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Briefly in Beijing

DPRK (and Beijing) Day two, part two

View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Forbidden City policeman on duty at the Tiananmen Gate

Sunday morning in Beijing

We both slept well and woke fairly early, refreshed and ready to set out and explore something of the city. Although visiting Beijing was a means to an end, being a necessary part of our journey to Pyongyang, we weren’t going to ignore the opportunity to see something of the city. But first breakfast… We didn’t want to pay the high price for breakfast in our hotel, when we needed relatively little, so had planned to visit a coffee shop we had spotted yesterday, just a short distance away. But this was Sunday and the coffee shop didn’t open until 10.00, so we ended up walking back to Wangfujing Street where we had been last night and going in the only place open and serving the coffee I craved - MacDonalds! Well, the espresso and the banana muffin I ate were fine, and it was interesting to watch young Beijingers socialising here.

In McDonalds on Wangfujing Dajie

Back street art, Beijing

Breakfast over we set off to walk to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We went through some quiet (on this Sunday morning at least) back streets before emerging into the chaos and bustle of the north side of the square. To go any further we had to pass through a security check - our passports were scanned (good job we were carrying them!) and our bags put through a scanner.

The Imperial Ancestral Temple

Entrance to the Imperial Ancestral Temple - ceiling detail

Before reaching the Forbidden City we were distracted briefly by the peaceful gardens of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, or to give it its modern-day name, the Working People's Cultural Palace.

In the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasties, this temple was used by royal family members to offer sacrifices to their ancestors. By the 1920s it had become a public park, which under Mao was transformed into a place of entertainment and education, with lecture and exhibition halls, libraries etc.

Photos of local officials at the Imperial Ancestral Temple

In the gardens of the Imperial Ancestral Temple

The layout of the temple is like a mini Forbidden City, with a succession of three halls surrounded by courtyards. We didn’t penetrate as far as these (I’m not clear whether visitors can), but we did have a pleasant walk around the grounds, a welcome refuge from the crowds of tourists and locals outside in Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square

Approaching Tiananmen Square

One of my more vivid memories of our 1994 visit to Beijing was of Tiananmen Square and it didn’t seem to have changed a huge amount since then, apart from the presence of many more cars and motorised vehicles in addition to the bikes I remembered.

The square had of course been made famous around the world in 1989 when it was the focal point for student-led protests against the regime, and for that regime’s use of force against those protests, resulting in the deaths of hundreds (some say thousands) of protesters.

The square has historically been the focus for significant events, including in 1949 Mao’s proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic of China – an event that is celebrated here every ten years with mass military parades. It was expanded under Mao in the 1950s, with a number of buildings around the square, and the central Gate of China, being demolished. Later Mao’s own mausoleum was built where that gate once stood.

Tiananmen Square

Security around the square is heavy – we had to queue alongside other tourists and (I think) locals to have our bags checked as well as our IDs, so it was a good job that we were carrying our passports and hadn’t left them in the hotel safe as we often do!

The square is huge, one of the largest in the world. We had planned to stroll around and take a few photos, but after our detour into the Imperial Ancestral Temple and the queue in the already hot sun to get through security we decided not to linger here too long.



We did however make a point of photographing the great Tiananmen Gate on its north side. Actually, the use of ‘gate’ is tautologous, as the word ‘Tiananmen’ means Gate of Heavenly Peace – ‘men’ being ‘gate’.

The gate was first built during the Ming dynasty in 1420, as the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located. It has perhaps unsurprisingly been destroyed and rebuilt several times since then – by lightening in 1457, by rebels in 1644. In 1969/1970 it was completely rebuilt again, but ‘under wraps’; as the gate was by then something of a sacred symbol for the nation the rebuilding was branded a renovation and the extent kept secret. The aim was to leave the its external appearance unchanged while making it more earthquake-resistant to earthquakes and adding modern facilities such as a lift, water supply and heating.

The famous portrait of Mao is replaced every year just before the 1 October National Day celebrations, and also on the occasions when it has been damaged by vandals. Occasionally another portrait takes its place – for instance in March 1953 a picture of Joseph Stalin was put up after his death.

Tiananmen and Mao

On either side of Mao are huge slogans. The one on the left reads ‘Long Live the People's Republic of China’, and on the right ‘Long Live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples’. The wording has considerable symbolic meaning; the phrase used for ‘long live’ was traditionally reserved for Emperors of China, but is now available to the common people, as is access to the Imperial City itself.

