You know what it’s like when something has been sitting on your proverbial doorstep and you’ve been too blind to even notice it…. And then one day you wake up and discover it is there and you wonder how you could ever have missed it?
Well I had one of those wake-up moments this week when I was searching the map looking for something totally different. And there it was – something I had walked past on numerous occasions and had never taken on board… Zhongshan Park (中山公园/中山公園), the former imperial garden lying just southwest of the Forbidden City. And what a place it turns out to be!
It’s called Zhongshan for a reason – it’s named in honour of the "Father of Modern China" Sun Yat-sen, who is known as Sun Zhongshan in Chinese. You can find Zhongshan Parks in more than 40 cities in China, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dalian, Shenyang and Shenzhen; but this one really stands out. As they say on all those boring house make-over programmes on western TV stations… it’s all about location, location, and location. And being literally a few metres from the Forbidden City, you couldn’t get a better location if you tried!
Don’t listen to some of the rubbish spouted by the likes of China.org.cn (“Just a few steps away from the glorious Tiananmen Square and pompous Forbidden City, Zhongshan Park is the place where you can find peace of mind and body harmony.”) Yuk!
And as for some of the morons who write on Trip Advisor… (“In the park itself there isn't a lot to do next to stopping at the local restaurant…”) Oh please!
In my (very humble?) opinion, this has to be one of the best parks in the entire city of Beijing, one worth returning to over and over again.
And unlike some web sites that tell you the entrance is RMB10, you can ignore them as well, as it is a mere thee kwai!
Zhongshan Park is a classic commemorative garden covering 60 acres and was formerly the Temple of National Prosperity during the Ming Dynasty. Inside there are numerous pavilions, gardens and temples and it is where emperors worshipped the God of Land and the God of Grain. It is also famous for many old cypress trees, some of which are over 1,000 years old. In 1914 it was turned into a public park, making it the first such garden in Beijing. It was named after Dr Sun in 1928.
Today, however, your favourite blogger makes his intrepid way on the subway system to Tian’anmen West on Line 1. The entire area is filled with people, as always. Some are heading into the Square itself. Some are jostling their way into the Forbidden City. But almost devoid of any people is the entrance to this wonderful garden, literally a handful of metres to the west of Mao’s famous mugshot.
This is the southern entrance, and by far and away the best way to get in. The other entrances aren’t nearly as impressive. Straight ahead is a white marble memorial archway erected by the Qing government to commemorate the German Minister Baron von Kettler, who was killed during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. After Germany's defeat in World War I, it was inscribed with the words "Triumph of Righteousness" (Gongli Zhansheng). Then after 1949 it was reinscribed with "Defend the Peace" (Baowei Heping) – not as China.org.cn would have you believe: “Defeat the Peace”! Hence it’s popular name nowadays of Peace Defending Arch.
The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed in the picture above, slap bang through the central archway a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen, which I suppose is fair enough, given that the park is given over to his honour.
You’ll recall that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866 - 1925) was a Chinese revolutionary thinker and political leader who was one of the founders of the KuoMinTang, and the first provisional president when the Republic of China was founded in 1912. He was, of course, a key figure in the 1911 revolution which brought down the Qing dynasty and ended imperial rule in China. On the mainland, Sun is widely regarded as the Father of Modern China. When he died, his body was placed in Zhongshan Hall for people to pay their last respects.
It’s the start of November and with the weather suddenly shooting down some 10 degrees in the past week, Beijing’s incredibly short autumn has begun. In a couple of weeks there will no leaves on the trees, but right now they are all changing into glorious shades of reds and oranges and yellows. Ah… it brings out the romantic in me! And as a perfect backdrop, one can see many of the buildings of the Forbidden City just behind….
The Chinese seem to love rocks and large stones to decorate their gardens – perhaps none more so than the Ming dynasty emperor Qianlong. If anyone knew the difference between a rock and a hard place it had to be old QL, for sure!
Slightly to the north east of Dr Sun’s statue you will come across one of Qianlong’s pride and joys… something he called Green Lotus Rock. It is supposedly one of the best of its kind in Beijing's gardens. In 1751 during his first visit to the South, Emperor Qianlong saw this rock and loved it so much that he had it sent back to Yuanmingyuan in Bejing. In 1927 it was moved to Zhonshan Park. It is said that after it has rained, it has a beautiful interlaced grain and takes on a colour of light pink which resembles the clouds at sunset. The white dots in the grain appear like snow flakes. So why Green Lotus, you may be wondering… Well, in Buddhist scripts, green lotus represents wisdom – as in "green lotus in the eyes".
