‘The Search for a Vanishing Beijing’ is a great book to take with you on a visit to the Chinese capital if you want to explore on your own. Long time resident, author M.A. Aldrich takes the reader by the arm to discover the city together. By weaving history, legend and humour, Aldrich portrays the rich tapestry of Peking. In doing so, the history of China also unfolds
Aldrich is inspired to write about Beijing when he finds a reprint of the classic guidebook “In Search of Old Peking” by Arlington and Lewisohn, written in 1933. “With nothing to lose, I decided to follow in [their] footsteps .. during that elusive commodity called spare time.”
Since the author’s interest in Chinese culture began more than 30 years ago, he studied Chinese under Jesuit teachers at Georgetown University, has lived in China for 15 years and is a long time resident in Beijing, he is undeniably well placed to write an updated guide to the city.
- 1 The Story of Beijing Since the Western Zhou Dynasty
- 2 Sun Yatsen and Mao Zedong
- 3 Beijing Opera
- 4 Dashanzi Art District
- 5 Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace)
- 6 Great Wall at Simatai or Jinshanling
- 7 Panjiayuan Antique Market (Dirt Market)
- 8 Temple of Heaven
- 9 Tiananmen Square
- 10 Hutong Pedi Cab Tour (Shichahai Area)
The Story of Beijing Since the Western Zhou Dynasty
The book begins with the development of Beijing, or Peking, as Aldrich is determined to call it, since it has “been known as Peking in the English language for over three hundred years…. “Peking” is a far more evocative name that reaches back through the centuries and conjures images of China’s majestic culture.”
This follows with an explanation of the traditional beliefs of Daoism, ancestor worship, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, and Islam as seen through the eyes of an old man, resident in Peking in the mid 18th century. A historic overview is next from the Western Zhou period (1027-770BC) through to the Ming dynasty, when it became capital of China in 1421, then the Qing dynasty and on to the present day.
After this background information we are into the story of Peking proper as Aldrich leads us round the different districts in the city, beginning in the centre with the Forbidden City, gradually working out through the city to the Western Hills, the Ming tombs, the Great Wall and beyond. Each chapter begins with a map of the area to be covered, and is illustrated with black and white archival and present day photographs.
Sun Yatsen and Mao Zedong
Throughout the book Aldrich is not afraid to take an opposing view against popular conception. There are irreverent references to Dr Sun Yatsen and his wife, as he describes how, “though already married, Sun seemed to carry a spark for much younger women. The old lecher arranged to cashier [a favourite word of the author’s] his current wife and marry Qing Ling in 1922, which caused something of a scandal in both traditional Chinese and Christian circles.”
Mao Zedong also comes in for much ribaldry when he describes a visit to the Chairman’s mausoleum “where we see the old boy in a crystal coffin on a black bier… The bier rests on an elevator that allows the remains to be removed like a dumb waiter for further cosmetic polishing. I wonder whether the guards keep their lunch pails in the deep freeze while the old boy is on view on top.”
Yet for all its levity, the book is thoroughly researched, and full of wonderful, little known stories. Aldrich admits this is “not meant to be a “serious” work about Peking. I have not attempted to sift fact from legend or make any new contribution to a body of scholarship. Rather I have simply gathered miscellaneous stories recorded over the centuries and set them out alongside their original stage sets.”
No matter how many times you have been to Beijing, this book makes you want to hurry back, to explore, reacquaint and rediscover old and new places. Like a good Chinese meal, the flavour of the city, the piquant tales and the spicy gossip meant I savoured every word.
Peking Opera is a pure form of Chinese opera dating to 1790 when four local opera troupes from Anhui Province came to Beijing to perform at the imperial court. There are various performances to pick from, and the daily show at Li Yuan Theatre is a popular option where the stage is big enough for real martial arts.
Dashanzi Art District
This area, also known as the 798 Art District, is one of Asia’s largest contemporary art zones with industrial Bauhaus architecture, contemporary art galleries, cafés, boutiques, and performing arts spaces. It is located inside the 5th ring road, a $5 taxi ride from the city center.
Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace)
The world’s largest courtyard-style house, a staggering 180-acre imperial compound, is an ideal place to begin exploration of Beijing. It was built in the early 15th century and was a seat of power during Ming and Qing dynasties, containing over 9,000 rooms. It is highly recommended to have a guide or rent a multi lingual guide recorder.
Great Wall at Simatai or Jinshanling
Climbing the Great Wall is a must! Two rugged, relatively unrestored places to view the Great Wall about 70 miles (112.6 kilometers) northeast of Beijing is Simatai or Jinshaling. Simatai has steep climbs on crumbling stones, often without handrails and an amazing view. Jinshanling is less gravity-defying, but visitors can camp there overnight.
Panjiayuan Antique Market (Dirt Market)
Over 3,000 vendors in 60,000 square yards (50,168 square meters) of organized outdoor space in Panjiayuan Antique Market with a smorgasbord of real and fake jade bracelets, lavish opera costumes to satin slippers, ornate birdcages, and souvenirs ranging from antiques, jade, and Mao memorabilia. Located at Third Ring Road at Panjiayuan Qiao.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven built in the 15th century, situated south of Beijing, is one of the real highlights of the capital. Twice the size of the Forbidden City, the surrounding park is a lovely surprise with hundreds of lively locals out as early as 6am to practice tai chi, play the erhu, compete in chess, sing Chinese opera, dance with ribbons and fans, or just to stroll.
Tiananmen Square , the world’s largest (99 acres) public square—surprisingly devoid of trees, benches, and other boundary-setting details—is unarguably a must-see when in Beijing. This was the place where Chairman Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Hutong Pedi Cab Tour (Shichahai Area)
Experience a Pedi cab ride in well preserved old Beijing hutong areas. An experience on this kind of old transportation is now still kept for tourists as the typical transportation when travelling the hutong, Beijing’s old city alleys. The neighbourhoods of narrow, twisting streets represents real life of ordinary Beijingers with small narrow passageways linking to courtyards of traditional connected homes.