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Beijing - Around Town : Tian'an Men Square and the Forbidden City (part 1)

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The geographical, spiritual, and historical heart of Beijing, Tian’an Men Square and the Forbidden City together represent a yin and yang arrangement; one is a mind-bogglingly vast, empty, rectangular public space, the other is an even more massive, rectangular walled private enclosure. One represents modern China, complete with its Socialist monuments, refrigerated Great Leader and resonances of recent political upheaval, while the other is a silent repository of ancient imperial glories. There is enough to see around the square and in the Forbidden City to make it worth setting aside a whole day for each. One day will present a vivid impression of China as it was, and the other an equally striking portrait of the country as it is now. And after all that, wander around the corner for a look at the new National Grand Theater and a glimpse of the China of the future.

The cult of Mao

Mao was an ideologue whose impatience at the pace of reform often brought disaster. Skilful maneuvering by the Party meant that he remained a heroic figure. The years after his death saw a diminishing of his status, as Mao’s influence was overshadowed by the political and economic reforms embraced by Deng Xiaoping and other leaders.

Mao’s Mausoleum


Top 10 Sights

  1. Tian’an Men Square

    Although now thoroughly synonymous with Beijing, until relatively recently there was no Tian’an Men Square. For centuries this was just a main thoroughfare leading to the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian’an Men) and the approach to the Forbidden City. The area was cleared in the first half of the 20th century, then quadrupled in size in 1959, supposedly allowing for up to one million people to gather. Many of the buildings flanking the square were erected at this time .

    Tian’an Men Square
  2. China National Museum

    This imposing building houses both the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Revolution. Of the two, the former is by far the more interesting, with an unsurpassed collection of great works of Chinese art; the halls here are also used for temporary exhibitions. The Museum of the Revolution contains models, documents, and photographs connected with the history of the Chinese Communist Party – for political enthusiasts only. The China National Museum is closed for refurbishment until 2010.

    • East side of Tian’an Men Square

    • 6512 8901

    • Subway: Tian’an Men East

    • Closed until 2010

    • www.nationalmuseum.cn

  3. Great Hall of the People

    This the Chinese parliament building, home of the nation’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress. Regular tours visit the banquet room where US President Nixon dined in 1972 and the 10,000-seat auditorium with its ceiling inset with a massive red star. The building is closed to the public when the Congress is in session.

    • West side of Tian’an Men Square

    • 6605 6847

    • Subway: Tian’an Men West

    • Opening hours vary

    • ¥30

    Great Hall of the People
  4. National Grand Theater

    Completed in 2006, Beijing’s new opera house is already a major city landmark. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, it is built of glass and titanium and takes the form of a giant parabolic dome – earning it the nickname “The Egg.” The high-tech lighting that illuminates the exterior is reflected in a moat, while the entrance is through an underwater tunnel.

    • 2 West Chang An Jie

    • 6655 0000

    • Subway: Tian’an Men West

    • www.chncpa.org

    National Grand Theater
  5. Imperial City Museum

    Much of the Imperial City of Beijing was destroyed under the Communists. A model in the museum illustrates the extent of what has been lost, including the wall that once encircled the city, the gates, and a great many temples. There are also exhibits on the hutongs, plus collections of armor, weapons, and ceramics.

    • 9 Changpu Heyan

    • 8511 5104

    • Subway: Tian’an Men East

    • Open 10am–5:30pm Tue–Sun

    • ¥20

    • Audio tour ¥50

  6. Forbidden City

    The Forbidden City is Beijing’s top “must-see” sight. A seemingly endless collection of pavilions, gates, courts, and gardens, the complex encompasses five centuries of colorful, occasionally lurid, imperial history. Trying to see everything in one go will bring on a severe case of Ming fatigue, and it is recommended that you tackle the palace over at least two visits .

    Forbidden City
  7. Jing Shan Park

    Jing Shan (Coal Hill) lies immediately north of the Forbidden City. The hill was created from the earth that was excavated while building the moat around the palace complex during the reign of the Ming Yongle emperor. The hill’s purpose was to protect the emperor and his court from malign northern influences, which brought death and destruction according to classical feng shui. The park is dotted with pavilions and halls, but the highlight is the superb view south from the hill-top Wancheng Pavilion.

    • 1 Wenjin Jie

    • 6404 4071

    • Bus: 5, 111, 124, 810

    • Open 6am–9pm daily

    • ¥2

  8. Wangfujing Dajie

    Beijing’s main shopping street is filled with department stores and giant malls (see Shops, Malls, and Markets), as well as stores selling silk, tea, and shoes. Another highlight is the Night Market, with its range of open-air food stalls (see Wangfujing Night Market). A little to the north is St. Joseph’s, one of the city’s most important churches .

    • Subway: Wangfujing

    Night Market

    • Open 5:30pm–10pm daily

    Wangfujing street sculptures

    Wangfujing Dajie shopping street
  9. National Art Museum of China

    The largest art gallery in China was one of ten key buildings erected in 1959 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. It has no permanent collection but its 14 halls, spread over three floors, host a constant rotation of temporary exhibitions of Chinese and international art.

    • 1 Wusi Dajie

    • 8403 3500

    • Subway: Dong Si

    • Open 9am–5pm daily; last entry 4pm

    • ¥20; audio guides ¥10 (plus ¥100 deposit)

    • www.namoc.org

    National Art Museum of China
  10. Zhong Shan Park

    Northwest of the Tian’an Men, Zong Shan (also known as Sun Yat Sen Park) offers respite from the crowds thronging the nearby sights. The park was once part of the grounds of a temple and the square Altar of Earth and Harvests remains. In the eastern section is the Forbidden City Concert Hall, Beijing’s premier venue for classical music.

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