The gate is guarded by two lions and two more guard the bridges over the moat. In Chinese culture, lions are believed to offer protection from evil spirits. Two stone columns, huabiao, also stand in front of the gate, each topped with an animal (hou). Originally, these columns were designed for commoners to address their grievances by writing or sticking up petitions on them, but these examples were purely decorative and simply indicated the magnificence of the imperial government.

Huabiao at Tiananmen


The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City or Palace Museum as it also known as today, once served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911). It was built over 14 years during the reign of Emperor Chengzu in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but has of course seen many changes since then, although it has been largely spared both by foreign offensive armies ( such as the Anglo-French forces during the Opium Wars and the Japanese during the 1930s) and domestic – during the Cultural Revolution destruction was on the whole prevented because Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the city.

There's a useful pictorial map on the Travel China Guide website which gives an idea of the sheer scale of this place - the number of buildings is almost overwhelming: Forbidden City map. With limited time (and given how hot it was for sightseeing) we followed that guide's suggestion of focusing on the central axis.

The Meridian Gate

We had purchased our tickets online a few days before leaving home so after passing through Tiananmen we were able to go straight through the ticket and further security checks at the Meridian Gate, showing our passports as ID (this was why we were carrying them!). Incidentally, everyone must start their visit at this gate, at the south of the complex, and exit from the north; I found this helped a lot in managing the crowds.

The Meridian Gate, Wumen in Chinese, is a monumental structure – a very solid-looking red wall, twelve metres high, pierced by three arches and topped with five rather more ornamental towers. There are two smaller arches at the corners of the flanking buildings. There was a strict protocol attached to the use of these entrances. The central one was reserved for use only by the emperor, while the smaller arch to the east was used by ministers and officials and that to the west was used by the rest of the royal family. The corner arches were used only during grand ceremonies. In an exception to these rules, the empress was permitted to pass through the central arch on her wedding day. Today tourists pour through all of the entrances!

Through the Meridian Gate

Once inside we could immediately sense the huge scale of the place, and also of the crowds here to visit it on this hot Sunday. Maybe a weekday visit would have been quieter, but it is closed on a Monday and on Tuesday we would be catching a plane to Pyongyang, so Sunday it had to be!

Passing through the Meridian Gate we found ourselves in the Outer Court. This was used for ceremonial purposes and state affairs, while the northern section, or Inner Court, was where the emperor lived with his royal family. This layout satisfies the traditional principles of Yin and Yang, according to which front areas are Yang and are the realm of men, while back areas are Yin and belong to women. It would be considered inharmonious for the always-male emperors to work in the back part of the palace.

Looking back across the Outer Court to the Meridian Gate
~ you can see how busy it was!

The first courtyard is bisected by an artificial stream, the Inner Golden Water, which is crossed by the Inner Golden Water Bridge. In fact this is a group of five white marble bridges; the central bridge was reserved for use exclusively by the emperor, the two on either side of it were for use by members of the royal family, and the two outer bridges were for court officials. The bridges have marble balustrades carved with dragon and phoenix motifs. Because of the ever-present threat of fire damage to the palace buildings, which are mainly of wood, the stream served as a source of water as well as being a decorative feature of the palace.

View from the Inner Golden Water Bridge

Beyond the stream and across the courtyard is another gate, the Gate of Supreme Harmony, Taihemen. This gate was built during the Ming Dynasty and was used for the Emperor’s morning court hearings, often a merely ceremonial assertion of his power and sign of his diligence in directing the affairs of his people. Later, in the Qing Dynasty, these sessions moved to the Gate of Heavenly Purity, much closer to the Emperor's living quarters. Again, the central staircase was for use by the emperor alone.

The Gate of Supreme Harmony

The gate burned down in 1886 due to a fire started when a lamp in the guard room fell over, so the present gate dates from 1894 when it was rebuilt.


Gate of Supreme Harmony, ceiling details

Taihemen is guarded by two bronze lions. These symbolise imperial power. The lion on the east (right) side is male. His right front paw is placed on a globe to show that the imperial power extended across the world. The lioness on the west (left) side, in my photos below, has her left front paw on a lion cub, denoting a thriving and prosperous imperial family.

