The Seat of All Power

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Beijing, Sunday, Oct. 14

Our first day in Beijing began in a hotel conference room with self-introductions by the 35 travelers (during which we heard various definitions of “retirement,” the best of which was, “during the week I do absolutely nothing, and on weekends I rest”) followed by a brief talk by Haili Kong, our faculty leader.

Haili teaches Chinese language, literature, and film and has been at Swarthmore since 1994. His recent book on the history of Beijing, co-authored with Lillian Li of the History Department and Alison Dray-Novey of the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, is a sweeping tale of a city whose earliest habitation has been said to date back 500,000 years to the Peking Man, an early homo-sapiens whose remains were found near here in the 1920s.

Haili gave a brief overview, concentrating mostly on Beijing as imperial capital of China, which it has been (with occasional exceptions) since the Mongol conquest of the 13th century. From then until 1911, three great dynasties ruled China: the Yuan (1279-1368), the Ming (1368-1644), and the Qing (1644-1912). The Republican Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Qing and the century that followed has doubtless been the most difficult and momentous in Chinese history.

But today, we are going to concentrate on three historical sites that have been preserved from Old China—and I mean old. After the introduction and lecture, we boarded a bus with our guide “Jack” (Liu) and the tour operator, an American named Howard Smith. Jack speaks excellent English, and Howard has organized educational tours of China for more than 25 years.

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The novelist Yu Hua (left), author of To Live, answers questions during a meeting with Swarthmore alumni in China. The translator is “Jack,” the group’s Beijing guide.

First stop: the Lama Temple, or Yonghegong. This former palace of the Qing prince was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 1740s in order to connect the capital with the important lamas in Tibet. Even the current Dalai Lama had stayed here while visiting Beijing before the Chinese military takeover of Tibet in 1959 and his subsequent exile.

Yonghegong remains an active religious site today. Redolent of incense and crowded with young Buddhist worshippers, its series of archways and buildings take you along a progressive journey with progressively larger and more impressive statues of the Buddha. It ends spectacularly at the Hall of Infinite Happiness, which was built around an 18-meter high Buddha carved from the trunk of a single cypress tree.

Photography was not allowed inside the five halls of the Buddha, but despite the jostling crowds of tourists and incense-bearing worshippers who prayed both outside and inside each temple, there was a remarkable sense of peace and calm inside them. I am not a Buddhist in any formal way—I know little of the religion and philosophy and almost nothing of its practices—but when I have encountered Buddhist temples or shrines, I find myself strongly drawn to them, centered, and overcome by their spiritual power. I find myself spontaneously meditating and magnetically attracted, wanting not just to look at the statues but to know them. These are more than works of art, I am sure.

Yonghegong is one of Beijing’s most popular tourist attractions too. As you can see from the following photos, the exteriors of the buildings are colorfully carved and painted. A walk along the main axis of the Lamasery is a spiritual path to peace: the Gate of Luminous Peace, the Gate of Harmony and Peace, the Hall of Harmony and Peace, the Hall of Eternal Blessings, the Hall of the Wheel of the Dharma, the Hall of Infinite Happiness, the Hall of Infinite Light.

I find myself wondering, where else is there to go?

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Buddhists burn incense outside one of the Lamasery’s five temples. Many of the worshippers are young people.

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One of the gates at the Lamasery. You could not photograph inside the temples, so I bought a book.

img_8090.JPGThe Hall of Infinite Happiness.

Our second stop took us to the Confucius Temple. Confucius, Jack explained, was not a religious figure like Gautama Buddha; he was more of a moral and political philosopher. Thomas Wilson of Hamilton College’s Department of History and Asian Studies explains:

“Confucianism” is a tradition that traces its beginnings to an educated elite called shi of late antiquity that advised royal and regional feudal authorities during the Zhou dynasty (1134 to 250 BCE) on governing, which emphasized the importance of virtuous rule through benevolence and proper conduct called ritual (li). The most prominent figure of this educated elite was a man named Kong Qiu (551 to 479 BCE), usually referred to as Master Kong (Kong-fu zi or Kongzi). In the West, Kongzi is called Confucius, a name given him by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century.

