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Beijing to the North
2011.06.02

This picture was taken from the temple at the top of Jingshan (means “panorama”) Hill to the north of the Forbidden City. The park is probably the highest point in the center of Beijing and dates back to the Mongolian Yuan dynasty.

Occupying the site from 1206 until 1368, the Mongol’s government palace, Da Du, was razed entirely during the revolt by Han Chinese. To signal the start of the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang began to construct the Forbidden City directly to the south of the Da Du complex. According to legend, the earth excavated during construction of the Forbidden City and the widening of nearby Lake Beihai were deposited on top of Da Du’s burned ruins, building up Jingshan Hill. Literally and symbolically burying the Yuan Dynasty, the hill was constructed according to feng shui principles and protected the Imperial Palace from the winter winds and sand storms out of the Gobi desert.

Soon after Mao’s ascension to power in 1949 he took a trip to the top of Jingshan Hill with Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing. From there he looked over the city, still a jumble of neighborhoods comprised of one-story courtyard homes, and is purported to have said “just imagine, when we really get going, we will be standing here looking out over a forest of factory chimneys!” Obviously that never quite panned out, though there are no shortage of factories in Beijing, and the hutongs – the labyrinthine low-rise neighborhoods surrounding the Forbidden City – still stand.

Though many of them were torn down in the run-up to the Olympics the remaining hutongs have taken on a certain iconic cultural status, much like the medinas in North Africa. The Chinese government, coming to this realization a bit late, have recently designated thirty-three protected areas inside the Second Ring Road which traces the former city wall. Certain areas have taken on a more touristy affect, but many others are still home to Beijing residents who hang their laundry across the narrows alleys and walk down the street to the public toilets in the middle of the night. Stepping into one, you can understand why the government wants to tear them down. Despite the intermittent odor of Nan Gao, the hutongs retain a charm that’s hard to find anywhere else. They are also home to the only craft brewery in Beijing, which at least in my mind makes them a national treasure.