Bronze lioness, Gate of Supreme Harmony

On the far side of Taihemen marble steps descend again to another huge courtyard, on the far side of which is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Taihedian. It stands on a three-tier marble terrace, which it shares with the next two buildings, and is the largest surviving wooden structure in China. This was the ceremonial centre of imperial power and as such was the highest structure in the empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties – no other building was permitted to be higher anywhere in the empire, and no trees were planted in the courtyards of the Forbidden City so that there was nothing taller than it here.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, from the Gate of Supreme Harmony

The original hall was built in 1406 during the Ming dynasty, destroyed seven times by fires during the Qing dynasty, and rebuilt for the last time in 1695–1697. At some point in the 16th century during one of these rebuilds its size was reduced from about 95 metres by 48 to its present 64 by 37, but it is still immense and awe-inspiring in its scale. It has nine main bays across its length (plus a small one on each side) and is five bays deep - the numbers nine and five were symbolically linked to the majesty of the Emperor.

Hall of Supreme Harmony - under the eaves

The six pillars nearest the throne are covered in gold and there are dragon symbols everywhere. Unfortunately a combination of crowds, heat and the gloomy interior (which you can only peer at from outside) meant that I didn’t get any decent photos of these glories. But there was plenty to photograph outside!

On the marble steps are tiers of bronze dings, a kind of ancient Chinese vessel, eighteen in total – representing the eighteen national provinces of the time. And between the steps a large marble panel carved with dragons, known as 'Dragons Playing with a Pearl'. The pearl is a symbol of good luck, while the two dragons represent the God in the Heaven and the Emperor himself, indicating that the Emperor receives his divine power from God. The sedan chairs in which the emperor was transported would be carried directly above this carving. A similar one on the far side of the dais, beyond the Hall of Preserved Harmony, is even larger but was too much in the shade to make such a clear photo.

Bronze dings, and marble carving at the Hall of Supreme Harmony

On the marble terrace stand a bronze crane and a bronze tortoise, both symbols of everlasting rule and longevity. And a marble sundial, the rigui, and marble grain measure, the jialiang, demonstrate that the emperor was both just and fair.

Bronze crane and marble sundial

The gilded bronze pots held water, as a further precaution against fire – although I’m not sure how effective such a relatively small amount of water would be if such a large timber building were burning, and the fact that it burned down seven times only seems to confirm my concerns on that front!

Bronze water pots, Hall of Supreme Harmony

Like all the buildings in the Forbidden City this one has intriguing figures on the roof gables, which I found fascinating and remembered also liking on our first visit 25 years before. These are known as imperial roof decorations and Wikipedia has an interesting description of their design and significance:

‘Only official buildings (palaces, government buildings, and some temples) were permitted to use such roof decorations… Along the ridges (unions between the roof panels), near the corner, a row of small figures is placed. These are often made of glazed ceramic and form an outward marching procession.

At the tail of the procession will be an imperial dragon, representing the authority of the state. At the head of the procession will be a man riding a phoenix; one legend suggests that this represents a minion of the emperor who grew greedy for power and was hanged from the roof gable for treason… Another interpretation is that this is a person serving the emperor, being watched by the following beasts. In between will be mythical beasts, usually an odd number of them. The mythical beasts are set to pounce upon the man and devour him should he stray from performing his duties with faithfulness and rectitude.’


Imperial roof decorations on the Hall of Supreme Harmony

As you will see from the photos I took throughout our morning in the Forbidden City, I found these figures especially interesting and photogenic!

Beyond the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the much smaller Hall of Central Harmony, Zhonghedian, in the centre of the huge marble platform. It was constructed in 1420, was destroyed three times by fire, and so the current building dates from 1627.

The Hall of Central Harmony

This hall served as a place of rest for the emperor when he was on his way to hold ceremonies in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Here he would wait until everything was fully prepared for him before going on to receive homage and conduct affairs of state.

View from the Outer Court platform near the Hall of Central Harmony

Moving on we came to the Hall of Preserved Harmony, Baohedian, the last of the three great halls of the Outer Court. This is similar in style to, but somewhat smaller than, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but larger than the Hall of Central Harmony. It was built in 1420, rebuilt in 1625 and renovated in 1765.

During the Ming Dynasty it was used by the emperors to change into their ritual garments, while under the Qing Dynasty it became the venue for imperial banquets – to celebrate a wedding or to welcome visiting officials. Later it was used for the final stage of the Palace Examination, the highest level of the nation-wide imperial examination system, when the emperor would honour the top ten successful candidates by reading the papers they had submitted.

