Beijing: 颐和园 Summer Palace

So, where was I?

This is basically the follow-up to my 2011 autumn whirlwind tour of Beijing. With centuries-old historical sights and relics, to cultural theatres, a gastronomical palate of choices and unlimited shopping options, Beijing has something to satisfy every traveler. But I didn’t want to just see Beijing again – I wanted to get a greater insight into China’s construct.

What do I mean by that? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of “nation”. Traditionally, the concept of nation is related to ethnic community – a society with shared myth of origins, descent, common history, territorial association and a sense of solidarity. It exists today as “nation states”, where the geographic boundaries of the ethnic population and political state coincide. Some of these examples include Japan, Korea and Poland, where society is almost ethnically and linguistically homogeneous.

Officially, China is recognized as a nation state, but this only found coherence through the concept of “zhonghua minzu”, or Chinese nationality. This contributes to a revisionist view on Chinese history, with the nationhood assimilating the ethnic minorities’ culture, history, traditions and even customs and cuisine, as its own. As a result, overseas ethnic Chinese, such as myself, who visit China often find themselves alien to the practices of Mainland China.

It’s interesting, because we are at the crossroads. Take me for instance: there will always be a part of me that remains Singaporean, and there will always be a part of me that remains Chinese. So, should I begin to align my ethnicity to my motherland, or leave as is, bearing in mind that the status quo is dying out? I don’t know, but I suppose this is why I remain fascinated by China. It is ethnically, “home”.

For me, coming from a place where the temperature hovers in the late-20s and early-30s, and arriving in a place that’s right smacked below 0 degrees Celsius: it’s a real rush for me. I don’t know, man, but I firmly believe that humans perform better in temperate regions. Just look at Earth. Besides Singapore, there’s no other first-world nation that’s located in the tropics and equatorial region (Yes, I know Guiana is considered part of metropolitan France but the territory itself is not first-world anyways, so the argument is moot). Even then, look at us: the Singaporeans that do well – the ones who do really well – are new migrants. We suck, really. We’re above average, but that’s as good as we’re gonna get.

Even though I didn’t really get to sleep well on the redeye flight, the moment I felt the winter chill, I was invigorated. Sleepy, yes, but ready to see Beijing.

I begin, with the Summer Palace.

Longevity Hill, on which the palace sits on, has seen royal use for a millennia. The location was culturally and functionally strategic, ascribing to the Chinese architectural characteristics of fengshui, its height, while just 60m high, was enough to escape Beijing’s hot summer months. It is flanked by the man-made Kunming Lake.

Unlike the Forbidden City located in the city’s very centre, and away from prying common man eyes, the Summer Palace on the other hand was a beacon perched above the city for all to see. As a result, the summer resort, designed for Empress Dowager Cixi, projected a softer approach as opposed to the Forbidden City, and the aesthetics were more feminine than masculine.

Besides the palace complex, the Summer Palace is sprawled with a recreational park. It is this park, dubbed by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavillions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to
form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value”, that the Summer Palace got listed on the World Heritage List.

I’m sure many Singaporeans would’ve visited Kyoto before Beijing, so I’m going to break it down for you. Kyoto is almost exactly like a miniature version of Beijing. Essentially, the Summer Palace combines the scenery of Kyoto’s Arashiyama and Sagano, and the meticulousness of Kinkaku-ji. It’s tranquill, and a visit in the winter, considered the non-peak season in Beijing, means that there are far less visitors. However, it also means one must deal with the Beijing winter, which is mostly pleasant, but can be horrifyingly chilly, dry and windy. The latter conditions as the afternoon went by, slowed down my journey as I stopped for more hot beverages, and struggled to warm up my freezing and numbing hands and face. I think I got the scenic pictures, don’t you think?


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