Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Seeing a bit more of Beijing: Temple of Heaven

Yesterday we went to Beijing. Well, we are in Beijing, but we went to downtown, to get a sense of the bigger world. The first full day here (Saturday August 7) we had stayed mostly around our apartment, not in the least because Simon felt a bit sick, but yesterday was the day to expand our horizon. We meant to go to a park just north of the Forbidden City, but through some miscommunication with our driver (we just said "temple on a hill", and really, that could be confusing here) we ended up at the Temple of Heaven. Because we hadn't intended to go there, it was kind of funny. We barely knew the name of the place and had no idea what was so special about it. Though clearly it was a top destination for a lot of tourists.

Well, here is my first, uneducated impression. The Temple of Heaven is a beautiful, vast site with a series of buildings that together were used for an annual ceremony where the emperor made an offer to please the gods. This included of course sacrificing a calf, silk, and several rounds of wine (interesting how the gods always seem to like exactly what the people like). Around the buildings was a beautiful park, and walking around there was just lovely. A man was doing tai chi, several groups of men (all men!) were doing Chinese chess, and at different places groups of people were singing songs. It was so fun to be in the park, everyone was just having a great time on a Sunday afternoon.

Oh, before I forget, the most fun part was actually the amazing amount of attention our two little blond boys drew. We had barely left the car for our trip to a restaurant just south of Tiananmen square, when a man asked if his kid could be in a photo with Simon and Thomas. He threw a Chinese emperor hat on Thomas and took a series of pictures -- presumably to show off these really strange-looking kids he saw on vacation. And no matter where we went today, people asked to be in pictures with them, or just simply took the pictures with them in it. After a while, Simon and Thomas got the hang of it, and as soon as someone approached them speaking Chinese and waving a camera, they would just huddle, put an arm around each other, and smile.

We might soon start declining the offer to be captured in a picture like a rare creature at the zoo, but today it was just a lot of fun. One time -- I am sure you are not surprised - Paul even walked up to some people who had been taking pictures of them from a distance, to ask to see the pictures. They showed them of course - and there were our boys' smiles - ready to be featured in that family's Beijing photo album.

Back to the Temple of Heaven: After reading up on the site later, I can now tell you this is the first time I learned those old Chinese emperors had some serious work to do. Twice a year, the emperor would leave his home at the Forbidden City (Verboden Stad) at the heart of Beijing, and stay at the Temple of Heaven to prepare for and conduct an elaborate ceremony to please the gods. Because the emperor was regarded the "Son of Heaven" who acted on behalf of heavenly authority, it was important for him to be showing respect to this source of his authority by bringing a sacrfice to heaven. According to the Wikipedia, the offering ceremony had to be perfectly completed, as "it was widely held that the smallest of mistakes would constitute a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year." Speaking of pressure!

After the (surprise) visit to the Temple of Heaven, we met up with two friends who we know from Washington but now live in Singapore and are on vacation in Beijing (are you still following?). We met at the site of the Bell and Drum Towers, Zhonglou and Gulou. The clocks and drums were used for official timekeeping until 1924, when in one big swoop the last emperor was forced out of the Forbidden City (and out of power) and western-style clocks began being used for official time keeping.

After some drinks - healthy fresh carrot-apple-melon juices - with our friends, we headed back home. A good day out in the big wide world!

Oh, and if anyone is wondering about jet lag, amazingly enough the boys just kind of rolled into our new time zone. Maybe when they didn't want to go to bed in the past, they were already on China time! :-)

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