Beijing’s World Heritage Sites

May 17 – 20, 2013
Photo set on Flickr

Enough Beijing bashing. Let’s change the subject and talk about some of China’s most revered cultural treasures. Within Beijing’s city proper are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with more potentially on the way. The Great Wall is truly world-class, but I came away slightly disappointed on the four sites in the city’s central district. Collectively they stand as the pinnacle of ancient Chinese engineering and architecture, but in today’s Beijing they are lesser than the sum of its parts.

The main issue has less to do with each of these individual sites and everything to do with their host city. The reason why Beijing has such an eye-popping number of WHS is driven by a political will for legitimization and also from a position of weakness – what remains of the city’s heritage is segregated as World Heritage Sites that have nothing in common with the surrounding cityscape.

Beijing might be the capital of China over the past 800 years, but the city, as the political heart of the Middle Kingdom, has a run of poor luck along with the rest of the country over the past two millennia. First was a prolong period of political instability in the late Qing and early republic years followed by the war years in the 1930s – 40s. Just when things at last appeared to look up under communist rule, Mao launched his personal crusade against his political enemies, the Cultural Revolution, which brought an incalculable amount of destruction to Chinese heritage.

But even when the political scene calms down after Mao’s death and China supercharges into an economic superpower over the past three decades, demolition both tangible and intangible continues in Beijing. Expanding seemingly daily to make room for the incessant flow of migrants from the countryside looking for a better life, Beijing has grown from a population of around 9mil in 1980 to more than 21mil in 2013. Traditional neighbourhoods are cleared to make space for high-rises and roads. Gradually Beijing’s WHS become enclaves within their own city, though perhaps that’s always their destiny – they were designed and built for emperors, after all.

Forbidden Palace 故宫

The administrative centre and imperial residence for 24 Ming and Qing emperors over almost five centuries, the name Forbidden City is not a hyperbole – it literally is a city in the middle of Beijing, consisting 980 buildings over an area of 183 acres. At its peak during the late Ming era tens of thousands lived here. Fire is a constant threat and most of the current buildings are from early Qing when the complex was burned to the ground by Li Zicheng at the dask of the Ming dynasty.

As China’s second most notable cultural attraction behind the Great Wall, the Forbidden City has the potential to be one of the world’s transcendent museum, but regrettably it fails to reach such lofty height. Crowd is not the main issue; its gigantic size can easily absorb the average daily number of visitors of 38,000. Duck a few blocks from the main path and you will hardly see another person. The reason why it is so easy to get away from the crowd is because most of the buildings look identical and are not opened to public.

The Forbidden City indeed houses many amazing artefacts, but most of the very best were shipped to Taiwan by the Kuomingtang at the end of the civil war and are now under the management of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Moreover, the wooden buildings have dark interiors and limited display space, which make a poor venue for showcasing artefacts.

Also affecting the experience is the dissonance between how the authority tries to present the palace and its imperial lineage. Starting with Mao’s portrait on the southern gate Tiananmen, the official tone of describing the palace is overtly political – communism has freed China from its imperial heritage and now everyone, no matter your social standing, can come appreciate what the Chinese civilization is able to achieve. There are stories and gossips of which popular emperor or concubine did what at where, but the human element of the millions of lives who once called this place home was mostly brushed aside to avoid the appearance of glorifying the imperialistic past.

The Forbidden City is still a must-see. If short of time I would have no problem missing any of the following sites, but anyone who visits Beijing should save an afternoon for this. My tip is to stay until it closes – the compound is so vast that the staff takes a long time to clear the ground. If you time it properly you can get some photos without any people in the foreground.

Temple of Heaven 天壇

Constructed in 1420 during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle, the Temple of Heaven, located to the south of the Forbidden City, was where the monarchs of the Ming and Qing dynasties held annual offerings to deities for rain and good harvest. The compound was occupied by the Eight Nation Alliance in 1900 and much of the ceremonial artefacts were plundered. Eighteen years later, after the founding of the republic, the complex was turned into a public park.

The highlight of the complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿), a 38m tall wooden building without using any nails or purlins. The structure is supported by 12 giant pillars which represent each of the earthly branches, the ancient Chinese unit of time. The round temple is supported by a square-shaped marble platform, symbolizing the traditional Chinese belief that the universe is “round in the sky and square on earth”. The building was burned down in 1889 after being struck by lightning and was reconstructed a few years later.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is arguably Beijing’s most recognizable icon, meaning it is impossible to find a sliver of space up close among the crowd to study the architecture. This is one of those sites, after taking the mandatory tourist photo, you will leave immediately with a feeling of both mission accomplished and a colossal waste of time.

