Beijing Revisited: Qing history with a mix of pomp and poignancy

by Lee Chyen Yee,

member of QHS Beijing Study Trip

Beijing is hardly a strange city to me, yet there is always a treasure trove of history waiting to be uncovered in an obscure corner or the remote outskirts of the capital.

A week-long trip to Beijing with a group of Qing history enthusiasts in March revealed more riveting stories than what I had previously known about the stellar rise and often ignominious fall of dynasties. We focused mainly on the historical trajectory of the Qing dynasty (清朝)– the last monarchy that was eventually overthrown by Sun Yat-sen (孙中山) and his revolutionaries in 1911, and the trails made famous by film director Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, TV dramas such as My Fair Princess (还珠格格)and The Legend of Zhen Huan (甄嬛传).

Having lived in China for about five years, I have been to most of Beijing’s historical sites, such as the Forbidden City (紫禁城), the Summer Palace (颐和园) and Yuanmingyuan (圆明园) , but each visit always unveiled something new.


332.JPGOur first stop was the Forbidden City, the palace of the Ming and Qing emperors. Trying to cover every corner of the Forbidden City at one go can be quite intimidating given its sheer massiveness. After all, it has 9,999 ½ rooms, 90 palaces and courtyards, with an area spanning 72 hectares – around the size of Singapore’s UNESCO site Botanic Gardens. Naturally, one with a pair of good legs and map-reading skills will definitely go far exploring its maze-like layout.

However, getting lost can sometimes lead to surprises. That was how we chanced upon Jingren Palace (景仁宫), where Emperor Kangxi  (康熙), the second of the 10 Qing emperors, was born. He went on to become one of the most accomplished emperors who brought about the most prosperous period during the Qing era, and the longest reigning ruler in Chinese history.

However, not all of Jingren Palace’s inhabitants met with happy endings. More than 200 years after Kangxi’s birth, Pearl Concubine (珍妃), the favourite consort of Emperor Guangxu(光绪), also lived in the same palace, but she fell out with Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧)and in the end, was brutally forced down a well.

The Forbidden City has had its fair share of upheavals. If you look hard enough for a plaque that reads Longzong Gate (隆宗门), look even harder when you find it. There is an arrow head still stuck on the plaque, left by a bunch of rebels who barged into the Forbidden City in 1813. The piece of remnant was left untouched to serve as a vivid reminder of how vulnerable the imperial grounds could be to foreign attacks, though it seemed that some emperors never learnt the lesson and continued to indulge in life’s luxuries.


The Qing emperors were fascinated by the intricate mechanics of western clocks, evident from the exquisite time pieces on display at The Hall of Watches and Clocks (钟表馆). Despite the age of the clocks, they still chime and charm perfectly until this day. If only the emperors’ obsession with western technology went beyond the artefacts and into advanced weaponry, history might well have to be re-written.

The Chinese would not have fought the Opium Wars with spears, cross-bows, antiquated shotguns and cannons against the British muskets and powerful gunboats.



Later in the week, we went to the Summer Palace and Yuanmingyuan, then known as the Garden of All Gardens, to witness the extravagance of the late Qing rulers who emptied the coffers and brought the empire to its knees. Even as the government was on the verge of bankruptcy from the many wars it fought and lost, the Summer Palace was lavishly refurnished during Cixi’s era to please her whims and fancies.

To satisfy her vanity, she obscenely used money that was originally meant to build up the navy to renovate the palace for her 60th birthday. Even though the palace now brings in lots of tourist dollars — thanks to the scenic lake, pavilions and plum blossom trees lining its pathways — it is still hard to fathom what went on in the minds of Cixi and her top officials who decided to squander away the dwindling funds at a time when the country was desperately trying to fend off foreign military attacks.


And if more evidence was needed to show that the Qing dynasty was crumbling from its core in the 1800s, we need not look further than Yuanmingyuan, or what’s left of it. The ruins still evoke smouldering indignation among the Chinese populace, though it would be overly simplistic to paint the attackers as vile “foreign devils” and the Chinese as innocent, hapless victims.

