I’ve remarked many times that Beijing is a city stuffed full of parks – something that many foreign visitors find quite surprising. A very pleasant one located in the heart of the city is Beihai Park. And although it is slap bang next door to the Forbidden City, Shichahai and Jingshan (Coal Hill), Beihai Park is very often neglected by many visitors. Which is a pity….
I’ve been many times, but am always surprised by how much I have missed on previous visits. So it is definitely worth revisiting. A word to the wise, though... If you enter from the northern end of the park, you have to choose whether to walk on the eastern or western side of the lake. You can’t cross over to the other side at the southern end. Better, therefore, to enter from one of the southern gates and walk all the way around the lake before leaving from the other southern gate.
Beihai Park is the oldest imperial garden in the world as well as one of the largest in China. It used to be part of a massive imperial garden called “Xiyuan” (West Garden) and was one of three parts – Beihai (north sea), Zhonghai (middle sea) and Nanhai (south sea). It was first opened to the public in 1925, but Zhonghai and Nanhai – which combined are known as “Zhongnanhai” – is where the top Chinese hierarchy work and live. Must be nice to look out onto a large lake from your bedroom window...
Beihai Park was initially constructed in the Liao Dynasty (916 - 1125) and was rebuilt a number of times. But it was the large-scale rebuilding in the reign of Emperor Qianlong that generally established its present layout. It was said that the Empress Dowager Cixi often stayed in a palace between Nanhai and Zhonghai, and had meals or entertained foreign friends or her favourite officials in Jingxin House on the north shore of Beihai Park (of which more shortly).
Beihai Park itself covers an area of over 170 acres, more than half of which is water.
At the southern entrance you will find Qionghuadao, aka the Circular City or the Round City depending on which bit of official blurb yu are reading at the time. It has a wall that stands about 4.6 metres high with a circumference of 277 metres.
From a distance it looks like just another clump of old buildings, and if the truth be known, that’s exactly what it is. If you are feeling mean and don’t feel like forking out the entrance fee of one kwai, you could be forgiven as there is not a huge amount to see there.
The Circular City is where emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) watched firework displays. The most important construction is the Chengguang Hall (Hall of Received Light).
You can’t go in, but inside is a 1.6 metre Buddha presented to the Guangxu Emperor at the end of the Qing Dynasty by a Khmer king. It is carved from a single piece of pure white jade inlaid with precious stones. Unfortunately the Eight-Nation Alliance damaged the statue's left arm in the Battle of Beijing in 1900. But from the entrance doorway you can hardly make out the statue at all, and photographs are definitely a no-no, which makes you wonder why you bothered trying to see it in the first place.
In front of the hall is a grand urn made of variegated dark jade. With a diameter of 1.5 metres, a circumference of 5 metres, and a height of 0.7 metres, it weighs 3.5 tons, and was actually the urn used by Kublai Khan for storing his wine!
The only other thing worth seeing is a Chinese white bark pine which apparently is a rare variety of tree from northern China. According to legend it was planted during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), and was given the title White Robed General by Emperor Qianlong (1734-1796).
My one kwai’s worth now satiated, I head on in to Beihai Park proper. There’s a rather nice copper relief map at the entrance.
What most visitors come for is the imposing White Dagoba (pagoda) on Jade Flowery Islet (Qionghuadao) In the middle of the lake. It’s the main landmark and can be seen from right across the park. Its 'Bai Ta', or 'White Tower', is a 40-metre high stupa, built to honour the visit of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1651. Sun, moon and flame engravings decorate the surface of the tower and it was built on the former site of the Palace in the Moon where Kublai Khan received Marco Polo.
As you cross the bridge to get to it, however, you first come across the Yong'an Temple (Temple of Everlasting Peace), which is the largest building complex, composed of several halls (such as Shanyin Hall and Zhengjue Hall), a bell tower and a drum tower. It was built in 1651 by Emperor Shunzi, the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty, on the request of a Tibetan lama. In 1741, Emperor Qianlong renamed it Yong'an Temple and two years later it underwent a large scale expansion with several new buildings. In 1993 it was given a conprehensive make-over.
The rest of the Qionghuadao has a number of halls, rockeries and pavilions. All over the islet you come across a collection of stones extracted from the Taihu area in southern China in 1117 and taken to Bianliang (what is now Kaifeng in Henan) for the construction of imperial gardens. When Emperor Shizong decided to build Daning Palace in Beihai, he ordered the transportation of the Taihu stones to decorate the Jade Islet.
Inside this grotto, you can find some Buddha statues that maybe they couldn’t find anywhere else to place them.
Just outside the grotto are two pavilions: the Pavilion of Enchanting Scenes and Pavilion of Refreshing Mist. They were built in 1751 to house steles made in 1773 with inscriptions of Emperor Qianlong's calligraphy (Qianlong obviously fancied himself as a poet and calligrapher and he loved having steles made with his literary masterpieces!) The former shown here has a stele inscribed with "Note on White Dagoba Hill".
Getting up to the Dagoba itself now involves a hefty climb (though if you want to take the easy way, walk round instead to the eastern entrance).
The White Dagoba was destroyed in an earthquake in 1679 and reconstructed twice – the last time in 1976 after the Tangshan earthquake. It is capped by two bronze canopies, with 14 bronze bells hanging around them. Inside, the Dagoba holds Buddhist scriptures, a monk's mantle and alms bowl and two pieces of Śarīra (a term referring to crystal-like bead-shaped objects that are purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters). Otherwise that’s it. If you didn’t get a through ticket when you first entered Beihai, it is debatable whether it is worth paying the extra 10 kwai just to be allowed to walk around the Dagoba’s base. Personally I wouldn’t bother!
