8 Sacred Sites in Beijing

By Sherry Huang

The Summer Olympics officially begin in Beijing on August 8, 2008 (08.08.08) at 8:08 pm. The date and the time were chosen for the auspicious meaning in the Chinese language, the pronunciation of "8" sounding close to the pronunciation of "wealth."

As the world turns its attention to Beijing and to the elite athletes gathering there for the Olympics, we invite you to take a virtual tour of the 8 most sacred places in this historically prominent city. Experience the cultural richness and the scenic beauty that await you in the capital of China.

Click here to start your tour of 8 sacred places in Beijing...

Sherry Huang is an associate editor at Beliefnet.

The Forbidden City

Also known as the Imperial City, this massive and majestic walled "city" is where China's royalty once lived and ruled. Tiananmen Gate, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is the outer (but not the main) entrance to the Forbidden City. Twenty-four emperors--as well as their empresses, concubines, children, courtiers, etc.--lived in the Forbidden City until 1911, when China's long dynasty was forced to end.

Walking just a quarter of the Forbidden City can take hours, but the tour is worth it just to see the roofs of the halls sparkle like gold shavings in the sun and to see the well-preserved rooms filled with treasures and embroidered silk. Intricate stone carvings, once-gold water pots, and intimate gardens also hint at the eminence radiating within the Forbidden City.

Photo Credit: Sherry Huang

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square has a controversial history, most recently as the site of the 1989 protests in which many demonstrators were killed by the Chinese government. It is also where Mao Zedong declared a People's Republic of China under Communism in 1949 and where rallies took place during the Cultural Revolution.

The northern boundary of the square is Tiananmen Gate, where three bridges arch over a moat to a main road. To the west is the Great Hall of the People, to the east is the National Museum of China, and to the south is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao's body is preserved under a glass case for public viewing. In the center of the Square is the Monument to the People's Heroes, a structure built to honor those who died in various revolutions for China. Flanked by important buildings at its four cardinal points, Tiananmen Square has strong cultural and spiritual resonance.

Photo Credit: (clockwise from the top) Martin Valent, Jarno Gonzalez Zarraonandia, and Sherry Huang

Temple of Heaven

Dating back to the 1400s, the Temple of Heaven is a plaza composed of three Taoist temples: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (the towering purple-roofed pagoda most people recognize), the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mound Altar. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese emperors visited the Temple of Heaven once a year to make sacrifices to heaven for blessed weather and bountiful harvests.

Today, the Temple of Heaven has been converted into a public park double the size of the Forbidden City, and it is more likely that you'll see residents performing Tai Chi or flying kites in the public square than making sacrifices in the temples.

Photo Credit: (clockwise from the right) Lim Yong Hian, Jack Cronkhite, and Jonathan Larsen

Olympic Green

Even though the Olympic Green is not a historical icon, this recent addition to Beijing is currently the heart and soul of the city. A gigantic undertaking, the Olympic Green should be visited to see the unique architectural compounds that have been built to house the world's best athletes.

Two of the buildings stand out as innovative modern designs: the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center. Constructed from woven steel bars, the National Stadium (AKA the "bird's nest") is the main compound where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place. Next to the National Stadium is the National Aquatics Center (called the "water cube"), a rectangular light-blue complex covered with plastic "bubbles" to visually represent the water competitions. As millions of athletes and supporters say prayers and hope for a medal, you can pay tribute to their achievements.

Photo Credit: (clockwise from the top) Wikipedia Commons, fotohunter, and sunxuejun

Prince Gong's Mansion

Nestled on an inconspicuous street, Prince Gong's Mansion is considered to be one of the loveliest private gardens in Beijing. Willows tower over small man-made ponds, wisteria hang in abundance, and bats are carved and painted onto pillars to signify happiness. A large theater decorated with gold-green lanterns invites you to drink tea and to experience vignettes of Chinese opera and juggling.

Everywhere there is something to catch the eye, from a pavilion with a curving, shallow moat to a walk-through cave that houses a tablet with the Chinese word for "wealth" on it. Legend says that anyone who touches the tablet will soon be rich. A lovely pavilion "floats" in the center of a large pond filled with ducks. Walking through the garden is a study in symmetrical beauty and serenity.

Photo Credit: Sherry Huang

The Summer Palace

Under Empress Dowager Cixi, most remembered for her fierce and feared reign during the late 1800s, the Summer Palace was reconstructed to become the astonishing imperial garden that exists today. A stroll around the huge lake will lead you to flowered corners, willow branches trailing over lakes, highly arched stone bridges, and colorful pagodas. You can sit on a rock or a bench to soak in the harmonious scene or watch the dragon boats sail across the lake.

Toward the end of your walk around the lake, you will see the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, a low, curved bridge known for the 17 arches carved into the sides. Walking along the bridge, you can examine the small stone lions lining the sides, each carved with unique expressions.

Photo Credit: Sherry Huang

Ming Dynasty Tombs

The mausoleums of 13 out of 16 Ming Dynasty emperors (along with their empresses) are located north of Beijing in a circular valley of hills. Each tomb is located at the bottom of a different hill, and the entire site was constructed according to the principles of feng shui, with a careful eye toward balancing the man-made tombs with the natural surroundings.

Even though only three tombs are open to the public, all the tombs are connected by a long, flat road called the Sacred Way (also called either the Spirit Way or Divine Road) that is lined with 18 stone figures (human and animal). At the end of Sacred Way is a large stone wall with five arches, a symbol of the majesty of the emperors and, perhaps, a physical reminder of the transition from the material to the spirit world.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Great Wall (Badaling)

About an hour's ride outside the city, Badaling is one of the reconstructed and most well-kept sections of the Great Wall. Millions of tourists and locals have walked the length of Badaling and there's no doubt why: A noticeable exhilaration surges through you upon seeing the grandeur of the rough green landscape and the enormous, winding wall perfectly shaped into the mountainside.

While climbing the Great Wall can literally take your breath away, the exhausting climb is worth it for the marvelous picturesque views. Once you have reached the highest end of the wall, you can look down and survey the scene--from what feels like the top of the world--with a sense of accomplishment and amazement.

Photo Credit: Sherry Huang

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