Another of Qianlong’s favourites was “Slice of Dark Clouds” and is one of Beijing's more famous garden stones. This specimen is 3m high, 3.3m long and has a perimeter of 7m. The inscription "Slice of Dark Clouds" and 8 accompanying poems were written by the emperor too. You can see that our friend Qianlong led a very exciting life!
One of the most attractive aspects of this park, I think, is the plethora of covered walkways linking the various pavilions. They are all smothered in little scenes of which no two look the same…
I love these two pussy cats!
and as for these bug-eyed gold fish, I think they’re superb!
Classic-style Chinese storks naturally make an appearance…
But someone obviously fancied these two cats, for it’s not long before you find another pose by the feline duo…
Maybe they were distant ancestors of this worried looking moggie, who was forever doing a runner when anyone came anywhere near…
Once you get to the northern end of the park, you find your way blocked by the moat of the Forbidden City itself. On a still day like today, it looks stunning with the trees reflected in the water.
The moat (or Tube River - Tongzihe) is also known as the Imperial River (Yuhe) and, according to the official web sites, is used for ice skating in the winter and boating during the summer and autumn. Obviously the site owners haven’t paid much attention to this notice that is prominently displayed, although perhaps they make a distinction between skating on the water and skating in the water!
Just to the south of the Moat is the Maxim Pavilion, which was built in 1915. It’s a round shaped 8-pillar pavilion designed in the western style, apparently. At 8m high and 6.6m in diameter, sayings from ancient celebrities were carved onto the eight pillars, hence its name.
Not that I noticed a single person stopping to read "Doing one's utmost is loyalty; putting oneself in the other's potion when thinking and doing is reciprocity” (Zhu Xi); “Families are the basis of a kingdom and individuals are the basis of a family” (Mencius); “Continually acquire new knowledge while cherishing the old; exert an honest, generous earnestness in the esteem and practice of all properties (Zi Si)… and so on. Even Confucius, bless his cotton socks, is quoted... “Death has always been with us since the beginning of time, but when there is no trust, the common people will have nothing to stand on”.
Further towards the south again, I come across the Waterside Greenhouse. Originally erected in 1915 it was rebuilt in 1936 and covers 417 sq m. The roof is covered with peacock-blue glazed tiles and is said to look like a bird's wings. In the middle is an octagonal pavilion with double eaves. Inside apparently one can find 39 varieties of tulips, presented to the park in 1977 by Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands (now the reigning queen).
I particularly like the Stone Lions (which many will know is a hobby of mine “collecting” such specimens!). They weigh over 4,400 kgs and were discovered in 1918 and donated to the park. Deemed to be artefacts from the Song Dynasty of a thousand years ago, staff at the park buried them during the Cultural Revolution in order to protect them from the excesses of the Red Guards. They were finally re-excavated in 1971 for public viewing.
Soon after, I come to something called the Lanting Tablet Pavilion - an octagonal pavilion less than 100 years old, with double eaves and again covered with peacock blue glazed tiles.
Inside is a stone tablet two metres wide carved with a painting of the Orchid Pavilion and inscriptions created in the 9th year of Emperor Yonghe's reign in the Jin Dynasty. There are also eight pillars on which are carved the preface to the Poem Collections of the Orchid Pavilion written by Wang Xizhi. To be honest, you can’t really make out much of the carved painting, except to note that it must have looked pretty impressive once upon a time. But hey – this is history. Get used to it!
Central to the whole park, of course, is Zhongshan Hall, used by countless emperors since 1421 as a resting place during sacrificial ceremonies they would perform twice a year - in the springtime to bring about a good harvest and in the autumn for thanksgiving. (The hall was also a great place to perform the ceremony itself if it decided to rain that day!)
Nowadays, in keeping with the park’s dedication, there is a white marble statue of Sun Yat-sen inside the hall over two metres high, together with an exhibition displaying some of his manuscripts, clothes, books, seals, daily items and other stuff. However, as I’ve seen other collections of Dr Sun’s stuff, I don’t feel it necessary to fork out any extra for the privilege today!
Right in front of the hall is the square-shaped Altar of Land and Harvest, consisting of three levels built in white marble. (In ancient China, She was the God of land, and Ji was the God of Grain. She and Ji were thus regarded as essential to the prosperity of the country).
On the top altar surface there are five colours of soil - blue to the east, red to the south, white to the west and black to the north and yellow in the centre - indicating all the land under the sun belongs to the emperor. In the centre of the platform stands a so-called sovereign stone, signifying that the emperor’s reign would be everlasting just like the mountains and the rivers. (Golly, they must have had huge egos, these emperors!)
