One thing I have learned when wandering the streets of Beijing is never to believe it when someone shrugs their shoulders and tells you there is nothing remotely like what you are looking for within a number of kilometres from where you are now standing.
OK, perhaps I exaggerate – but only by a little. It doesn’t seem to matter if I have got the correct name for the site-worthy-of-a-laowai’s-attention, and have even gone to the lengths of printing out its name (in Chinese!) – the vast majority of Beijingers are totally ignorant of what there is in the city right under their very noses.
Thus it was this weekend when I was tramping for what felt like miles searching for the Ancient Architecture Museum. Having stopped to ask a local who was playing with his dog underneath a sign that proclaimed that pets were not allowed, I showed him the Chinese – 中国古代建筑博物馆 – and even added as an “afterthought” where it was located – in Xiannong Temple, or 先农坛 to make it easy for him. No, nothing like that round here, he attempted to tell me in fluent Mandarin before turning back to his yapping canine.
I finally found it in the very next street. And it was worth the search.
The Museum of Chinese Ancient Architecture was opened in September, 1991. And for something situated as close to the Temple of Heaven Park as it is, it’s amazing that no one seems either to have heard of it, or certainly not to have visited it.
The museum is located in Xiannongtan - the Temple of Agriculture - where emperors used to come and offer sacrifices to such deities as Xiannong (the god of agriculture), Taisui, and the god of mountains and rivers during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
According to china.org.cn, admission to the museum costs 10 yuan; but as they haven’t updated their page for the past nine years, I wasn’t surprised to see the entrance had gone up in the meantime to a whopping 15 kwai! From the bored look on the faces of the museum staff, that was also probably the last time they had a visitor through its doors! Certainly I was welcomed out of all proportion to my measly 15¥’s worth of entry fee!
The Museum of Chinese Ancient Architecture – a.k.a. Beijing Ancient Architecture Museum, a.k.a. Museum of Ancient Chinese Architecture - collects, protects, and researches the history, culture and methodology of ancient building techniques from primitive times to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Its exhibits are divided into two parts – ancient architecture and exhibits of ancient architectural art.
But it’s much more than that. The inner temple (Taisui Hall) was originally built in 1420, in the 18th year of the Ming Emperor Yongle's reign, when he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, but most of the remaining buildings in the complex were built in 1522, during the 1st year of Emperor Jiajing's reign. It was renovated in 1754 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The entire complex is situated in a huge quiet park-like setting, which Yahoo Travel web site deprecatingly describes as “the complex itself with its pleasant garden and collection of steels (sic) is of more interest to tourists than its contents”, thereby at one and the same time showing off its ignorance together with its philistine attitude.
The first part is made up of the ancient complex of Xiannongtan (also known as the Mountains and Rivers Shrine) which was the place where Ming and Qing emperors offered their sacrifices.
According to Frommers Guide, “the exhibition in the halls is striking in its extensive English explanations of everything from the construction of the complicated bracket sets, which support temple roofs, to the role of geomancy in Chinese architectural thinking, and curiosities from now-razed sites such as Longfu Si. Models of significant buildings around Beijing can help you select what to see in the capital during the remainder of your trip.”
Which all goes to show that you can’t trust a thing you read, even in “well known” guide books (though as a rider, Frommers warns that “This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice.”)
Hmmm – I wonder. I suspect what actually happened was that the writer never paid this place a visit but wrote this description from the press handouts of the museum. Certainly there are English-language introductory notices in each area, but after that you are on your own. The detailed stuff is in Chinese only.
Many of the web sites offering “useful advice” tell you that the museum keeps a model of the old city of Beijing, “which also happens to be the largest sand table model in China”. For something as lauded as it is by all and sundry, you might think it is something special. Unfortunately it was in almost total darkness and easy to miss if you weren’t actually looking for it. As well as that, I have in any case seen much larger sand table models in Tianjin.
