Winter solstice in the Forbidden Kingdom

Winter solstice in the Forbidden Kingdom
PHOTO: Reuters

On my second trip to Beijing in December just in time for the winter solstice and a full 22 years after my first visit, the theme of a powerful film that I saw before I was even in my teens was very much on my mind.

Life-size versions of Kylo Ren and Rey, the latest characters representing a faraway galaxy's epic battle between dark and light, were drawing Beijingers in their thousands to a trendy mall in the Santilun area in an unabashed promotion for the long-awaited sequel "Star Wars: The Force Awakens".

On my first trip to Beijing, posters optimistically promoted "Beijing 2000", though China's bid to host the Summer Olympics turned out to be a no go. This time the capital was boasting its success at becoming what will be the first city to have hosted both a summer and a winter Olympics, with the 2022 Winter Games the sequel to the coming-of-age party that was the successful 2008 Summer Games.

Likewise, on my first visit the "sleeping giant" was just stirring; this time, I witnessed a China fully awake.

Long before the Olympics, "Star Wars" and other Western influences on the world's longest uninterrupted civilisation, the Middle Kingdom had long commemorated its own eternal cycles of light and dark.

In the heart of the Forbidden City, the smog that triggered Beijing's first Level 3 pollution warning didn't manage to wipe out the comparative warmth of the red sun as it slipped behind the russet rooftops and mythical creatures topping their eaves in the world's largest palace complex. Outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony and its elaborate Dragon Throne, a sturdy bronze tortoise, symbol of longevity and imperial greatness, raised its head skyward. Only the grandest state ceremonies were held on this raised platform, including the coronations and weddings of emperors.

One of the many symbols of traditional Chinese culture, the turtle gazes West towards palaces once hidden behind soaring and impenetrable walls, but which were opened to visitors late last year for the first time in the 90-year history of the Palace Museum. Officials say 76 per cent of the Forbidden City should be available to the public by the end of this year.

The stunning complex boasts 999 buildings, and, to the best of my knowledge, one cat - a tranquil tabby with slightly matted fur and noble eyes who I spotted sitting silently in a doorway leading to the enchanting gardens and palaces now open to the public. Walking past excavation sites where history's secrets are being unearthed, I reached the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, once home to the mothers of emperors, where stone bodhisattvas and Tibetan Buddhism's Panchen Lama offer silent blessings in a new exhibit of Chinese Buddhist images.

Also now open is one of the four watchtowers, in the southeast corner, which overlooks the enormous moat. Beyond, to the south, is the sprawling Tiananmen Square and the monolithic National Museum.

Twenty years ago I was a student on my college's China Abroad trip and a single computer was timeshared among more than 20 students. This time I am an Asian Studies teacher, looking to reinforce themes among gadget-laden students that I came to appreciate while here as a student myself.

The dramatic visuals in the museum evoke universal themes involving rebel alliances, the rise and fall of an empire and a republic, exploitative trade disputes, including the Opium Wars, and the uprising that sparked the 1911 Revolution that ended the dynastic cycle.

Later in the day, I gaze at a large mural of Deng Xiaoping, which shows the former Chinese leader at ease while on his rather underappreciated Southern Tour of 1992, when he personally reinforced national commitment to his reformist legacy, which made the dynamic China of today possible.

Another lasting example of powerful change from the top is embodied in the Lama Temple in Beijing's Dongcheng district, which Emperor Qianlong had transformed from an imperial palace into a place for contemplation. Within buildings typifying the imperial Chinese architecture and their original purpose are elements of the Tibetan monastic world including soaring gilded images that are venerated in darkened rooms punctuated by the smell of butter lamps.

Passing dozens of shops selling Tibetan religious paraphernalia outside before turning into one of the many long narrow hutong (alleyways) that crisscross Dongcheng, I find the same serenity in the courtyards of the Temple of Confucius. This complex exudes an otherworldliness, with dozens of shrines, massive stone tortoises supporting stele and the weight of worldly knowledge on their shells, and peculiarly gnarled and knobbed cypresses creating a sense of mystery.

A few hutong away, a beautiful transformation has redefined the sense of space between the Bell and Drum Towers. Built centuries ago to inform locals of the passing of hours, today the space allows for the passing of time, where locals relax or jianzi enthusiasts kick back and forth this shuttlecock for the feet.

Perhaps the district's most enchanting spot though is the Temple of the Earth. A world apart from its much more renowned counterpart, the Temple of Heaven, here solitary figures emerge at the end of pathways, walking in contemplation or practising tai chi beneath trees. I am again reminded of how my own Asian Studies professor related what we were seeing back then to "The Force", making the concept memorable and more understandable to young Western learners.

The treetops and skies above are full of Eurasian magpies, their black and white plumage reflecting a mingling of yin and yang energies and fully displaying their Chinese meaning: "bird of joy".

Carleton Cole is an Asian Studies teacher at Mahidol University International Demonstration School.

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