I always find it strange that if you ask anybody who lives in their native city about any famous tourist destinations there, invariably they will not have been. I guess it’s because it is always there and they just assume that one day they will go along, as sure as night follows day. The end result is that most of us know foreign cities much better than our home towns.
A classic case in point is here in Beijing. Slap bang beside the Forbidden City on its eastern border is the Working People's Cultural Palace (Láodòng Rénmín Wénhuà Gōng, or劳动人民文化宫) – an appalling name for something that is almost guaranteed to turn people off before they actually set foot in the place. I haven’t as yet met anyone who has been inside. All the tourists go to fight their way through the crowds in the Forbidden City, while this place stands almost empty 24/7.
Even Zhongshan Park, standing as in a mirror on the western side of Forbidden City, seems to attract a smattering of extra visitors (though its emptiness when I visited was what I found so charming about the place). Finally I decided that whatever it was called, I should maybe pay it a visit. And I’m glad I did.
The Imperial Ancestral Temple, Ancestral Hall or Taimiao (太庙) was originally built in 1420 and was where during both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, sacrificial ceremonies were held on the most important festival occasions in honour of the imperial family's ancestors.
By the 1920s, it had been turned into a public park and in 1951 the ancient palace was rechristened the “Working People's Cultural Palace” and the historic buildings and gates were converted into a space for educational and recreational purposes for locals and tourists. It stretches from Tian'anmen Rostrum in the south to the Forbidden City moat, and from the East Thousand Bu Corridor before the Imperial Palace in the west to the eastern palace walls – fully one half the width of the Forbidden City. And yet, despite its location, it remains one of Beijing's best kept secrets.
The buildings that comprise the palace were used as shrines to the ancestors of the imperial family and emperors would often come and pay homage to the dead. The three main halls in the palace include the Ancestral Worship Hall which was the principal location for rites and sacrifice, the Resting Hall which held tablets inscribed with the names of the deceased, and finally the Remote Ancestral Shrine was used to store the sacrificial slabs of the imperial ancestors.
Nowadays, the temple grounds are laid out with paths lined with ancient trees and flowerbeds.
As you enter, a peace descends all about you. Just yards away the swarming tourists fight their way around the Forbidden City; but on this side of the wall you are almost on your own. I’m sure it must have been very different during the Ming and Qing dynasties, especially on occasions such as an emperor' s ascending the throne, a triumphant return from battle or the presentation of prisoners of war, when the emperor would first come here to offer sacrifices to his ancestors.
In later years, the traditional buildings inside the palace were converted into a library, an exhibition hall, a theatre and a stadium; and flower beds were laid out among the pines and cypresses to mark the rebirth of this ancient shrine. But now, the first thing that you see is a long line of mug shots of workers who have been smiled upon by the great Communist hierarchy above, lauding their efforts for goodly deeds, no doubt with a view to inspiring others – but with no one about, that seems a somewhat forlorn hope!
Inside the large park-like setting I think I have seen all of three other people. Bliss! Doing a right and left past the “inspirational” mug shots you very soon get to the Glazed Gate which is shaped like a decorated archway with three bays and seven towers featuring a yellow glazed tile roof (yellow was reserved for emperors) together with green and yellow ceramics.
The temple, which resembles the Forbidden City's ground plan, is a cluster of buildings in three large courtyards separated by walls. There is a plethora of illegible maps stuck up around the whole site, but they really don’t tell you much; although there are quite a few other notices giving you the run down on what you see, so I guess it really doesn’t matter much.
As you step through the Glazed Gate, you find yourself in a very wide courtyard-like setting with the Halberd Gate ahead of you, and in front of it, a series of little bridges.
The gate has a gradually upturned single eave hip roof covered with yellow glazed tiles together with a railing made of white marble, and gates on either side. A typical Ming official structure, it is the only important relic that has not been altered since the Imperial Ancestral Temple was built.
At the southern end of the courtyard are seven gorgeous little single-arch stone bridges spanning the Golden River (Jinshuihe). Each bridge is eight metres wide, with white marble guardrails and columns alternately adorned with dragon and phoenix motifs. The middle bridge was used by the emperor and the bridges on both sides were respectively used by princes, officials and ordinary people, reflecting the feudal hierarchy.
To the west of the bridges is the Well Pavilion – a place where offerings were washed before they were processed in the sacred kitchen. The hexagonal pavilion has a single eave roof covered with yellow glazed tiles and beams supported by gilded brackets. In the pavilion itself is a well with a hexagonal white marble rim.
Once you are through the Halberd Gate, you find yourself in a truly massive square. Ahead stands the Hall for Worshipping Ancestors, which is one of only four buildings in Beijing to stand on a three-tiered platform, which denotes it as one of the most sacred sites in imperial Beijing. It contains seats and beds for the tablets of emperors and empresses, as well as incense burners and offerings.
Flanking the courtyard in front of the hall are two long, narrow buildings. These were worship halls for various princes and courtiers. The Western Wing housed the memorial tablets of meritorious courtiers, while the Eastern Wing enshrined various princes of the Qing dynasty.
But what’s this? I thought I had this place practically all to myself? It’s only now I come to discover that this is one of the most popular venues in Beijing for newlyweds – or rather newly-about-to-be-weds to come to have their official wedding photos taken. They are everywhere, posing in gorgeous outfits of white, yellow, red and blue. It’s almost like a stampede as couples line up to take their turns posing in all the tried and tested spots.
Some of the females, especially, are obviously would-be prima donnas and the camera crews do their best to pander to their every whim, for which I am sure they charge appropriately!
The brides look like they are in their element, while the grooms, in the main, look terrified and out of place and you can see them fervently wishing it was all over!
The eves of the worshipping halls are, like everything else here, decorated with golden dragons; and I find myself wondering how often they need to be repainted or simply cleaned up, especially given the particularly filthy air we have to endure here in the Chinese capital.
Some of the stone dragons around the place are pretty cute. I have no idea what their purpose is, save for a bit more decoration, but they certainly look happy.
In the south west corner of this huge square is a furnace, which was used to burn silk. Built of plain bricks, it was modelled on a wooden structure with a single eave gable and hip roof, a bracket architrave beneath the eaves and a round column at each of the four corners.
But today it serves purely as a backdrop where the couples with their professional photographic teams can leave their personal effects as they strut their stuff and pose around the grand square.
Retracing your steps, and turning left as you leave the temple complex, you can meander your way east inside the park to find a large rockery, this one being much larger than that found in the gardens of the Forbidden City next door. There are some quite nice stones, but I suspect that for every aficionado of rockeries, there is someone else who wonders what all the fuss is about; though the Chinese as a whole appear to love them.
I step outside the Working People's Cultural Palace and sadly re-enter a world of crowds and tourists and touts, before heading east on some quieter back streets. Very soon, I find myself at Wangfujing Cathedral (Holy Jo’s, a.k.a. the East Cathedral), which was originally built in 1655 (the 12th year of the Shunzi Emperor) though it was damaged three times in the following 200 years. It is a mixture of classical western architecture and traditional Chinese detail. It was restored in 2000. But today, with the sun shining and blue skies, yet more happy couples are posing in front of it – this time wearing more western-style black and white wedding outfits.
I realise that I have never yet been inside this church, and make a mental note to correct that in the near future. But there is not the time today.
I also make an extra mental note not to bring any dangerous “protribited” articles with me then… like cigarettes (damages your health!), mobile phones (all that radiation around your cranium?), terrorist-style water bottles (is that what it is??), shoes (huh???), and a flash-camera (in case the flash causes an epileptic attack????).
I have been duly warned!