Beijing

Introduction

Beijing is known as being both the cultural and political capital of China. There is more to see and do in Beijing than can be experienced in a year, let alone a day, but even with just a day the city can overwhelm visitors with the richness of its arts and the weight of its millennia long history. With a population of over 22 million, Beijing holds China’s best universities, a flourishing arts movement, and the seat of the Communist government. It flourishes with activity and diversity.

A stone lion guardian at the Forbidden City

Practicalities

Beijing’s time zone, like all of China, is China Standard Time, or GMT +8. This puts it exactly 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the United States, when daylight saving time is in effect.  The currency of China is the yuan (¥). Many smaller businesses don’t take credit or debit cards, only cash, but ATMs which accept international cards are easy to find. The emergency telephone numbers are 110 for police, 119 for a fire alarm, and 120 for a medical emergency.

The city is laid out in a series of concentric circles, with the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and government buildings in the center. The second ring road circles this innermost layer of Beijing, and a third ring road circles that, and so on. Most tourist sights are within the second ring road or quite close to it, although some lay farther afield.

The official language of Beijing, as in the rest of China, is Mandarin Chinese. Since standard Chinese was based off of the northern dialects, Beijing Chinese is relatively close to this accent-less standard, with the exception of the infamous Beijing “-er,” which is added to the ends of words and sounds somewhat like growling to those unused to it.

Because Beijing was the host of the 2008 Olympics, many taxi drivers and tourism staff known basic English quite well. That said, it is best not to rely on their often imperfect knowledge, or on their ability to understand foreigners’ pronunciation of Chinese place names. If possible, it is best to get the names of any place you might want to go written down in Chinese, to show to passers-by or taxi drivers.

Some useful words and phrases:

Hello – Ni hao! (“knee how”)

Goodbye. – Zai jian. (“za-eye gee-in”)

Good – Hao (“how”)

No – Bu (“boo”)

I want to go to… – Wo yao qu… (“woh yow choo…”)

No MSG. – Bu fang weijing. (“boo fahng way-jing”)

Mao’s Mausoleum in Tian’an Men Square

How much is it? – Duoshao qian? (“do-uh sha-ow chee-in?”)

Too expensive! – Tai gui le! (“tie gwey leh!”)

Subway – Ditie (“dee tee-eh”)

Telephone – Dianhua (“dee-en hwah”)

Where is the restroom? – Xishoujian zai nali? (“shee show gee-en za-eye nah-lee?”)

Taxis are undoubtedly the easiest way to get around Beijing, particularly for those limited on time, they are convenient and inexpensive. The starting rate is ¥10, with an addition of ¥2/km after the first 10 km; in addition there is now a ¥1 gas surcharge on top of the final price. In general it is best to be very, very clear that the driver understands your destination, as many Beijing taxi drivers are new to the city. Still, the major tourist destinations should be easily understood, and the main worry will be getting stuck in Beijing’s notoriously terrible traffic.

The other main mode of transportation for visitors is the excellent subway system. Upgraded for the Olympics, it now will take you almost anywhere you want to go, with 9 lines now in operation. For tourists, the most commonly used lines are line 1, which is a straight line east to west and goes underneath Tiananmen Square, the line 2 loop which follows the second ring road, and line 5, which cuts through the circle of line 2 going north-south and stops at many tourist sights. Each ticket is ¥2, and the signs are all marked in English.

Chinese people are generally polite and friendly, and sometimes quite curious about foreigners. It is not uncommon to be asked to take a picture with someone at major tourist sights; this is meant in all good nature and not at all insulting. If someone gives you a name card, do take it with both hands and put it away neatly, and give your own in return if you have one. Bowing is not common in China for greeting; usually a handshake will suffice when first meeting someone.

Tipping is not native to Chinese traditions, and it used to be that tips were refused when offered; however, Beijing has by now seen so many international visitors that many taxi drivers will happily take offered tips. Rounding up the amount of the fare is always safe, and appreciated. Tipping in restaurants is still uncommon, and you’re likely to just be handed back the change with a puzzled glance. The exception for tipping is at massage parlors and for other beauty services: in these cases, a 10% tip is customary.

Exercise classes in the Temple of Heaven park

When walking the streets of Beijing, always be careful to watch your belongings—and your feet! Pickpockets are always a danger, as in any large city, but an additional concern is spitting, something older Beijingers still do with much gusto. Watch your step and there should be no problems. Also beware of the young college students hanging around Tiananmen Square, asking if you’d like to see their “artwork” or get some tea, as this is a common and long-running scam. Common sense should be caution enough to avoid these people.

