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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

History resurrected … (at Yongdingmen)

Many have bemoaned the fact that the powers that be meted out wanton destruction on the centre of Beijing in the 1950s in the name of progress. With the construction of the second of Beijing’s subway lines, together with a widening of roads, the old inner and outer city walls were torn down such that now only a very little is left standing.

Yondingmen (永定门) – “Yongding” means “Lasting Peace” – was one such gate that was demolished at that time. It was the former front gate and one of seven gates in Beijing’s outer city wall during the Ming and Qing dynasties

It was originally built in 1553 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and was the southern starting point of the Central Axis of Beijing which ended at the Drum and Bell Towers in the north – extending 7.8km from Yongdingmen, passing through Zhengyangmen, Tian’anmen Square (with Mao’s mausoleum), the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park and through to the Drum and Bell Towers. Since 2008, Beijing’s Olympic Park has marked a new northern end to the axis. (The old emperors believed that they were the epitome of the centre of the world, so all of their palaces should be built on a central axis, as if to ram home the point. )

Half a century later, realising their mistake, the Yongdingmen was reconstructed at the site of the old city gate and was finished in 2005. However, it is now just a shadow of its former self, being disconnected from the original road leading towards the gate and sitting atop a road system in the middle of a traffic oasis.

In its day, the original tower must have been impressive, if the old photographs are anything to go by. Here’s a picture dating back to the 1920s.

At the time, Peking (now Beijing) was a walled city divided into two main sections; the "outer" city for the Chinese, and the "inner" (or Tartar) city for their Manchurian masters. This inner city also contained a secondary walled off section known as the Imperial City; and within the Imperial city was a tertiary walled off area marking the Forbidden City. Yongdingmen was the largest of the many gated towers along the outer the wall of the city.

The new single tower reconstruction – reportedly rebuilt using traditional wood assembly techniques without the use of nails – is nothing like as large as the original double tower gate, but it’s still worthy of a visit if you are in that part of town.

Precious few tourists come here these days, and foreigners are a rare sight indeed. You get to the gate by going through one of two tunnels going under the road system…

…and find yourself in a rather nice park.

Yongdingmen Tower itself is 24 metres wide and 34 metres high, and looks quite imposing from a distance.

With its large open spaces, the area is a Mecca for locals flying their kites…

Rather sadly, they have seen fit to tell people not to scrawl graffiti or to carve their initials onto the reconstructed tower, which, sadly, probably says a lot about today’s youth.

To the north of Yongdingmen is a 1,000 metre long park, whose total area, we are told, is 67,000 sq m.

If you look very carefully you can just about make out Qianmen due north through the haze.

As is normally the case with Beijing’s parks, it is well worth your while reading the regulations that are posted up at the park’s entrances.

“Do not spit everywhere, Do not relieve oneself everywhere, Do no throw away fruit peels and wastes everywhere...it is forbidden to gamble and organize feudal superstition in any way”, we are told imperiously. Having no intention of organising feudal superstitions, and not being in the habit of spitting anywhere, let alone everywhere, I continue northwards.

On either side of the pedestrian pathway that follows the central axis, there are older pathways that are covered with thick glass. These were the original imperial pathways that were paved with grey bricks…

… though nowadays they are a perfect breeding ground for the weeds fighting their way up to the daylight.

There are also some attractive drain covers along the way…

And if you look over your shoulder, the newly built gate has an imposing air to it as it stands aloof on its own traffic island.

Wasting no opportunities to convert their captive audience, the authorities use the venue to exhort people not to waste water. “Every year in the planned urban area 281 million cubic metres of rain water are drained from the water resources”, it warns ominously.

Throughout this section, too, there are plenty of notices reminding you that you are walking along the central axis of Beijing.

And lest you hit an emergency, signs let you know where there is an emergency water closet, not to mention an emergency goods supply and emergency medical treatment. Not that I see anyone or anything there in any of those signed-to locations (just as well I’m not desperate for a pee!), but I guess it’s nice that someone thought fit to reassure the visitors.

But I have to say I am somewhat puzzled by the next sign. Just what constitutes an emergency collection of garbage, I wonder. Alas there is no more information to be had.

Yongdingmen now has its own subway station on Lines 8 and 14. Exit from C and walk due north for five minutes, whence you can cross under the busy road and end up in the southern park.