Friday, May 02, 2008

Day 3 – Heavenly Beijing

Temple of Heaven
We got up early and took a taxi to the
Temple of Heaven park, a large park with perhaps the most beautiful building in Beijing, the three tiered Temple of Heaven, its blue roofs and simple design as elegant as the Dome of the Rock. Set upon a three tiered marble plinth, it towers above the park. It’s surrounded by a wall, like all major parks, but beautiful inside, with trees and paths, and absolutely no litter. They love, care for and use their parks.

Altar of Heaven
The marble altar was used to renew the year by the Emperor on the winter solstice. The earth was square and heaven round, so the circular altar is surrounded by a perfect walled square. You’ll see this on innumerable old Chinese coins (all fake). It presents nothing but itself, a three tiered marble structure, but it’s packed with numerological symbolism. You climb nine steps on each of the three tier and the balustrades are in nines, as are the paving stones on the top of the altar that radiate in multiples of nine. This symbolises the nine Chinese sections of heaven. The 360 pillars on its balustrades represent the days of the year.

Numerology
The Chinese have a deep interest I numerology. They define everything by numbers. Political initiative is the Four of this… and Five of that…. Look carefully and you’ll see it in the architecture, number plates, phone numbers, bank numbers, stock market picks, street numbers and so on. It’s a national obsession.

Lucky
2 – lucky – we have twins and this is regarded as auspicious

6 – lucky and 666 very lucky (reverse of western demonic link)

8 - lucky

9 – see everywhere in old architecture

Unlucky

4- unlucky as it sounds like the word for death

5 - negative

7 - downward

Joy in the park
Of equal interest in the Temple of Heaven park are the early morning activities – tai chi, swords, fans, a game where one keeps a feathered shuttlecock aloft with one’s feet, calligraphy using a large brush and water, singing, playing traditional music instruments, cards, mah-jong. Thousands of people taking exercise or simply having fun with their fellow citizens. It was actually quite moving. We bought two shuttlecocks (for 30p) and had a try ourselves. By the end of the week the boys were getting quite good. A typical British park at that time of the morning would be empty apart from a couple of dog walkers. We agreed that this was one of the great highlights of the trip.

Its social function is extraordinary as older people sit, chat, exercise, sing and walk their birds. This was a sort of small paradise, far different from any other park I have visited.

Summer Palace
To see many of the traditional forms of Chinese architecture a visit to the walled Summer Palace will reward you with temples, pavilions, bridges, shops and pagodas. Entering by the north gate takes you into the riverside traditional Chinese shops then a Tibetan temple complex full of Buddhas and Hindu deities. There is also interesting evidence of Cultural Revolution vandalism as many of the ceramic Buddha tiles have had their heads hacked off on the lower reaches of the temple. At the top of the hill you descend through a series of tiered pavilions to the lakeside.

A walk anticlockwise around the lake took us past the Dowager’s marble boat, an extravagance that cost China dearly as the money was earmarked for the navy, leaving the country defenceless. Other bridges are superb high backed arches or graceful pavilion designs. The largest has 17 arches (the largest the lucky number 9th arch lies in the middle. It is useful to get some knowledge of the Chinese obsession with numbers. The Taoist Ying and Yang determines a difference between odd and even numbers (odd-male, eve-female). Nine is a very lucky number, four is not.

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