Our exploration of the attractions, sights, and wonders of China will begin in Beijing and continue outward to the various regions of China’s vast terrain. For six centuries, Beijing was considered the center of the Chinese universe. As the capital of China, it is home to the Imperial Palace, or Forbidden City, where 24 emperors reigned as the Sons of Heaven. Today, it is a bustling, modern city filled with freeways and skyscrapers that accommodate a population of 12 million. It is an essential place to discover the nightlife, entertainment, shopping, and cuisine that China has to offer. The following are some of Beijing’s most famous sites.
In 1989, a million protestors gathered here before the eyes of the world to rally for freedom and call for reform. Originally designed to accommodate a procession from the Imperial City to the Temple of Heaven, the square has attracted protestors since the early 20th century as a venue for mass demonstrations against domestic policies. Within its 24-hectares lie several historically significant sites, including the Great Hall of the Chinese Revolution, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, and the Museum of Chinese History.
Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)
Just south of Tian’anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven stands within its own park. Built in 1420, the temple is a vision of architectural and symbolic significance. Its architecture consists of walls, temples, and altars with square and round parts to symbolize heaven and earth. The emperor, who was considered the intermediary between the two bodies, prayed at the temple for a good harvest. This important ceremony took place at the Temple of Heaven for five centuries.
Imperial Palace (Forbidden City)
The Forbidden City takes its name from the fact that, during its operation, ordinary Chinese people were forbidden from going anywhere near it. Today, two million visitors per year enjoy its newly restored splendor. The City consists of 800 buildings, including ceremonial halls with marble terraces, spectacular banquet halls with fine carvings, marble bridges decorated with carved torches, and grand, towering gates. As the former residence of the emperor, whose rule was absolute, the Imperial Palace stands at the heart of Beijing.
(Try doing a search for Dragon and Phoenix products at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen. These legendary Chinese figures date back for centuries, symbolizing, among other things, the emperor and empress of China.)
South of Tian’anmen Square and within reach of the Temple of Heaven, Qianmen lies near the vicinity of the Forbidden City but holds a quality and character all its own. Qianmen consists of lanes and hutongs, or hidden alleyways that host a concentration of shops, restaurants, and places of entertainment. Cinemas, bakeries, and bookstores mingle with silk traders, traditional pharmacies, and an array of side-stalls. McDonald’s and other venues of Western origin can also be found here.
Based on historical or mythological themes that play out moral belief systems through imagery, costume, song, dance, and acrobatics, the Beijing opera is one of China’s most celebrated cultural events. Prominent theaters that feature Beijing operas include Liyuan, Zhengyici, and Chang’an, located in Yong’an Lu, Qianmen, and Jianguomenei. The re-emerging teahouse, which provides snacks, seating, and entertainment, is another place where Beijing operas can be enjoyed.
(Did you know that jasmine tea is a favorite in Beijing? Try one of the selections in our Grocery section, under Tea.)
Outside Beijing’s perimeter, several places of interest warrant a visit. These eclectic areas provide a relief from city life and highlight the invigorating scenery that China has to offer beyond the confines of the capital. Each can occupy a day trip during a stay in Beijing. The following are some of the areas around Beijing that shouldn’t be missed.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall was erected during the fifth century BC to protect the country against invasion from bordering territories. Some areas where the best-known sections of the wall can be seen include Badaling, Mutianyu, Simatai, Jinshanling, and Huanghua. Each of these places is situated in different directions from Beijing, but within reach of the capital by bus, taxi, cable car, or toboggan. They contain varying quantities of tourists and offer stunning backdrops of undulating hills and magnificent mountain ranges.
The Western Hills
An hour’s drive from Beijing, the Western Hills are enjoyed for their natural setting and favorable weather. The hills are divided into three parks, the Botanical Gardens, Xiangshan, and Badachu. The Botanical Gardens are formal gardens housing thousands of varieties of plants and trees. Also in the Botanical Gardens is the temple Wofo Si, where a massive reclining Buddha and a bamboo garden can be found. Other famous temples are located in the appealing, wooded terrain of Xiangshan and Badachu.
(Feng shui has dictated Chinese landscaping for centuries and has also influenced Chinese gardens. To learn more about this art, take a look in our Books category, where you will find a book on Feng Shui in Your Garden. Or, read the February 2003 and April 2004 newsletter, available in our archives.)