Instead, the visitor – I hesitate to use the plural here – is led past elegant displays of habitations dating back to the start of time. “Architecture,” one is told, “means the place to prevent people from rain, wind, hot sun and harms caused by animals. When natural caves cannot meet the demand of living, people started to construct their houses, which meant the birth of primitive houses, such as caves and nest houses.... The building spirit, techniques and systems of the Chinese nation was like a rising sun with powerful vitality.”
The exhibits move on to the Qin and Han dynasties (when China entered a unified feudal system) in which “great buildings created during its control brought great influence on China’s ancient architecture…. The decay of the Han style, the germination of the Tang style, the fusion of various national architectural cultures and the arrival of foreign culture brought influence on China’s architecture, resulting in splendid cause of architecture of the Sui and Tang dynasties.”
Unfortunately, if you want to swat up on your Qin, Han, Tang or Sui dynasty styles, you’d be better off learning some Chinese first before you come here.
Lonely Planet adds its ha’porth to the accumulated sum of internet knowledge of the Ancient Architecture Museum. “Brush up on your dǒugǒng brackets and sǔnmǎo joints, get the lowdown on Běijīng's courtyard houses, while eyeballing detailed models of standout temple halls and pagodas from across the land. English captions,” it smugly proclaims, again demonstrating that their writers have almost certainly never visited the place.
It is actually referring to the rear hall - Taisui Dian, or Hall of Jupiter, which some have argued is exceeded in magnificence only by the Forbidden City's Hall of Supreme Harmony. Well, that is debateable, but certainly its inside is magnificent, even if on the outside it looks like many other ancient Chinese halls.
Inside this hall one is treated to models and explanations of the intricate details and building construction methods used over the centuries.
Emphasis is placed on the intricate details carved into the tiles found even at roof height. Obviously labour was cheap in the old days.
There are also close up views of the roof tiles you find on many old historic buildings – yellow being the colour of emperors, of course.
There are also full-sized replicas of corner joists and decorations used in the construction of many of the old temples found in China. Seeing these up close is quite an eye opener …
And should anyone have the urge to build a matchstick model of an old Chinese temple, then maybe this will give them such inspiration…
There’s also this beautiful model of a pagoda, which is set off brilliantly by the blue ceiling above it…
To my mind, though, probably the most impressive item on display is not any of the models, but a part of the building itself - the caisson in the ceiling of the Temple.
This umbrella-shaped caisson is the only one of its kind still surviving. Built in the Ming Dynasty, it features a horoscope map at its centre with each constellation neatly labelled. Quite beautiful.
Yahoo Travel is, however correct in praising the outside gardens of the complex. With the winter coming on, many of the trees have turned red just prior to shedding their leaves, and the overall effect is wonderful.
Nine stone shrines dedicated to the gods of the five mountains and hills and the four seas and rivers were moved to their present location in 2002 for their protection. They had originally stood around the temple itself.
Slightly to the northwest of these shrine stones is the Xiannng Altar where the emperors would offer their sacrifices. It is 1.2 metres in height, 30 metres long and 18 metres wide and there used to be three gates on the northern side and one gate on each of its other sides. After they had performed the necessary rituals, the emperors would play at being farmers by ploughing the first furrows in what is now the neighbouring basketball court. This was symbolic in calling the peasants all over the country to undertake their farming work. I guess it’s akin to the way present day monarchs “plant a tree” by throwing a load of earth at a newly planted sapling using a pristine garden spade!
After the emperor had done his bit of “farming”, he would then retire to the viewing platform to watch as his own officials then finished their own planting ceremonies. You can tell they knew a thing or two about having a good time in those days!
Finally I wandered out of the museum grounds. No one else had entered the entire time I was there. It would appear that this Altar of Agriculture is as much unknown as its neighbouring Altar of Heaven, to the east, is a tourist trap. So sad, and yet so calm and peaceful. Perhaps it is no bad thing after all.