This week’s dream: Rediscovering Beijing, the sacred city
It’s hard to imagine China’s sprawling capital as the center of the country’s spiritual universe, said Ian Johnson in The New York Times. “But for most of China’s history, it was exactly that.” Prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, Beijing was “a total work of art,” embodying the political-religious system that ran China for millennia. Most of its temples fell during the violence of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, when Mao Zedong sought to redefine China as an industrial, atheistic society. Uncontrolled real estate development in the ’80s nearly wiped out what little remained of Beijing’s medieval past. In recent years, though, the same Communist Party that once attacked tradition has become its guardian. “Beijing’s culture is not dead; it is being reborn in odd corners of the city and in unexpected ways. It is not the same as the past, but still vibrant and real.”
The revival is most apparent at the Temple of the Sun, a 50-acre park in the eastern part of the city. Built in 1530, this shrine was badly damaged when Maoist zealots smashed the main stone altar. Later, it became a dumping ground for rubble. When I visited in 1994, the grounds were barren and all but abandoned. By the time I moved to Beijing in 2009, however, “all of this had changed.” Government investments brought lawns, trees, and flower beds blooming with tulips and geraniums. Today, joggers crowd the paths, while high-end restaurants, beer gardens, and yoga studios encroach on the park’s edges. It’s a shame that so much has been ceded to the rich, “and yet I still love the park.”
Another place to see Beijing reclaim traditional values is at the 13th-century White Cloud Temple. The Cultural Revolution barely touched this complex, which is the national center of Taoism, China’s indigenous religion. A few decades ago it was empty of worshippers, but a Taoist revival has been spreading across China, and now the halls bustle with priests heading off to classes or preparing for ceremonies. Meanwhile, two new strings of courtyards house shrines to various gods. Surprisingly, “it’s well worth visiting the temple’s main gift shop.” There, you can buy scepters, swords, and even Taoist robes—“if you want to go back home dressed like an Immortal.”
At the Fairmont Beijing (www.fairmont.com/beijing), doubles start at $174.