This village south of Beijing contains a famous excavation site nestled in limestone hills. The first relic of Peking Man was uncovered here by archaeologists. The open archaeological site is complemented by a museum that houses the discoveries made of Peking Man’s livelihood. The remains of extinct animals are also displayed and described at the excavation site.
Beyond the outskirts of Beijing, China alternates between big cities, mountain ranges, plateaus, and fertile plains. The diversity of China’s landscape is amazing and a description of the various localities within this colossal land can only be touched upon here. The regions of China and some of the places within these regions are summarized below. Each contains its own special aspect of Chinese culture and civilization.
Along the Yellow River
Chinese civilization was established along the Yellow River, named such because of the yellow silt, or loess, contained within it. Generally, the northern and central regions of China are linked to the Yellow River and its floodplains. The Yellow River, or Huang He, is 3,410 miles long. It is known as “China’s sorrow” because of its historically damaging floods. The shallow river is primarily used for local fishing and irrigation.
Xian, one of the most notable tourist destinations in the world, is in close proximity to the Yellow River on the western side of China. The highlight of a visit here are the Terra-cotta Warriors, which consist of life-size terra-cotta soldiers made of local clay and arranged in parallel, underground pits paved with bricks.
Other areas of interest along the Yellow River include Datong, Taihuai, Taiyuan, and Pingyao.
Located in the Tibetan Plateau in southern China, Tibet is situated outside of mainstream Chinese life. Isolated among some of the world’s highest mountains, Tibet is one of China’s most beautiful regions. The Tibetan plateau is approximately 4,500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Kunlun mountain ranges.
Tibetans comprise a small percentage of Chinese minorities and struggle to retain their traditional way of life without outside influence. Places of interest within Tibet include the Potala Palace, the Jokhang temple, and the Barkhor circuit.
The Yangtze Region
The largest river in China, the Yangtze divides the country into north and south. Some 700 tributaries join the course of the river and divide it into the upper, middle, and lower reaches. The lower reaches are known as the “Land of Fish and Rice” because it produces 40 percent of the national grain output, 33 percent of the cotton, 50 percent of the freshwater fish, and 40 percent of the industrial output. A third of China’s population resides in the lower reaches of the Yangtze.
(Our authentic Yixing products are made from the clays found along the Yangtze River, in the Yixing region. Discover why Yixing teapots are world-renowned to tea connoisseurs by visiting our Yixing Teaware section or reading our newsletter on Yixing in our newsletter archives.)
One of China’s largest cities, Shanghai is located along the Yangtze. More than 13 million people live in Shanghai. A city that visually resembles a European setting, Shanghai is famous for its decadent, pre-1949 lifestyle. The Treaty of Nanjing gave foreign nationalists freedom from the law, which resulted in a notorious nightlife, underworld crime, immense wealth, and severe poverty that defined an era of Shanghai life.
Other popular areas in the Yangtze Region include Hangzhou, The Grand Canal, Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Nanjing, and Zhenjiang.
Southern China is generally flat, with a few dry mountains. Its green color contrasts with the browns and yellows of the north. A long tradition of foreign trade exists in the south along China’s coastline. Architectural and cultural differences set southern China apart from the rest: this results from a long period of population by indigenous tribes and later, merchant classes.
Hong Kong is a southeastern island that became part of China permanently in 1997. It is a powerful attraction to visitors for its modernity. Most of old Hong Kong has been destroyed, and it is said that a building is regarded as “old” almost as soon as it is built. Complete with its own Disneyland, Hong Kong has many attractive bays and popular districts. Outside its urban vicinity, Hong Kong also has scenic, country areas worthy of discovery.
Other popular southern cities include Guangzhou (Canton), Macao, Kunming, and Guilin.
OUR 2004 NEWSLETTERS
Holiday Shopping Guide for Men
Holiday Shopping Guide for Women
Flowers in the Sky – Cherry and Plum Blossoms in Asian Culture
Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia II
Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia I
Travel to Asia: Korea
Travel to Asia: Taiwan
Travel to Asia: Japan
Travel to Asia: China, Part II
Travel to Asia: China
1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art
Chinese New Year
Cookware for Your Asian-Style Kitchen