by Ernie Diaz
In its latest incarnation, Beijing sprawls, a grimy goliath of cement, steel, and glass. But this city has triumphed and suffered through at least three-score lifetimes, each scattered and crumbled beneath the one following. Yet through it all, the true materials – stone, water, and tree – remain.
The view from the tomb of Wang An, chief eunuch in charge of attendants and ritual clothing at the Kangxi Emperor’s palace.
Beijing is a city of inter-connecting canals, still swimmable, depending on how hot, or how bacteria resistant you are.
A tiny fast food courtyard in Beijing’s Xidan shopping district hosts the Jujube King. The King was planted in the 15th century, when the courtyard was part of a guild hall for scholars from the city of Changzhou to prepare for the tri-annual national exams.
In the mid-17th century, it became the home of E’fufu, Prince Wu Yingxiong, who had won the emperor’s daughter’s hand only so the royal family could keep an eye on his family, and other restive Manchus. Later still, it was an academy for Manchu bannermen.
Hundreds of years ago, a gang of stoneworkers were hard at work in the mountains outside Beijing. Suddenly, a distinguished white-bearded man appeared and invited them to a wedding feast at a nearby village. Nobody at the village knew anything about a wedding feast, but all jumped at the thunderous roar of the mountain side, just where the stoneworkers had been, caving in. They built this little one-room stone temple to the old mountain saint in thanks.
Beginning in the late 15th century, when drought plagued the land, emperors would come to Huameishan Hill, to pray for rain at the Black Dragon Pool. The spirit of the Dragon King, lord of the skies, dwells there. Once the Qianlong Emperor, enraged by the Dragon King’s stubborn refusal to answer his prayers, threatened to banish the Dragon King’s spirit. It rained shortly after. Qianlong bestowed the imperial yellow tiles on the Dragon Pool’s temple in gratitude.
The Jurchen rulers built the Tuancheng (Round City) in 1179, between what are now Beihai Park’s northern and southern lakes. They planted this tree, later named the General in White Robes by the aforementioned Qianlong, who recognized its stately power and paid homage to it.
Considering basketball’s popularity in China, this Beijing school’s backstop is as honorable a place as any to hold the the last pillar base from the 11th Liao Dynasty temple Shanguosi (Temple of Beneficent Fruit). On the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, the temple would hold a fair during which the imperial elephants were washed at a nearby river, hence the pillar base-design.
The legendary Baifu Spring, still trickling from a high plain north of Beijing. Yuan Dynasty statesman Guo Shoujing created an entire canal system for the Mongol capital depending on the Baifu Spring as its source. The nine dragon siblings, who guard the world’s oceans and rivers, were long ago carved into spigots from which pure water once flowed.
If this scholar tree looks bent and evil, it is from the abuse she has suffered over her long life, which started in the Han Dynasty. Growing by Huairou district’s Yanqi River, the Godmother, twenty meters high and eight around, she has made an ideal camping spot for wayward travelers, who as often as not built fires inside her. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards lopped off most of her branches for firewood.
A few years ago, the village where the Godmother stands was turned into a weekend resort lodge, since abandoned. The developer cut down five other ancient trees around her, but somehow left the Godmother alone. Perhaps it was the fact that insects avoid her, even on the stickiest days. So lives on the oldest tree of its kind in the Greater Beijing area.
This ancient stone path, skirting a precarious drop to the Yongding River, bears the hoof prints of the countless horses, donkeys, and camels that bore loads of coal over it into Beijing from the West.
A well cover at yet another Dragon Spring, this one so-named by a Ming Dynasty monk, who would often spot a golden dragon as he practiced qigong there. Today, local authorities can actually turn the spring on and off as needed, to divert water to a nearby fish pond restaurant, which will fry your catch for you on the banks.
No Godmother, this thousand-year-old scholar tree has nonetheless seen its share of drama. It guarded a convent along an ancient coal road leading into Beijing.
Once, when Ming emperor Yingzong led his troops out to battle, a nun ran out to warn him of impending defeat, and his subsequent imprisonment. He had her killed as a jinx, but after her prediction came true, and he was free, he renamed the temple Huanggusi “Temple of the Emperor’s Sister”, in her honor. The convent is gone, but not the tree.
These forbidding steps lead to another nunnery, this one two caves and a courtyard out in Haidian District’s Fenghuangling Scenic Area. Before reaching the Convent of the Mystic Peak, the Galar’an steps must be scaled.
Out in Beijing’s Longquan Valley, the Spring of the Goddess Guanyin still awaits childless couples, who are blessed with fertility when they drink from its waters.Boiling may be advisable first.