Once you have staggered down the hill again, it is worth making a left turn and walking around the rest of the islet via a decorated passageway which is charming.
Like so many similar walkways, there is a plethora of painted pictures brightening up the place. These ones are particularly attractive.
And at the end of the walkway is the classics reading cloister – a two storey structure with 26 columns on each floor.
Built in 1753, it houses 495 stone tablets bearing inscriptions taken from the Model Books of Calligraphy from the Hall of Three Rarities, which is an imperial collection of famous calligraphic pieces from the Three Kingdoms period to the Ming Dynasty (220-1644). We are told that these engraved stone tablets are very valuable as they represent the cream of Chinese calligraphic art.
So, finally moving to the Eastern Shore Scenic Area, there are a number of independent gardens such as the Painted Boat (Huafang) Studio and the Hao Pu Creek Garden, the latter being created in 1757.
Construction work has been ongoing here on the eastern side, and there are long rows of hoardings.
But don't get dispirited by that as they contain loads of information about Beihai (in Chinese only) with a host of interesting photos and drawings showing what the place looked like in times gone by.
At the northern end of the park is another shore area which contains yet another independent garden. The Quiet Heart Studio (Jingxin) is a garden within a garden, and covers an area of more than 4,000 square metres.
It was initially built in the Ming Dynasty and enlarged in the Qing Dynasty. Inside there are many magnificent palaces, halls, pavilions, towers, corridors and artificial hills, and numerous porous rocks and stones, all artistically arranged.
In some regards this small garden reminds me of the Yuyuan in Shanghai. It has the same feel about it, and for me this definitely is the best part of Beihai Park. It covers an area of 9,300 sq metres and was modelled after gardens south of the Yangtze River. It was extensively reconstructed in 1887 during the reign of Emperor Guangxu.
Inside this garden you can find the Baosu Study, where Qing emperors went for a spot of reading.
With so many antiques and old buildings around it’s gratifying that the authorities are taking no risks, and “smocking” is definitely prohibited!
Another 100 metres and yet another landmark of Beihai... Southwest of Jingxin lies the Nine-Dragon Screen, which is the only screen having nine dragons on both sides and is probably the most famous of the three Nine-Dragon Screens in China (the other two being in the Forbidden City and Datong, Shanxi Province).
Built in 1756, this Nine-Dragon Screen is about 27 metres long, 6.65 metres high and 1.4 metres thick. It has 424 seven-colour glazed tiles that form the screen. As well as the nine huge coiling dragons on each side of the screen there are also yet more dragons decorating the two ends and the eaves, making a total of 635 dragons in all.
Next stop: the Hall of Heavenly Kings, decorated with ... you’ve guessed it ... yet more dragons and yellow tiles.
(I often wonder whether the likes of Emperor Qianlong would have really preferred a nice cuddly pussycat than yet another dragon; but I guess we will never know.)
But the hall is closed...
So I head on another few metres to the ‘Hall of Swift Snow’, also known as ‘Enjoying Snow Yard’ - which in 2013 won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Merit for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Gosh!
Not that there’s much snow here today with temperatures hovering in the mid 20s. Instead the place is filled with Spring blossom.
Yet again we have a display of calligraphic inscriptions, though no-one here seems the slightest bit interested by them.
Next we come to the Screen of Iron Shadow – a relic of the Yuan dynasty, which was carved out of intermediate volcanic conglomerate (whatever that may be) and as the colour and quaity of it looks like iron, so it came to be known as the Screen of Iron Shadow. It was first used as a reflective screen in front of an ancient temple outside Jiande Gate (what is now Desheng Gate); but in 1947 it was brought to Beihai.
Yet further to the southwest lie the Five-Dragon Pavilions – five connected pavilions with spires and pointed upswept eaves, which are clearly visible from the other bank.
From a distance, it is said that they were designed to appear together like a huge dragon; and the five pavilions are connected by a bridge, which resembles a swimming dragon when seen from a distance. Well that’s what the blurb claims anyway! Built first in 1602 and repaired several times, the five pavilions, standing half over the water, contain many carvings and paintings on their girders and pillars.
And finally we come to what must be the tackiest building in the entire park. Emperor Qianlong built Minor Western Heaven (Xiaoxitian) from 1768-1770 to honour his mother's birthday and to pray for her longevity and happiness. (Oh lucky mummy!) The core structure "Land of Extreme Happiness" covers an area of 1,200 square metres and is the largest palatial hall in the style of a square pavilion in the whole of China.
The hall is surrounded by bridges as it lies in the middle of a little island.
Look up and you see an octagonal caisson ceiling with intricate dragon motif carvings. Inside are 226 statues of Arhats on a hill and ocean waves painted at the foot of the hill. It apparently symbolises the Buddhist paradise and is also known as Arhat Muntain.
Gardens, pavilions and steles notwithstanding, many people come to Beihai simply to walk around the lake. As an added bonus, from March until November you can, if you have a mind to, take one of the numerous pleasure boats out onto the lake.
And whether you’re in to folk dancing, fan dancing or streamer waving, or many of the other recreational pursuits that the Chinese so revel in, there is plenty going on here.
But for me, without a doubt, the very best time to come is during the Spring – which in Beijing lasts for about a week if you’re lucky. The blossoms and trees bursting into life after a long hard winter are such a joy to see. It almost makes one want to break out into poetry. Maybe that was the secret behind Qianlong’s love of the written word? (Or maybe, as absolute ruler, he simply loved the sound of his own voice and thought he would let his immortal words stand around for those who were to follow?)
And all this for an entrance fee in the high season of 20 kwai! Definitely worth a repeat visit!