From the 19th year of Yongle's Reign in the Ming Dynasty (1421) to the 3rd year of Xuantong's reign in the Qing Dynasty (1911) 1300 worship rites were conducted, either personally by the emperors of the two dynasties or by their senior officials.
Now, I reckon it must have been a pretty harrowing ordeal to be presented to the emperor, especially if one didn’t hobnob with the good and the great on a regular basis. So yet another pavilion was built in this park – this known as the Protocol Rehearsal Pavilion. It’s hexagonal and has yellow glazed tiles, red lattice and stone steps and was built in 1420. It was used as the place where officials and chiefs of minorities and envoys from abroad would practise their first audience with the emperor. I guess it didn’t pay to mess with the top boss!
A little to the east, one comes to the quietest spot in the park, the area of the Lotus Pool, Waterside Pavilion, Pavilion of Four Contentments and the Pavilion to Welcome the Sunshine. And it really is idyllic. Who could fail to be moved by these vistas of weeping willows and tranquil reflections?
Kids are not ignored in the overall plans of the park either. Any guess what this understated building contains?
Surely this has to be one of the poshest bumper car pavilions in the world, not that the little mites probably appreciate it when they are driving hell for leather into one another!
Like most parks in China, Zhongshan gives itself over both morning and evening into a gym or a dance studio – though whether the people are dancing or exercising it is often difficult to say.
I particularly like the slow-motion sword dancing that these women are performing. It has an elegance that is hard to turn away from. I am left wondering if they are rehearsing for a performance, or whether this is just by way of a little fun for them.
Not everyone is into exercise, of course, though these people are enjoying exercising their vocal chords as they warble in multi-part harmony…
I mentioned before that there are a number of old trees dotted around the park. According to my research there are 304 “Class A” ancient trees and 308 Class B ancient trees here, though what differentiates A from B I have no idea. The majority of them are cypresses lined up around the altar walls. Most were planted when the Altar of Land and Grain was built, so that makes them well over 600 years old now.
On the southern side of the altar area are seven really ancient cypresses with a history of over 1,000 years. They are so large that it is said that it takes three or four persons with arms outstretched to encircle the trunk.
Throughout Zhongshan Park, the planners have done their best to make foreign tourists feel welcome and there are numerous signs in English, Russian and Korean in addition to the Chinese. So it is very difficult to get lost if you simply follow the signs – whether you are looking for a “scarificial” pavilion…
or looking to exit from the “esat” gate!
But I decide to leave this fabulous park from the south (or should that read shout?) gate as my next port of call is Tian’anmen Square….
It’s just coming up to the time of the CPC’s National Congress – the 18th – and thanks to the Beijing Gardening & Greening Bureau, the Square has become the proud venue for one of the tackiest flower arrangements ever. According to the blurb board underneath it, this 15 metre high monstrosity is meant to represent “Blessings for our motherland”; and apparently it lights up colourfully at night.
Other floral displays in contrast, however, are really rather nice; and there is a veritable army of workers putting the finishing touches to flower columns, temporary lawns and flower beds.
So at least Congress delegates inside the Great Hall of the People will have something nice and colourful to feast their eyes on when the excitement inside the main hall gets too much for them…
Naturally with so much preparation still to be done before the start of the Congress, they don’t want any old Tom, Dick or Harry (or should that read Chen, Ching or Cheng?) walking in to the Great Hall; so the normal exit from Tian’anmen to the GHOTP is closed off to the general public, while officious looking security officials patrol up and down on their Segue scooters.
And lest you think that high-tech scooters are just for the privileged, think again. Even the garbage collectors ride around on electric tricycles picking up the trash that is casually dropped by the rubber-necking day trippers.
As always there is a huge video wall in the middle of the Square extolling the virtues of the motherland; for the Congress, its content has been beefed up significantly. As I pass by, there is footage of the attractions of Xinjiang being shown – a large sparsely populated region in the northwest of the country, about the size of Iran, and making up about a sixth of the country in area. The scenery looks wonderful. Straight out of a picture postcard book.
But not surprisingly there is no mention of the unrest in that region that continues to be one reason for so many numbers of Beijing’s troops to be stationed there. (According to the FT: “The Chinese Communist party banned students and officials from religious activities during Ramadan” in an area that is predominantly Moslem.)
So your sympathies must go out to the marketers who put together this slice of tourist heaven for all to see. You can almost imagine the scene as the ad executive wracks his brains for a suitable slogan to sell the idea of Xinjiang to prospective tourists. “I’ve got it,” he tells his long suffering wife over his dinner one evening. “Xinjiang is a Nice Place”! To the point; short, pithy and succinct. Which all goes to prove what a creative and exacting profession advertising is all about.
Take me to the nearest tourist office!