Context

People have lived in the Beijing area, known by many other names, for tens of thousands of years, and cities have been in the region since at least three thousand years ago, but the first city of note came when the State of Yan established its capital there during the Warring States period (473-221 BC). After that brief period of fame, Beijing fell back into relative obscurity until it was captured by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, at the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan rebuilt the city after razing it the ground, and under his control the city regained a certain amount of cultural and political prominence.

After the Yuan Dynasty fell and the Ming Dynasty came into power, Beijing remained an important capital city, and has more or less retained that status until the present day. 1403 was the year Beijing came by its present-day name, and shortly thereafter Beijing’s most famous palace, the Forbidden City, was built for the Yongle Emperor. Many Ming emperors now rest in elaborate tombs outside of the city. When the Qing Dynasty succeeded the Ming, they made little more than superficial changes to the palace and the city; the next major incident was during the Second Opium War in 1860, when the French and English burned the Summer Palace down to the ground before a peace treaty was finally established.

The end of the decaying Qing dynasty came in 1911, during the Xinhai Revolution. This was meant to be the start of a republican era in China, but political in-fighting and attempts to consolidate power to create a new dynasty led to its initial failure: the first part of the twentieth century saw China torn apart by various warlord factions, until they were subdued and united under the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) Chiang Kai-shek in 1928. Beijing was renamed to Beiping, meaning “northern peace,” and the capital moved to Nanjing. This remained the case until the Japanese invasion at the start of World War 2.  After capture by the Japanese, Beijing was made into the capital of the puppet state created by Japan in northern China.

The Japanese were later defeated, but a civil war within China raged on between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist KMT forces.  Eventually the CCP took the city in early 1949, and later that year Mao Zedong established it as the capital of the People’s Republic of China, which remains the current government. The ups and downs of the PRC have been numerous, complex, and often deeply tragic; the most important relating Beijing history being the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A thousands-strong group of pro-democracy protesters gathered at the square to peacefully demonstrate, but they were forcibly disbanded by the military. While no exact numbers exist it is safe to say that many died, and many more were injured.

The CCP controls the municipal government of Beijing, and in that capacity deals with most of the city’s administrative and economic functions, ranging from traffic laws to tax collecting; this is in addition to a variety of bureaus in charge of various specific legal and administrative domains. In general the structure is highly bureaucratic, and in most ways undemocratic, although if asked most people on the street are more bothered by the former than the latter. All of China’s national governmental bodies and political institutions are also in Beijing, as it is the capital of China.

In terms of economy, Beijing leads the way for Chinese development, along with Guangzhou and Shanghai. Finance is one of the largest industries, and Beijing is home to more Fortune Global 500 companies than any city other than Tokyo and Paris. It is one of the richest cities in China, but a great disparity still exists between the very rich and the very poor.This can most clearly be seen when contrasting the consumerism displayed by young urban professionals with the desolate lot of recent immigrants from rural areas, struggling to get by in underpaid construction jobs.

Beijing is home to China’s best universities, and high school students all over the country study furiously to test well enough to get a slot at one of these prestigious institutions. Peking University and Tsinghua University are two of the most well-known internationally. These schools are not only as centers for an excellent education. Because of the quality and creativity of their students they have also historically been the start for various political upheavals and new ways of thinking that would influence the entire country.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Most modern Chinese are not religious per se, but many still subscribe to certain Buddhist beliefs and will offer prayers and incense at temples they go to visit. This is not to say that there are no true Buddhist devotees in China, but rather that first communism and then commercialism has bled the fervor for religion out of most people, particularly the youth. Still, Buddhism still holds strong among some people, as does Taoism, and there are a small number of Christians in most Chinese cities, as well as churches established by missionaries. If visiting a Buddhist temple, it is better to refrain from taking pictures inside the temple proper but outside is usually fine.

General Interest

Beijing opera is the most typically Beijing form of music, and considered one of China’s great arts. This well-developed art form relies on elaborate costumes and face paints, intricate gestures to denote emotion, fighting and acrobatic sequences, and spoken dialogue and singing in a high-pitched, archaic version of Chinese. It is worth seeing at least once if one has the time; there are numerous small theaters around the city.

