In this overview of Beijing, it’s time to do a little research on the third of the central city districts: Xuanwa. Since 1st July 2010, Xuanwa has officially become part of the Xicheng district: effectively it is now South Xicheng. But as it still preserves its own character, it’s treated here separately.
Located in the south westerly quadrant of Beijing, Xuanwu was originally home to the lower class of Chinese culture, and the relative lack of architectural spectacle serves to demonstrate this point. Hutong may be still found here, but due to the pace of change in Beijing, many of them have been erased in favour of ongoing “development”. Parks, temples, museums and theatres still exist – and a mosque too, a focus for the large Muslim population.
In spite of its original low-brow status, some of the most renowned opera in Beijing can be found in this district, including the Huguang Huiguan Theatre where the legacy of traditional Chinese opera is still kept alive.
Interestingly – and encouragingly too – Qianmen Dajie Pedestrian Street, having existed for over half a millennium is currently being restored back to its 1920’s incarnation. Now open to the public, the commercial presence is still being established, but the very attempt to re-establish anything prior to the Cultural Revolution is worthy of note in itself.
As with Xuanwu, Chongwen has also been officially absorbed into its larger, central neighbour to the north: Dongcheng. This too occurred on the 1 July 2010, though here I’m referring to it separately. Paradoxically, although the district (as with Xuanwu) was traditionally impoverished, Chongwen does with some irony contain the striking Temple of Heaven complex. This consists of three buildings set in a spacious courtyard. The dimensions and features of the edifices present, employ spiritual and symbolic principles in their construction and relationship to each other and the real/ethereal world beyond.
The 28 pillars of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests for instance represent the number of constellations in the night sky. Similarly, utilisation of the number 9 in, say, the quantity of stone steps here or the number of fixing nails, there is seen as having a direct and auspicious connection to the divine. In the belief system employed here, God is thought to dwell on the 9th layer of Heaven. Befitting of a connection with the divine, the finish and décor of the buildings are truly remarkable, displaying intricately detailed and motif-fed columns, and numerous, ornately painted surfaces. Remarkable.
The cultural significance of the temple, historically speaking can not be understated, even the emperor would encamp here bi-annually to pray for good harvests or to conduct a ceremony on mid-winter solstice, which involved – amongst other things – the sacrifice of cattle. Again another irony, as the ceremony also involved abstinence from the eating of meat!
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 118) Arrival Beijing #7
[Photo by Ivan Walsh]