Summer Palace 頤和園

In the mid 18th century at the peak of the Qing Dynasty’s power, the emperor Qianlong commissioned a new palace complex around Jar Hill in the northeast part of the capital to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday. The emperor, known for his deep affection of the scenery of southern China, particularly Hangzhou’s West Lake, ordered the expansion of the existing Western Lake to replicate its famous counterpart in the south. The soil dug up from the expansion works of the new lake was piled on Jar Hill, which was renamed the Longevity Hill.

This extravagant project coincided with the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s gradual yet steep decline. By the mid 19th century some sections of the palace were dismantled to save some of the sky-high maintainance costs. When the French and English armies burned down the nearby Yuanmingyuan Palace and ramsacked the Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War, it smashed all pretense that China was still a world-leading power. The sense of misery only worsen when the palace was sacked again 40 years later at the hands of the Eight Nation Alliance.

These humiliating episodes are all solidly in the past, and the Summer Palace has predictably turned into a tourist hot spot. The palace, originally designed for the pleasure of only the royal family, is now required to accommodate thousands of visitors a day, the majority of which converge in and around Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill.

Most of Summer Palace’s points of interest are not particularly interesting; the palace is in essence a collection of replicas of Qianlong’s personal favourite attractions across southern China. Most people are content to walk the length of the Long Corridor, a 728m covered walkway decorated with more than 14,000 paintings, then take a photo of the Longevity Hill and call it a day. But when throngs of tourists descend upon its gate on a day of dense smog, which is basically the majority of the time in Beijing, and the visibility is reduced to a few metres, I am sure even the palace’s biggest admirer Qianlong would want no part of it.

Shichahai 什刹海, The Grand Canal

The Sui-era Grand Canal, constructed 1,400 years ago, is one of ancient China’s most important engineering feat that links the landlocked capital to the fertile south. The section of the 1,776km canal between Hangzhou and Wuxi is one of the country’s more popular tourist attraction, and the northern section is functional rather than scenic.

Officially, the three lakes that comprise Shichahai is part of the Grand Canal WHS because it used to be the northernmost part of the canal. This has not been the case for hundreds of years as the water level of the Tonghui River is too shallow to support navigation. Nowadays the closest that ships can reach the capital is Tongzhou, 20km southeast from central Beijing.

Shichahai is a popular nightlife destination and is in close proximity to popular destinations like the Drum Tower and Yonghe Temple. The lake itself is very ordinary-looking and most people are unaware this is even a WHS. Counting this as a visit to the Grand Canal feels a little like a cheat.

Central Axis of Beijing (Tentative) 

Yongdingmen

You always hear complaints that World Heritage Site is a highly politicized campaign for states to market their attractions under the disguise of conservation. The perfect example to feed such cynicism is China’s decision to nominate the Central Axis of Beijing, an area that already includes two inscribed sites in the Forbidden Palace and the Temple of Heaven. If the Central Axis is worthy of a place on the list, why not nominate the entire area together with the two existing WHS at the very beginning?

The proposed area covers from the Drum and Bell Towers all the way south to the Yongdingmen. This 7.8km stretch is the traditional heart of the capital, spanning across palaces, temples, fortification and markets. Major attractions include the above mentioned towers, Beihai Park, Tiananmen Square and several city gates. I visited three of them:

  • Drum Tower (鼓樓): The 47m wooden tower, along with the adjacent Bell Tower, was used as time announcement up till the late Qing dynasty. Now it offers a nice view of central Beijing.
  • Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場): One of the world’s largest city square, it is home to various Communist monuments and government buildings. More than two decades after the Tiananmen Protests, the square remains one of the most policially sensitive area in China – it is heavily patrolled by soldiers and all visitors have to go through checkpoints.
  • Yongdingmen (永定門): Part of the outer section of Beijing’s city wall, the gate was knocked down to give way to the construction of new roads. It was rebuilt in 2005 and the gate tower now houses a souvenir shop.

Every visitor to Beijing will come across at least one of these sites, but none deserves to be a WHS on its own. And it is hard to think of them as a coherent unit; the destruction to the area and the presence of the communist style Tiananmen are irreversible and permanent. If this nomination ends up successful despite the presence of two existing sites within the same area, it will only make a mockery of UNESCO and the whole exercise that is the WHS.

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