I’d expected to be awed by the majesty of China’s capital, its pristine public squares, modern highrise buildings and Westernstyle flyovers with fast-moving traffic that have seen off the multitudes of cyclists, peasants and beggars.
The chic modern restaurants, bijoux hotels and international designer boutiques were worthy of a kow-tow, but rather samey-things a traveller may find in many world-class cities. Fortunately, the essence of the ancient Chinese culture thrusts through the cracks in Beijing’s polished Westernised veneer, and the visitor can step back in time to when people lived in courtyard houses and keyboards had not replaced calligraphy.
My friend Jenny Jin, proud as she was of her transformed city, took me to its ancient sites, its living markets and crowded backstreets where we could smell the peonies, pet Pekinese dogs and watch little old ladies craft paper lanterns. At the Forbidden City, once home to the Ming and Qing Emperors, their concubines and family and out of bounds to outsiders, we saw exquisite buildings painted in regal red and yellow.
The roofs had eves that curved upwards — “to confound evil spirits that move in straight lines” explained Jenny. Sculpted guard lions called chi-lings defended the royal enclosures. Dragons, phoenixes and other venerated creatures were etched everywhere. At the Great Wall, we saw families from China’s far-flung provinces. Some of the little boys wore pants with a slit opening in the bottom area for convenience. “When a boy is born,” said Jenny, “people sometimes send announcement letters with photos that show the cute newborns without pants — a visible proof of malehood”.
Hutongs, antique markets, Beijing opera
Adjacent to the Forbidden City is a tangle of lanes with old style, single-storey courtyard houses collectively known as Hutongs. Walking through this area, Jenny read out the street names that have not changed in eons- “Cloth Lane; Bowstring Maker’s Lane; Dog Tail Lane; Buffalo Horn Curve and the tiniest one, Sesame Lane.
Traditionally those serving the Imperial City stayed here, and now the area is a living historic district. Its nougat vendors, acrobatic studios and rickshaw drivers lend a human face to the city. At the enormous Panjiayuan Antiques Market we rifled through Chinese paraphernalia — scroll paintings, giant brushes, chests and baskets, tribal textiles, horse ornaments, jade Buddhas, decorative paper cut-outs and Chairman Mao memorabilia. The Local Operas Museum showcases Beijing style opera, Jing Ju. Early shows were performed on streets and singers adopted a high pitch so that they could be heard over the noise. “Sadly,” said Jenny, “the mewing continues in indoor theatres today”.
Preserved lifestyles and modern expression
Stepping through an unassuming pair of doors we entered the ancient world of an aristocratic family, complete with libraries, opium beds, red lanterns and ornamental drapes. It felt as though any moment, the lady of the house, wearing a silk cheongsam, might peer through the wooden trellis to see who has arrived before returning to one of the four skills she must hone — Qin (playing a musical instrument), Qi (chess), Shu (calligraphy) and Hua (painting). Once the home of a prince, this exquisite 400-year-old courtyard-home is now a boutique hotel and restaurant known as the China Club — a jewel not to be missed. Jenny ordered some local delicacies for dinner, insisting that bean paste was “good for the woman”. We tried some scuttlefish-egg soup, ginger chicken, marinated tofu and some memorable tang yuan, sesame paste balls, for dessert.
A further peek into the past was taken at Guanfu Arts Museum, a charming house in the outskirts of Beijing that houses furniture, porcelain, ceramics and artefacts from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1900) dynasties. A complete contrast is the Factory Arts Area, where factories that once made electronics during Chairman Mao’s era have been converted into avant-garde galleries. Here we found photographers, artists and musicians that help infuse a unique modern Chinese style into a city that has been too quick to adopt the Western model.