Today I visited the Temple of Heaven which is south of the centre of Beijing. As I am based in the north west of the city I was driven through the centre of Beijing’s CBD. The Temple itself is one of the mainstream tourist attractions in Beijing – for good reason it is probably the best surviving example of Ming architecture. It was built from 1406-1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor – the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty and regarded as one of China’s great although – as seemed typical of the era – brutal emperors*.
As usual however the incidentals of the journey interested me more than the tourist site itself. The Temple of Heaven is in fact also a beloved park used by Beijingers for recreation and sport. I was delighted to see extravagantly romantic (and highly-skilled) ballroom dancing in one section, a Chinese version of ‘line dancing’ in another and in yet another a male heart-throb singing beautiful Chinese love songs to an adoring audience of Chinese femmes – each of whom he thanked at the end of his performance with a handshake. It was a lot of fun and more than that.
BTW this was at 9am.
Likewise the trip to and from the Temple was full of interest. The traffic moved reasonably well through the CBD but there are obvious severe congestion and air pollution issues – OK the microeconomist in me thought about pricing and the things that might be done. Beijing is something of an environmental nightmare waiting to happen. Water supplies depend non-sustainably on groundwater that is now extracted in rock up to 1 km below ground level. As I understand it water is not priced in a way that will discourage use.
Many of the Chinese I meet talk about problems in China’s countryside. I’d be quite happy trying to think through the urban issues which are challenging.
* This emperor ordered the only case of extermination of the 10 agnates in Chinese history. For 1500 years of feudal China, the extermination of 9 agnates was one of the most severe punishments. Extermination of the 3 agnates involving punishing by killing the father, son and grandson of a someone to be executed. The Emperor Yang extended it to the 9 agnates – the 4 senior generations to the great-great-grandfather and four junior generations to the great-great-grandson including all siblings and cousins related to each of the 9 agnates. Just before the accession of Emperor Yongle, historian Fang Xiaoru elicited the offense worthy of the ‘extermination of 9 agnates’ for refusing to write the inaugural address thereby insulting the Emperor. He said in defiance to the would-be Emperor: ‘Nevermind 9 agnates, go ahead with 10!’. He was granted his wish – the 9 agnates were exterminated and the 10th – his students and peers – were also exterminated! In all 873 people were killed. When Fang Xiaoru was being cut to pieces he dipped his finger in his own blood and traced out the Chinese character for ‘usurper’.