Dodging swarms of bicycles and breathing in the traffic-polluted air of Beijing is not my idea of a good time. But this is how to best take in the sights of China’s capital.
I visit Tiananmen Square, where groups of Chinese tourists take photographs of each other near the Imperial Forbidden City or Mao’s mausoleum – a choice, perhaps, determined more by the position of the sun than any political allegiance.
I ignore taxi and rickshaw drivers and retrace the steps of the emperor’s annual procession to the Temple of Heaven, aware that most of the houses that used to line the route, and whose inhabitants were required to bolt their doors and remain silent and inside, had long been swept away.
I visit the Summer Palace to witness the excesses of Empress Dowager Cixi, who determinedly rebuilt the place in 1902 after it was ransacked by foreign troops in 1900, diverting much needed funds required by the navy for their conflict against the Japanese.
After only three days I am exhausted, overwhelmed by the city’s imperial and communist history.
“Go to Jingshan Park as the sun comes up. That is where you will see the real China,” a former resident has advised me, so early one crisp morning I skirt the walls of the Forbidden City, making my way north. I pay a mere two yuan (30 cents) at the entrance, far less than any other tourist attraction in the city, and walk into the park. In front of me and to my left is a pavilion perched on the summit of Coal Hill, its tiled roof catching the morning light.
Coal Hill is not a natural hill but made out of mud from the imperial moat. It is rumoured past emperors stored emergency supplies of coal here. An imperial garden during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, it was opened to the public in 1929, then closed during the Cultural Revolution.
In line with feng shui principles, its northern position was thought to protect the residents of the Imperial City from evil spirits. But this did not prevent Li Zicheng leading a peasant uprising in 1644 and invading the Imperial Palace.
Chongzhen, the Ming dynasty’s last emperor, fled the city in disarray – with one shoe, no head dress and a sleeve stained with the blood of a consort and two princesses. He and a loyal eunuch, Wang Chang’en, hanged themselves from a Chinese scholar tree in the park. Subsequent emperors were required to alight from their sedan chairs and walk past the place where Chongzhen took his life. There is still a plaque to commemorate the event but the tree has gone, hacked down by Red Guards who failed to recognise a fellow anti-imperialist.
But my guide is not referring to the history of Jingshan Park when she speaks of the “real China”. She means the locals who gather below the trees in the shadow of Coal Hill or by the walls of the Hall of Imperial Longevity Pavilion, now the Children’s Palace.
Here men and women of all ages are warmly dressed in similar-styled trousers, padded waistcoats and jackets, trainers, gloves and hats. They exercise to the tune of a CD player perched on a bench or a stone; some cluster around a group leader but others are inspired by a more distant force.
A voice booms over the park from the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Everlasting Springs, filtering through the cypress and pine trees to the followers below. “Deep breath, arms to the side, arms above, arms below.”
Some of the groups seem no different from a fitness class, but others are clearly for tai chi experts, pushing their hands in self-defence against a potential enemy. The most impressive is a group of older Chinese women who plunge their “swords” to the left, to the right and finally into an imaginary victim. Older men serve as a chorus, shadowing their movements with balletic actions watched over by mammoth stone lions. It’s a splendid performance staged in front of the Hall of View of Virtue, a temporary resting place for emperors after their death.
Tai Chi in Jingsan Park, early in the morning
I climb Coal Hill to find the mystery voice’s source. This is a disaster. Paths come to an abrupt end. People twice my age (but far more nimble) speed by and I find myself stranded. I resort to sliding backwards and on my front, landing far too close to a man wielding a sword.
I retreat, not too gracefully, to find an easier route up the steps. But all diversions have their benefits. But for my inelegant descent I would not have come across the burial place of Emperor Jiaging’s “hoary brow” cat with dark greenish hair who outdid even the most loyal subjects by always walking one yard in front of his master and sleeping close to him.
As I climb the steps towards the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Everlasting Springs I hope to find not only the source of the mystery voice but to put a distance between myself and this intensive exercise that is giving me an inferiority complex. At every turn people run up and down the steps, lifting their feet high over the balustrades and stretching their arms over the Forbidden City.
Tai chi enthusiast Chai Yi explains: “I learned the 24 steps, then the 48 steps and then the 108 steps. My favourite practice is to tap my head against a tree. It unblocks my mind.”
At each of the pavilions on Coal Hill’s five summits people lean against a corner pillar with their legs spreadeagled, bending over to touch their toes. Others stand meditating, oblivious to the views over the scale-like roofs of the Imperial Palace to the south, the Bell and Drum towers to the north or, to the west, the Tibetan-style White Dagoba on the island in Beihai.
This is the “real China” – people of all ages reclaiming the Imperial Garden for their own well-being. But it’s not just the exercise that is important. It is a social occasion, particularly for the elderly, who linger to talk and play mahjong or cards.
As younger people rush off to work, I look around the five pavilions. Each has a different name. Besides the Everlasting Spring Pavilion, there is the Pavilion for Enjoying the Scenery, the Panoramic View Pavilion and the Periphery View Pavilion. My favourite, however, is the Pavilion of Gathered Fragrance. It is winter, so the smells are restricted to pine and cypress trees, but I try to imagine the perfume of the 20,000 roses due to bloom in the gardens in May.
But something is missing. Four of the copper Buddhist statues, previously housed in the pavilions, were removed during the Boxer Rebellion by the Eight Powers in 1900. This information is written in both English and Chinese and at every pavilion, reminding all who visit of the shameful pillaging that went on. As I walk back towards the exit I wonder where the statues are now – in a museum in Germany, Russia, Britain or France, perhaps, or a private dealer’s collection.
After a walk though the Imperial Palace I exit into Tiananmen Square. A persistent guide offers to show me his version of the “real China” – the new shopping malls. I decline, wanting to keep my memory of Jingshan Park unsullied.
I vow, on my return to join in the tai chi, though I am less convinced about the merit of head banging. I never find the source of the mystery voice, though I later read that, from the air and according to the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources, Jingshan Park looks like a smiling Buddha. Perhaps it was his chants that echoed through the trees and inspired followers of all ages to move in unison and with such grace. That or the ghosts of the Buddhist statues wrenched from their vantage points overlooking the Forbidden City. Or even of Chongzhen, the last of the Ming emperors, and his trusty eunuch who took their last breath under a tree in the park.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 12 2008 www.smh.com.au/news/china/high-times/2008/04/10/1207420567117.html