Door detail, Hall of Preserved Harmony

Marble pillar, and bronze pot

More imperial roof decorations

Here I concentrated mainly on photographing the details, which was easier among the crowds than trying to capture the whole building, and also some of the people in those crowds.

Chinese tourists

There are 1,412 marble dragon heads below the columns of the three-tier terrace on which the three main halls stand, which were cleverly designed to be both ornamental and to drain water. Apparently on a rainy day here you can see them spouting water. Also, although I didn’t notice it at the time, I have since read that that those on the corners have no spouts – presumably they are not integrated into the drainage system.

Marble water spout dragons

Beyond the Hall of Preserved Harmony we descended from the huge marble platform to the courtyard known as Qianqingmen Square, and across that square to the Gate of Heavenly Purity, Qianqingmen, the entrance to the Inner Court. This is guarded by gilded lions, as befits the entrance to the emperor’s personal quarters.

Gilded lion and ceiling detail at the Gate of Heavenly Purity


The first building of the Inner Court is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Qianqinggong. This is a smaller version of the Hall of Supreme Harmony but is nevertheless the largest building in this Inner Court. was built in 1420 and rebuilt in 1798 as a consequence of fire damage.

This was where all the Ming emperors, and the first two of the Qing Dynasty, lived. They slept here; back then the palace was divided into nine rooms on two levels, with 27 beds. For security, on any one night the emperor would randomly choose from any of these beds. It was also here that he attended to daily affairs of state – signing documents, interviewing ministers and envoys. Occasionally, banquets and other ceremonies would be held here.

Ornamentation of the Palace of Heavenly Purity

Later Qing emperors used the Hall of Mental Cultivation, in the western part of the palace, as their living quarters, but the Palace of Heavenly Purity continued to play a significant role in imperial life. And during the Qing Dynasty in imperial death too, as no matter where the emperor died, his coffin would be placed in the Palace of Heavenly Purity for a few days for memorial ceremonies.

Another dragon spout

Imperial roof decorations, Palace of Heavenly Purity

You may gather from the relative paucity of photos that at this point I was tiring in the heat, and I spent as much time trying to grab a seat in the shade (along with hundreds of other visitors!) as I did taking pictures.

But we pressed on, to the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, Jiaotaidian, sometimes known more simply as the Hall of Union and Peace. Following the pattern of the Outer Court, this central structure is the smallest of the three main Inner Court buildings. It was built in the reign of Jiajing (1522-1566) of the Ming Dynasty and restored twice, in 1655 and in 1669. In 1797 it was damaged by a fire and rebuilt the following year.

The Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union

This is a single-roof structure with a gilded bronze spherical pinnacle. It is square in shape, three bays wide and three deep.

Here at last I got a good photo of the throne (a relatively modest affair compared with some of the others we had half-glimpsed through the throngs, all craning their necks to see inside!) The significant feature here is not the throne itself but the collection of boxes covered with yellow damask silk lined up on either side of it. These held the twenty-five bao (jade royal seals) used for the exertion of power.

The throne in the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union

Door detail

The third building of the Inner Court is the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, Kunninggong. This was first built in 1420, and rebuilt in 1605 due to two fires in 1514 and 1596, as well as undergoing later restoration in 1655. It is very like the Palace of Heavenly Purity but smaller.

The Palace of Earthly Tranquility

This was where the empress lived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Later, after reconstruction in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it served as the bridal suite of the emperor and empress and also as an altar for worshipping the deities of Shamanism.

Yet more imperial roof decorations!

In the Palace of Earthly Tranquility


By now we had spent a couple of hours in the complex and yet had seen only the central buildings. There are many many more on either side – you could easily spend the whole day here and still not see everything.

But on a hot day (yes, I know I have gone on a bit about the heat!) it is an unforgiving place, with very little shade and no trees. The latter is deliberate, as nothing in the Forbidden City was permitted to be taller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Near the Gate of Earthly Tranquility

In the Imperial Garden

However, this changes at the northern end of the complex, beyond the Gate of Earthly Tranquility, Kunningmen, where we enjoyed wandering through the Imperial Garden. This was developed during the Ming dynasty in 1417 to serve as a private retreat for the imperial family and follows typical Chinese imperial garden design principles, with a number of pavilions among the rockeries, flower beds and trees. The sight of some greenery was especially welcome, but the pavilions were pretty too and less formal and grand than the palaces we had seen elsewhere in the Forbidden City.

