Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Highlights of Beijing, China

The greatest of walls, mortals name
A structure of immortal fame.
Its towers rising strong and high
Proud kings bade storm and foe defy.

photo from http://news.ifeng.com
When I arrived in Beijing in the spring, the city was just beginning to undergo its annual cottonwood air blitz. Each year after the snows melt, a different kind of white sheet coats the city. The snowy, fluffy catkins that cover the roads cause all sorts of problems, including traffic delays and allergic reactions. The culprits are female poplar and willow trees planted in their millions beginning in the 1960s because they are hardy trees that grow quickly. Now the government has to take extreme measure like culling the branches and employing chemicals in order to cut down on the ubiquitous pollen fuzzballs that rain down every spring. Luckily, where I was staying in the city, there were no such trees planted en masse. Instead, nearby Qianmen Street offered a vista of buildings reconstructed in the iconic style of the Qing Dynasty. Although there are two sets of rails stretching the length of the kilometer-long street, the only trams that make the trip nowadays cater to tourists.

Ming and Qing dynasty imperial architecture dominate the capital’s most famous sights, notable examples of which include the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. The Forbidden City’s complex of red walls and yellow glazed roof tiles makes missing the importance of color and symbolism in Chinese architecture impossible. Yellow is the imperial color and is said to represent the element earth. Blue tiles are widespread at the Temple of Heaven since blue is said to represent the air and the heavens. Green tiles, the color of bamboo shafts, symbolize youth and longevity, and black tiles, which are popular on pagodas, represent water. Once only familiar to the highest echelon of society, these tiles still gleam today as brightly as the day they were fired.

Another Qing-dynasty creation, Yonghe Lamastery (aka Lama Temple), the best preserved Tibetan Lamasery outside Tibet, contains many architectural elements considered exotic at the time of its construction. It was originally built to be an imperial palace, but it was converted into a lamasery to appease the Tibetan and Mongolian regions on the frontiers of China, which mostly consisted of Tibetan Buddhists at the time. Past the entrance of the complex is a long corridor of gingko trees, which leads to the first and largest square. The temple grounds consist of five such squares strung along and connected by the primary temple buildings. Each square has its own distinctive style, and each associated building its own set of breathtaking Buddhist statues. Here smoke is the currency and clouds of it constantly billow up from censers set before the entrance to each building. The faithful can obtain a complimentary box and proceed through the grounds, which are replete with kneelers and cushioned hassocks for gestures of piety, whether it be in the form of simple kneeling or more dynamic kowtowing. Many cushions bear the five well-defined imprints of knees, foreheads and hands in testament to the multitudes of believers who’ve come here to pray.

The buildings themselves are richly decorated and steeped in symbolism, and they become more elaborate in their furnishings as you progress northward. The first building, the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, contains a quadrumvirate of grim-faced guardians representing the four cardinal directions and trampling figures that symbolize the primary disturbing emotions - greed, hatred and ignorance. A heavy-set Budai, a Chinese folkloric deity often associated with the Maitraya Buddha, the future Buddha, sits beaming behind several offerings of fresh fruits. From the back exit, a gilded and ornate statue of Wei Tuo looks toward the next building. A bodhisattva, Wei Tuo has achieved nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist religion, but has foregone this state of oneness with the universe in order to guard and assist those who've yet to attain enlightenment. The second hall, the Hall of Harmony and Peace, features three large, seated buddhas of gilded copper that represent the past, the present and the future. Nine apostolic arhats line either side of the hall. Whereas Buddhahood is granted to anyone who has escaped the cycle of Samsara and attained nirvana through their own inner guidance, an arhat is often regarded as someone who’s achieved the same under the tutelage of a buddha. These particular arhats are meant to represent the original followers of the Gautama Buddha. The colors of their skin ranging from alabaster to bronze represent the idea that anyone, regardless of race or origin, can be freed from the fetters of worldly temptations. There is, nonetheless, a noticeable dearth of women in their mustachioed ranks. The second-to-last hall, the Hall of the Wheel of the Law, which is where lamas pray in the morning, houses a statue of the reformer of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsong Kha-pa. Two thrones on either side of him await his disciples, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. The final hall boasts a massive statue of the Maitraya Buddha. Carved out of a single 26-meter piece of sandalwood from Nepal, the figure took three years to sculpt and watches over two shrines on the second and third floors of the structure that together contain over 10,000 small clay statues. Hence the hall is called the Pavilion of 10,000 Blessings. Each square of the temple complex is also flanked by several ancillary buildings which contain their own wealth of grinning, gaunt or grisly demons, arhats, buddhas and bodhisattvas.

A spectacular testament to human ingenuity and Beijing's most unforgettable spectacle, the Great Wall of China stretches over 13,000 miles, though only a few small portions are regularly seen by foreigners. Badaling and Mutianyu are the two more popular sections of the Great Wall given the major reconstruction done to these areas, but if you’re willing to venture a bit farther, there are entire stretches of the wall simply abandoned to nature. To my mind, the vast semi-ruined portions of the wall are far more interesting that the sterile and touristy reconstructed parts. Climbing up and scrambling down the steep, rubble-strewn battlements to shattered towers as you head ever onward across the serpentine parapets, whose purported termination somewhere far afield seems little more than myth, is more than a tourist destination - it’s an adventure.

April 11, 2016

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