There is also a booming underground music scene in Beijing, due to its huge student population. This music can range from jazz to metal to punk to electronic, or some other more esoteric combination. Venues sprout like mushrooms and fade away just as quickly.

Famously the host of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing still isn’t all that well-known for its professional sports. However, it does have professional baseball, basketball, soccer, and ice hockey teams, of varying qualities.

More interesting to the tourist might be the number of people that can be seen exercising in the parks or any other large open space. Outdoor activity is seen a key component of health by the Chinese, and in the early morning and evening it seems like the whole city is out walking, dancing, or practicing Tai Chi.

If ancient technique is what interests you, look no further than Beijing’s cloisonné. This elaborate and beautiful metalworking tradition is one of Beijing’s finest traditional crafts, and they take pride in it, as well as in their intricate and delicate lacquer ware.

At the same time, the contemporary art scene in Beijing is flourishing, particularly just outside the city center in areas like Chaoyang’s Dashanzi Art District, formerly known as Factory 798. China’s younger generation of artists can often be truly ground-breaking, and some of their work can take your breath away in its creativity and pointed political or cultural messages; they are quickly gaining ground on international art markets.

If you go to Beijing, you must try the Peking duck!  Beijing’s signature dish, the succulent roasted duck is traditionally served with scallions and flavorful plum sauce, which are then enfolded into a thin pancake and eaten. Hotpot, particularly mutton hotpot, is also common; this involves a streaming pot of broth in the middle of the table, and diners putting in the raw ingredients themselves to cook for as long as they wish.

Street food in Beijing is usually safe as long as you can see it being prepared, and is often quite delicious. Favorites include lamb kebabs, sugar-coated haw berries and various kinds of savory pancake mixed with fried egg.

Tea is the national drink of the land, and will be available everywhere in unthinkable varieties. Tea shops are also ubiquitous, but it is best to check the price before ordering, as many are far more expensive than expected. The standard Beijing alcoholic drink is called baijiu, or “white alcohol,” and it is not for the faint of heart. This liquor can be stronger than vodka and twice as hair-raising, so sip rather than knocking it back. For those looking for something tamer, Qingdao beer is as common in Beijing as elsewhere in China. Yanjing beer is the local Beijing brew, and not at all bad.

Key Attractions

The Great Wall at Badaling

Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world, but it is doubtless more famous for its often bloody place in recent Chinese history. Numerous protests have been thrown here, often calling for democracy, starting with the May 4 protests in 1911 all the way to the more recent events of 1989. The size alone impresses, but it is empty on its own; the silent history is what brings people to this place. Expect hordes of Chinese tourists there to pay their respects at Mao’s mausoleum, and note the iconic Tiananmen Gate. (Access by subway line 1, stop Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West.)

Directly across from Tiananmen Square and through Tiananmen Gate, this is one sight not be missed when visiting Beijing. Also known as the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City was the home of the Ming and Qing emperors. This enormous complex sprawls endlessly, even though not all of it is open to the public. The elegant courtyards offer a pleasant place to relax after exploring inside the buildings, with their priceless cultural artifacts and pieces of art from times gone by. (Access by subway line 1, stop Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West.)

Located to the south and east of Tiananmen, the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing’s most beautiful sights, both for the architecture and artistry of the temple and for the peaceful green parks that surround it. An important site during China’s imperial period, the emperor would make journeys here every year to pray for good harvests. Plan on spending several hours to see it all.  (Access by subway line 5, stop Tiantandongmen.)

The Great Wall is the symbol of the Chinese nation, and many feel that no visit to China would be complete without setting foot on this majestic monument. With only one day in Beijing, going to the Great Wall means forsaking all other touring in the city; there is simply not enough time to see it all. The nearest section of the wall to the city is called Badaling, and though it is more crowded, it is still a truly breath-taking sight. Be warned that the hiking can be a bit strenuous, though. Getting there will take between one and two hours. (Access by taxi, train from Beijing North train station, or bus 5 from Tiananmen Square southwest to the terminus, and then bus 919 to Badaling.)

 

Quirky Facts

Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square houses both Mao’s actual body and a replica made of wax, and visitors are never sure which one is one display. This is one of many security measures in place there.

The classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber was based in Beijing during the late Ming dynasty. One of the four great epics of Chinese literature, in it Cao Xueqin tells the story of a complicated and tragic romance, set amidst familial and dynastic decline.

Author:  Chelsea Bowling