Pavilion of 1000 Autumns

In the Imperial Garden

When we finally emerged through the northern gate of the Forbidden City we were pleased to see a sign to the Corner Tower Café as both refreshments and a sit down were much needed. We found a small, pleasant, air-conditioned café serving a variety of coffees (I had an excellent iced mocha) and soft drinks – just what we were looking for.

The Corner Tower Café

Jing Shan Park

Entering Jing Shan Park, to the north of the Forbidden City, we found a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place inside the palace. This is Qiwang Pavilion, which was once the place where emperors worshipped the memorial tablet of Confucius.

Qiwang Pavilion

Sign in Jing Shan Park

I had read about the good view of the Forbidden City to be had from the top of the hill at the centre of the park, but decided somewhat reluctantly that the steps looked too much for me in that heat. Chris however ‘took one for the team’ and climbed up to get some photos while I waited in the shade at the foot.

View from Jing Shan Park of the Forbidden City
(taken by Chris)

This is also an appropriate point, I think, for us all to take a break, so I will continue my account of our Sunday in Beijing in my following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 08:58 Archived in China Tagged people architecture park history palace square china beijing details coffee forbidden_city tiananmen

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This is one place I would like to visit. My mother told me that the female lion with the cub is annoyed with the male lion because he is just playing with a ball and not helping.

by greatgrandmaR

You certainly made good use of your brief visit to Beijing — despite the heat.

by Nemorino

When I flew through Beijing on my way to Thailand I had a very long layover and had planned to take a tour while I was waiting. But the day we arrive there was air quality warnings at the airport. And we honestly could not see outside at all from the smog. So we did not take the tour. Next time I will make sure to go.

by littlesam1

Thank you all :) I love that story about the lions Rosalie - it's a new one for me!

Larry, we went prepared to have to deal with smog but as you can see from my photos we had lovely clear skies and the air felt cleaner than London (not that that is saying much!!) I heard they've really started to clean things up a bit, although they still get smog in some weather conditions.

by ToonSarah

Great review Sarah. Despite its interesting history I find the Forbidden City rather sterile in the way it is presented today so though I have been there a few times now it's not my favourite thing to do in Beijing. I can however imagine how it would have been when the Emperors were in residence - the hustle and bustle of a live 'city' very different to the hustle and bustle of to-day's crowds.

by Wabat

Thanks Albert. I agree about the sterility - for me it's a must see for its history and significance, but there are other much more atmospheric places to visit in the city

by ToonSarah

Yet another place on my list of places yet to be seen! :)
The scale of the place is actually visible on the photos, it's huge!

by hennaonthetrek

It really is Henna - I reckon we only saw about a quarter of the buildings, if that!

by ToonSarah

Excellent page again Sarah! As your pages always are! I just love all the small details that you picked up, with all the roof top details, the Marble pillar, the bronze pot and more.

by sim1travels

Thank you Simone, I really appreciate your visit and comment

by ToonSarah

Once again VERY well done ! (as always)

by Michael Dempsey

And thanks Michael too :)

by ToonSarah

You've painted a picture of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City just as I imagined it to be.

The size and scale of it must be almost overbearing, but I also get the feeling that it's a fascinating place to see, even if you were there at a busy time.

Those close up pictures spoke volumes of what I would hope to see there, but I would be like you - melting in the heat.

It seems a place that would justify many visits at different times to fully understand the history, culture and art of such a huge complex that is so very different from our part of the world.

by Easymalc

Thanks Malcolm, I'm glad you found this so interesting :) It is indeed a fascinating place, and really would repay multiple visits if yo want to see everything!

by ToonSarah

What a brilliant page, Sarah, and we have not even got as far as DPRK yet!

Your photography is nothing short of stunning and your eye for detail is second to none. Perhaps strangely and despite the obvious grandeur of the surroundings, the image that struck me most is the small one near the top of the page of the young couple on the park bench with the ancient tree in the background, it is superb.

by planxty

You're far too kind Fergy, but thank you

by ToonSarah

Thanks for sharing this.. love to visit Beijin..

by Jensteph

Thanks Jensteph, glad you enjoyed it :)

by ToonSarah

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