Liulichang Street (琉璃厂) is a favourite haunt for scholars, painters and calligraphers in the Ming and Qing dynasty, this street is full of art stores selling ancient books, calligraphy paper, books, paintings, ink stones and seals and lots and lots of brushes. Its name came from during the time of Ming Dynasty when a renowned coloured glaze factory was in production in the street, which made glazed tiles for the palaces, temples and residences of the officials. Mao era artefacts and replicas can be found along this street also. Local collectors visit villages outside the city to pick up or buy these Mao figurines from the villagers, once a common item in every home during the Mao-Cult period. At these markets, you’ll find people from all walks of life, from locals to affluent visitors. Not only do the markets provide haggling opportunities for shrewed businessmen and keen buyers, visitors are introduced to both the cultural aspect of Beijing as well as the cosmopolitan. At the Silk Street Market, you can see local productions of Chinese art and antiques alongside fashion brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton.
Beijing’s Hutongs (or alleyways that connect courtyard residences) are now being designated as protected cultural areas, for tourists to see traditional residential spaces before they are demolished to make way for the city’s expansion. Tour guides proudly point out the current poor living conditions, its history and ancient architecture all in one sentence. Laid out in a chessboard pattern which was established as early as the Ming Dynasty, these hutongs cross cut the city into tiny squares. Beijing’s best known hutongs are of three types: centres of government offices, residential areas for nobles and officials, and old markets.
The Forbidden City, the world’s largest surviving palace complex, has been the centre of China from the 15th century till today, with controversies ranging from political coups, the Opium War, rebellions, Empress Dowager Cixi’s extravagant lifestyle, the abdication of Puyi – the last Emperor of China to the opening of a Starbucks café in recent times. Completely over-run with tourists, all awed by the historical significance and ancient architecture. Hundreds of people each day, braving the sweltering summer heat and smog, come to see the imperial treasures and artefacts, displayed in open pavilions and halls, exposed to the elements.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For almost five centuries, it served as the home of 24 Ming and Qing Emperors and their household, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. “The Forbidden City,” is a translation of the Chinese name Zijin Cheng (Chinese: 紫禁城; literally “Purple Forbidden City”). The name “Zijin Cheng” is a name with significance on many levels. Zi, or “Purple”, refers to the North Star, which in ancient China was called the Ziwei Star, and in traditional Chinese astrology was the abode of the Celestial Emperor.
The interesting myth about the Forbidden City is the number of rooms there are in. Common folklore tells us that there are 9,999.5 rooms. This is because there can be nothing over 10,000 – a number that can only be associated with the Heavens. Historians point out that at some point however, there were definitely more than 10,000 rooms to house the thousands of concubines, guards, eunuchs and servants.
Originally serving as the main gate to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square needs no introduction being the site of a number of political events and protests. British and French invaders in 1860 considered burning the Tiananmen Gate down but decided to take down the Old Summer Palace instead. Today, you can hardly feel any political tension walking in the Square – the scene at Tiananmen Square almost feels like Trafalgar Square. Chinese families taking their weekend stroll and picnics, not intimidated by the huge portrait of Mao Zedong glaring down at them.
“The Long Wall of 10,000 Li”, majestic as it has been since the 5th century. Built to defend against Mongol invaders, it never failed to protect the Chinese until in 1644 when the gates were deliberately open to allow the Manchurian army in, thus initiating the establishment of the Qing dynasty. Perfect tranquillity in this lesser known section of the Wall. It was the perfect weather, cool and there was rolling mists in this section of the Great Wall, just 1 hour’s drive from the city. Be it a short 1 hour stroll (downhill for the leisure walkers) or a power-walk workout, there’s plenty of time and space to contemplate the scale of this construction. Several battles took place at this section. It is said that during the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao exterminated Yuan Shao’s regime, his army advanced through this section. And no, do not believe anything “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” or other urban legends claim, it cannot be seen by naked eye from the moon.
We end off our visit with the Summer Palace and a stay at the Aman Resort. Originally built by Emperor Qianlong as a birthday present to his mother, this place is filled with palace intrigues, celebrations, opera performances, and a lot of mention about longevity. These imperials were simply obsessed with longevity you’ll find symbolic references everywhere. The Palace is more popularly known for Empress Dowager Cixi’s extravagant expenditure to rebuild the palace after an attack by foreign invasions, which meant that the Navy’s budget would have to be cut. Cixi’s habit of siphoning funds meant for military enforcements for her own desires was said to be one of the primary causes for China’s downfall to the hands of Allied invaders. Girl power could have started right here. The Empress Dowager rearranged traditional symbols of the female (phoenix) to take the leading position, overriding the symbol of the male (dragon), to signify her supreme leadership. The material girl also spent an equivalent of 2 luxury ocean cruise-liners each day, she travelled in a vintage Benz, loved buying clothes and hosting grand parties, ordered 100 dishes and fruits each day for lunch (she never ate the fruits, she merely loved their scent), and was the privileged first to enjoy the use of electricity in China (right here at the Summer Palace).