Sunday I headed east about 200 km to the Qing Dynasty Tombs they were interesting – although the 5 Emperor tombs are pretty much the same in design. There are also tombs for wives and concubines. Each of the main tombs took decades, and hundreds of thousands of workers, to build. It is one way of getting people meaningfully employed!
Getting to the ‘Tombs and back, by different routes, was interesting since it necessarily included what seemed to be an almost 80 km journey just to exit Beijing and its suburbs. The subsequent ‘countryside’ looked more like suburbia to me – a mixture of farms and factories. Construction activity was going on everywhere from vast lines of multi-stories apartments to small shops and quarry businesses. Words cannot express what is happening in China – the cliches ‘one big construction site’ are close to the literal truth.
I have been reading Chinese history covering the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and it was interesting to see the resting places of some of key Qing leaders at the Tombs. One can visit the tomb of the Empress Dowager Cixi which is open presumably because it had been vandalised by Kuomingtang warlords in 1928. It is impressive and on a massive scale.
The Emperors of the Qing faced the issue of the West wishing to engage with China on equal terms as a trading partner. This was preposterous to the Chinese who saw the English and the French as ‘barbarians’ and who had a deep distrust of international trade. The French, and particularly the English, had symmetrical attitudes of cultural superiority but an inexhaustible demand for Chinese goods such as tea. The impasse led to the Opium wars and to terrible acts of imperialist aggression against the Chinese.
Incidentally almost across the road from my hotel is the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) that was laid out in the 17th century. During the Second Opium War the palace was raided for artifacts by the French and the English and, in a shocking act of vandalism regarded as punishment for Chinese treatment of English captives, burnt to the ground. This destruction remains a sensitive issue for Chinese today – the government has elected not to rebuild it because it wants to remind people of exactly what happened.
Almost none of the original magnificent palace remains. But the vast area contains some beautiful walks and some elegant wetlands where I pursued with modest success the very un-Chinese act of some birdwatching.