The imperial court’s adoption of the ideas of these philosophers led to a kind of canonization of Kongzi and to one of the most important foundations of civil government in the Chinese empire—the examination system.

Inside the Confucius Temple complex, which has been at its current location since 1520, one encounters a series of buildings not unlike those of the Lamasery. Inside them are statues of Kongzi surrounded by various offerings, often of food, left by supplicants. But the striking difference is the spiritual atmosphere. Here, the energy is moral and intellectual; Confucius is the guide, not the god. Here, it’s about getting your act together to be an actor in the world.

The principal building is the Hall of Great Completion. In the main courtyard, protected from the elements by little roofs, are dozens (maybe hundreds) of stele that carry the names of all who passed the civil service examinations over hundreds of years. Theoretically, these merit-based exams drew the best talent from all classes of men (yes, all men) from throughout the empire, populating the local, provincial, and national government with leaders schooled in the great traditions of Chinese culture. The highest examinations were, of course, administered in the imperial capital itself, and one can imagine the candidates visiting this temple of its predecessors, leaving offerings of fruit and grain at the foot of Kongzi, praying to pass the test.

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The Confucius Temple once served as the Beijing Police Academy. Its buildings were preserved, but many artifacts were lost during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards burned books in this courtyard.

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This cypress is said to date to the time of the construction of the Confucius Temple almost 700 years ago.

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Beautiful shadows at the Confucius Temple, where we heard a demonstration of traditional Chinese musical instruments.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, where dishes kept arriving hot on the lazy susan of our table of eight travelers, we bussed to the Temple of Heaven. The UNESCO World Heritage site describes it succinctly:

The Temple of Heaven, founded in the first half of the 15th century, is a dignified complex of fine cult buildings set in gardens and surrounded by historic pine woods. In its overall layout and that of its individual buildings, it symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven—the human world and God’s world—which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony and also the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.

Even without its spectacular temple-like ceremonial buildings, this is a beautiful urban park, and the many Chinese we found there were using it for family outings, picnics, and outdoor fun. (I should mention that this was a beautiful Sunday in October, crisp and clear, the kind of day that reminds me of autumn in Vermont.) The tourist, however, is struck by the majesty of the buildings, where the emperor prostrated himself to the god of heaven on behalf of his people, hoping to assure bountiful harvests and protection from natural disasters.

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Lunch included tiny Chinese cabbages cooked to perfection. Chopsticks all around.

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Climbing the stairs at the Temple of Heaven. From the upper plaza, there’s a great view of the city.

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The exterior of the pagoda-like building has been restored by the government in anticipation of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Both new construction and restoration of tourist historic sites are in evidence everywhere as China pepares to show its ancient and modern faces to the world.

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Inside the pagoda, one can see the structural elements of the tower, which was built without the use of nails.

In the three sites we visited today, we saw the deeply spiritual Lamasery, which had political overtones because it was built by the royal family as a residence for the crown prince and only later converted to Buddhist use—largely to curry favor with the Tibetans and secure Chinese control of that frontier of the empire. We saw the Confucius temple, which represents the intersection of the spiritual and the secular. Chinese culture and civil government were reinforced by Konzi’s school of thought, which provided continuity and stability but also rigidity. That rigidity was ultimately a factor in the success of Western imperialist powers in China, which could not adapt swiftly enough to meet the Western incursions. And finally, at the Temple of Heaven, we encounter the emperor’s power and vulnerability in one place. Kowtowing to forces and gods beyond his control, he not only gathered all power to himself, he represented that power to the universe. In doing so, he proved that he was just a man—and if things didn’t go well, he might even lose his job or his dynasty.

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One response to “The Seat of All Power

  1. Jeff: The trip sounds fabulous already! Love the photos — particularly Confucius Temple shadows — but all are captivating. Enjoy every minute…Nancy

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