A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Long-overdue Pilgrimage to Beitang

One of the joys of living in Beijing is that there is always so much to see and do. I have literally lost count of the number of temples I have either visited or passed by. They are everywhere, and this is partly what makes Beijing such a historic city to visit.
I have also visited Moslem temples here – in fact, I had been commissioned to write an article about them for a paper in the Middle East some time back. But one thing of which I was signally unaware was the large number of Christian churches that are also dotted around the northern capital. In part this is because most are not immediately visible, due to being hidden from view by new buildings or high walls.
Today I decided it was time to put that to rights.
And where better to start than with The Church of the Saviour, colloquially referred to as Xishiku Church (西什库天主堂) or more commonly Beitang (北堂) - literally "the North Church”.
Beitang is a historic Catholic church in the Xicheng District of Beijing; and of all the cathedrals and churches located in the city it is, apparently, one of the most ornate.
An easy subway journey to Xisi station on Line 4 brings me out into a part of the city I don’t know very well. According to Google Maps, the church should be less than 10 minutes walk away going in a straight line due east; but the road quickly comes to a T-junction and I have to choose to go left or right. I choose left… a bad choice as it turns out!
Little does your favourite blogger know that the only way in to this place is through its southern gate. All other directions are blocked off – even the exits into a road on its eastern side, which is where I find myself walking as I go round in ever decreasing circles.
I am so near it I could reach out and touch it; but the southern exit of this side road has also been blocked and I find I now have to walk 15 minutes all the way back to the top of the road, turn left, turn left again, turn left once more and again left up a little side street and finally reach its southern entrance all of 15 metres away from where I was standing!
Beitang is one of 17 Catholic churches in Beijing. Eight are in the downtown area and the remaining nine cathedrals are in the suburbs. Although it is Catholic, this is of course the Patriotic Catholic Church of China – not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church, which is still banned because of the Vatican's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
The church was originally established by Jesuits in 1703 near the former Beijing Library, on land bestowed by Emperor Kangxi, following his recovery from illness thanks to the medical expertise of two of the missionaries. In 1887 it was moved and rebuilt at its current location, following a request from Emperor Guangxu, who wanted the original space near the Forbidden City to create a park.
The grey marble façade was built in 1890 by the French mission and there used also to be a number of schools, orphanages and hospitals.
The cathedral's present cast iron Gothic architectural style and grey marble facade was built in 1890, under the direction of Bishop Favier, who designed it. But in 1900 the cathedral compound, filled with fleeing converts was besieged during the Boxer Rebellion by an estimated ten thousand Boxers from 14 June until 16 August. Favier estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 members of his flock were killed and that three-quarters of the chapels were destroyed. During the siege, more than 3,900 people sought sanctuary within the stone walls of the church, which was defended by only forty-one French and Italian marines, led by two French officers. The siege was finally lifted by the arrival of the Japanese military.
The church now stands in spacious grounds surrounded by pine and oak trees and has two Chinese pavilions immediately in front of it. Following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Patriotic Church re-occupied the building and the church was restored in 1985.
You can tell straight away you are in a Catholic place of worship as there are notices up everywhere extolling the finer points of the religion…
I venture inside through a side door on the west wall and find myself in what could easily pass for a church in Europe. There’s a tall, wide nave with side aisles, octagonal transepts and a huge sanctuary. There are also chandeliers everywhere, and painted Stations of the Cross on the walls. The main aisle is decorated with flowers while a number of officials in smart suits are busying themselves sprucing the place up. I am regarded quizzically, but no one worries about me wandering about and I am left to my own devices.
It is only when I go outside once again that the penny drops as I see a wedding party posing for photographs with the bride barking out orders to one and all – I feel a touch of sympathy for the husband-to-be!
And then it is a mad rush inside as all the wedding guests, photographers and hangers-on try to squeeze through the main door at once as the bride continues to bark orders at anyone who is pretending to listen. It is only three degrees above zero today and I can see the goose pimples on the legs of the chief bridesmaid. Everyone else is sensibly wearing warm(er) anoraks.
Silence returns to the precinct and grounds of the church. Finally a couple of its permanent residents are allowed once more to get a little bit of shut eye before the next wedding party arrives.