself. It is the largest constructed city square in the world – Mao’s show-piece and stage – measuring 880m by 500m, although its origins date back to 1651 when it was built at one quarter of its current size.
Important show-piece edifices of political China also exist within the square: the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Monument of the People’s Heroes. On the north side of the square, the Tiananmen Gate offers access to Zongshan Park, the Imperial City Art Museum and onwards into the Forbidden City itself.
Across the Ming and Quing dynasties – for almost 500 years, the Forbidden City was focus for both Chinese imperial, governmental and ceremonial concerns. 980 structures across the Inner and Outer Courts, comprising of halls and palaces under such dedications as The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity and The Hall of Mental Cultivation are arranged inside the revered boundaries – a world away from the mundane lives existing outside.
By various accounts, the lives within were imprisoned inside gilded cages, with little or no personal freedom, and could be subject to harsh brutality – even death – whilst paradoxically surrounded by a level of stifling luxury, beauty, comfort and formality that is hard to comprehend. Today, relics and artefacts of this lost era are on display to the constant amazement of the tourist throughput.
Outside the Forbidden City, there are temples dedicated to wisdom, teaching, and to Confucius himself, usually with a modest fee – in the region of 20 yuan – for admittance. Museums, including the National Museum of China, are also present; with respective institutions covering art and police history – to indicate the range of topics covered.
Expanding into the greater Dongcheng area, a wide range of cultural institutions abound: parks, galleries, concert halls and an ancient observatory exist for perusal, along with the equally ancient and iconic Drum and Bell Towers.
Prepare to ascend over 60 steps after more (similarly modest) admittance fees for city views and a chance to witness the 63 ton bell and an arsenal of drums – some of which are played incidentally, in small performance: once during the hour.
This region of Beijing is also said to have some of the best preserved Hutong districts inside the city, full of real people living real lives, non-tourist shops and markets; that kind of thing. Apparently, rickshaw tours are available – and as with any wandering: “sensible” precautions apply.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 117) Arrival Beijing #6
[Photo by j. kunst]