Beijing: From Empire to People’s Republic
Beijing is the capital and one of the important economic centers of the People’s Republic of China. The masses of people, busy traffic, and heavy pollution triggered my flight instinct. But, at the same time, the clash of the modern Beijing lifestyle and ancient history is a fascinating mix that demands to be explored.
In New Zealand, I got a last chance to breathe in some crisp, clear mountain air before heading to megacity Beijing. The air in the Chinese capital was so hazy with pollution on the day of my arrival that I considered for a moment to stop breathing altogether. Because that’s not a viable option for longer than about a minute, I spent the next days wearing a pollution mask instead, which seems to be part of the Beijing style anyway.
The crowds of Beijing make it difficult to move from one place to another. Whenever you’re on the road, you’re caught in traffic jams. That makes it difficult to plan anything, so, during my visit in Beijing, we were always running slightly behind our tightly packed schedule.
The Great Wall … And the Great Firewall
It only took me minutes into my stay in China to bump into the notorious Great Firewall. Not being able to use the search engine of my own choice is a major nuisance when researching for blog posts, and the ban on various social media channels doesn’t exactly make the life of a blogger easier either.
I was infinitely more impressed with the actual Great Wall. We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, which stretches over 2.25 kilometers within the city limits of Beijing. This section was first built in the 6th century and rebuilt in today’s shape and size in the 16th century. It’s not only the size of the wall that is impressive: the Great Wall of China winds over steep slopes across mountains and ridges. Just getting the material up here must have been a considerable logistical effort at the time of its construction. Grace of Metrohm China, who accompanied me, and I had trouble just getting ourselves up there: Grace because of her fear of heights and I because I was jetlagged and half asleep.
From Empire to People’s Republic
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was built to defend the capital, which was the home of the emperors of China until the abdication of the last Emperor of China Puyi in 1912. The former imperial palace in Beijing is also known as the Forbidden City because, in imperial times, access to the palace compound was reserved for those, and those only, invited by the emperor. Twenty-four emperors called this palace their home between 1420 and 1912.
The Forbidden City lies at the heart of Beijing’s old town and hosts the Palace Museum today and there’s nothing forbidden about it anymore. The sheer size of the palace compound as well as the symbolism used in architecture and decorations illustrate the wealth and the power of the emperors, which is still very much admired even though a completely different order has been installed in China. The Tiananmen—the Gate of Heavenly Peace—used to be the entrance to the Imperial City but is decorated today with a picture of the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong. The deeply symbolic placement of the portrait leaves no doubt about the role given to the nation founder.