Depending on which sources you subscribe to, the vast majority of the Chinese people are atheists (the numbers range from 47%-80% by comparison, the average around the world is 13%). China has recently won the crown and since the People’s Republic was founded as an atheist organization in 1949, it may not come as much of a surprise to my faithful readers on the interwebz.

What struck me as odd, however, weren’t the statistics. During a trip to Beijing – the nation’s capital city – I found myself surrounded by religious sites and artifacts dating back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. So how can a population of so many non-believers in the 21st century have such a rich history of spirituality? Have they forgotten?

If You Go Carrying Pictures of Chairman Mao...
If You Go Carrying Pictures of Chairman Mao…

Between 1949 and 1977, the State moved to destroy all references to Confucianism, Taoism, and other religions. The 1978 Constitutional changes allowed for a guaranteed ‘freedom of religion’ in Article 36, thereby sparking a flood of rebuilding and restoration efforts to those previously damaged temples and shrines. Not all of these holy sites needed remodeling; any religious sites associated with the generically named heaven worship had been allowed to remain and many of the most popular tourist destinations in and around Beijing focus primarily on that.

Apparently the Chinese people have had a long history of honoring the origin of mankind as well as recognizing that there must be something after death. The emperors of the Qing, Ming, and Shang dynasties believed themselves to be divinely appointed – similarly to the kings of medieval Europe – and ruled the land as though they were gods on earth. The royal families required large monuments, palaces, and temples devoted to their belief if for no other reason than to remind the common people who was in charge and why.

Temple of Heaven - Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests
Temple of Heaven – Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests

Due south of Beijing’s city center lies a large expanse of parkland upon which sits the Temple of Heaven – a series of buildings illustrating the emperor’s respect to the source of his authority. Twice a year, he and his entourage would camp within the park, wearing robes and practicing vegetarianism for the sole purpose of personal prayer for good harvests. In the tradition of East Asian culture, zero mistakes were tolerated during the winter solstice ceremony for it was widely believed a single flaw would bring about a bad omen for the upcoming year. The temple grounds consist of three major buildings:

  • The Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests (see photo) – Three tiered, circular building built entirely of wood and without the use of nails and set upon a marble base.
  • The Imperial Vault of Heaven – Located just south of the aforementioned building, this smaller yet still circular structure is surrounded by a smooth wall called the Echo Wall that can transmit sound over large distances.
  • The Circular Mound Altar – Even farther south lies this altar, essentially an empty platform featuring ornately carved dragons; it has been said that the sound of prayer will be reflected along the echo wall to create a resonance, thus helping the prayer communicate with Heaven.

But the Temple of Heaven isn’t the only structure dedicated to heaven worship. A few kilometers away lies the remnants of one of the most magnificent and important places in all of China – the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties, however, to imply that’s all it was is mere foolishness. Named because commoners weren’t allowed within the walls (without the emperor’s permission), the ‘city’ served as the home of the emperors and their families, and was both the ceremonial and political center of the government.

Construction on the 980 individual structures (containing 9,999 rooms) of the complex began in 1406 and was completed in 1420. Meant to be the center of the ancient city of Beijing, it was enclosed by a larger walled area called the Imperial City, which was in turn enclosed by the Inner City and then the Outer City walls. The city’s axis is believed to have been designed in the Yuan dynasty to align with Xanadu, the other capital of their empire at that time.

Forbidden City - Hall of Supreme Harmony
The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Forbidden City’s overall layout to the most miniscule detail was meticulously planned to reflect the philosophic principles of the imperial family. For example, yellow is the color of the emperor and therefore, almost every roof in the city bears yellow glazed tiles, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony – where the emperors lived. The only two exceptions are the library with black tiles (since black is associated with water and fire-prevention) and the crown prince’s home with green tiles (green being symbolic of wood and growth). All the main halls are arranged in groups of three in the shape of the Qian triagram to represent Heaven while residences are in the shape of the Kun triagram, representing Earth.

Roof Charms on the Emperor's Palace showing Highest Possible Status (notice the Immortal Guardian in front of the Dragon)
Roof Charms on the Emperor’s Palace showing Highest Possible Status (notice the Immortal Guardian in front of the Dragon)

Perhaps most interesting of all these symbolic details are the roof charms – little statuettes depicting the importance of the building itself and those who live and or work there. All are led by a man riding a phoenix (the symbol of the feminine) and followed by the dragon (the symbol of the masculine). The number of statuettes varies, the greater the number, the greater the building’s significance. As previously mentioned, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (home of the emperors) boasts 10 statues, the only building in the country to be permitted this amount. The 10th in line, also called ‘Hangshi’ is unique to the Forbidden City (it appears nowhere else) and is the form of an immortal guardian who protects the Son of Heaven while he’s in power.

In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is home to a plethora of historical artifacts (including paintings, ceramics, bronze ware, timepieces, and jade) housed within their museum. The Palace Museum collection contains over 1 million pieces of art that had been stored in the city prior to the 1933 invasion of Japan which forced the Chinese people to split the collection up. Now much of it resides in Taipei, Taiwan, but Beijing shows off as much of the display as possible.

Forbidden City - Gate of Divine Might
The Gate of Divine Might

All of these wonders can best be seen if you head north to Jingshan Park (not the artifacts though). Formerly a private imperial garden, the park was opened to the public in 1928 and has for almost a century provided visitors and residents with spectacular views of the Forbidden City as well as Tian’anmen Square. During the Ming dynasty, the artificial hill was created using soil excavated to form the moat around the imperial palace (all of the dirt only moved by animal and manpower). The park consists of five individual peaks, on the top of each sits an elaborate pavilion mostly used for leisure purposes. The park faces the northern-most wall of the Forbidden City and the Gate of Divine Might.

It’s been said that the final emperor of the dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide by hanging himself and his eunuch servant Wang by a nearby tree at the foot of the largest hill in 1644 (he left a note):

“I am insufficient in virtues and weak in conducts, hence the heavenly punishment and the ministers also failed me. Having no dignity to face my ancestors, I would undress my crown and cover my face with hair. Mutilate my body as you wish, but do not harm a single civilian.”

As you’ve read, China has traditionally been a land of believers. Only after the rise of communism have these beliefs been quashed due primarily to the government’s desire to become the sole influence in the lives of the commoners (stealing their focus from ancestor worship, heaven worship, and Confucianism). What some people fail to realize is that while many Chinese claim to be atheist, they can still be Buddhist as there is no monotheistic deity within the Buddhist religion and people of all religions can maintain their beliefs and still practice the central tenants of Buddhism.

With any luck, communism’s stranglehold on personal ideologies is loosening and will eventually come to an end. It would be a pity to see more spiritual monuments, temples, and shrines, disappear from the collective heritage of China. After all, can’t Heaven and Earth co-exist together?

Panorama of the Forbidden City (from atop Jingshan Park Monument)
Panorama of the Forbidden City (from atop Prospect Hill, Jingshan Park)

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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