The Europeans were so angry with the Qing government at that time for torturing and killing several of their envoys tasked with conducting treaty negotiations that they retaliated by burning Yuanmingyuan, the epitome of Chinese imperial glory. Most of the buildings actually survived after the European forces set them ablaze and took away the treasures in 1860.

In a twisted sense of irony, the pathetic remnants and scattered debris we see today are in fact the result of even more looting of valuables and building materials by the Chinese themselves over the next few decades.



The same can be said of the Qing Eastern Tombs (清东陵)in Hebei province (河北省), where the ornately expensive tombs were pillaged by the very warlords who were ostensibly sent by the government to guard against tomb raiders.

Undoubtedly the biggest highlight of this trip, the visit to the Qing Tombs gave us a glimpse into the personalities of the emperors and also what became of them after they were laid to eternal rest. We were fortunate this time to spend several hours with a local expert who had spent his entire professional life researching and excavating the tombs.


The first stop that the expert Xu Guangyuan (徐广源)took us to was none other than Cixi’s Ding Eastern Tomb (定东陵). Cixi, with all pomp and pageantry even in her afterlife, had gilded dragons winding up the pillars of the tomb’s main halls and had practically every inch of the inner facade etched in gold, including the ornaments that lined the ceiling.

However, we saw none of those when we were there as Xu ruefully said anything valuable had been looted long ago.


We could even see traces of the looting on the pillars, in the form of scratch marks left by robbers scrapping off the last bit of the golden dragons. According to Xu, Cixi’s body were carelessly tossed aside after she was stripped of her jewels that were buried with her. Such was the sorry end that awaited the dragon lady who lived a life of opulence and held on to China’s fate with a vice-like grip for half a century behind the veil of three emperors.

Not far from Cixi’s tomb were other mausoleums including Kangxi’s, which was in a style quite different from the dowager’s. Basically, it was one that had more substance than show. Kangxi, a learned scholar in his own right, had a very different vision of afterlife. Instead of gilded pillars and bedecked ceilings, the route to his final resting place Jingling (景陵) was a serene boulevard called the Spirit Way (神道), which was lined with statues of officials and animals.

His grandson Emperor Qianlong (乾隆) , probably the best known Qing emperor, seemed to have a bigger ego. This was reflected in the design of Yuling  (裕陵),where he was laid to rest. The underground tunnel leading to his coffin was decorated with Buddha carvings all over the walls and he even had one specially carved in his likeness as if to hint that he was Buddha’s reincarnation.

Unfortunately today, all these tombs are merely a shadow of their glorious past due to years of theft and neglect.

It would seem that the robbers spared no one, but in fact they did. The most intact one was the humblest tomb of all belonging to the first Qing emperor Shunzhi (顺治), Kangxi’s father. Being the only Qing emperor who was cremated, he had few valuables in death and therefore, the robbers left him alone, probably thinking it was not worth the while breaking in for precious nothing.


The Qing dynasty started with a big bang, but as history goes, no empire, no matter how great, lasts forever. In 1644, the heroic Manchus galloped into Beijing victoriously and chased out the fumbling Ming emperor and officials, but more than two centuries later, they too met with an embarrassing end.

The portraits of Emperor Qianlong (Left) and Emperor Kangxi (Right)

Even though the first few Qing emperors, notably Kangxi, Yongzheng (雍正)and Qianlong, brought wealth and glory to the country, arguably, the seeds of corruption were sowed as early as Qianlong’s reign. Subsequent emperors, starting with his son Emperor Jiaqing (嘉庆), tried to fix the problem, but without much success.

One of the key sites that eluded us this time was the Prince Gong Mansion (恭王府)as it was closed for renovation. It was the home of the notorious Heshen (和珅), the most corrupt official during Qianlong’s era.

The mansion was later taken over by the brilliant but unfortunate Prince Gong, the man who could have been emperor. But that is another story for another trip.