Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China

Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China

Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China

Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China

Excerpt

Before 1949 when the Communist régime took over the whole of China and effectively closed the country to visitors, Peking was one of the world's great capitals and attracted people from all over the world. Many have claimed that Paris and Peking are the two most beautiful cities in the world; and some who know both place Peking first. Almost all who have visited Peking have come to love it, for like other capitals such as London, Paris, Rome and Vienna, it inspires affection. And like all great cities, Peking grows on one, its elusive charm being as inescapable as it is difficult to analyse and describe. Great old cities are like tolerant grandmothers. They represent to their children a world vaster than one can explore or exhaust, and one is happy merely to grow up under their all-embracing protection. Each year one learns something new about a city like Peking. Only a brave man, after living ten years in Paris or Rome, would claim to know the city. This is equally true of Peking, a city to explore, a city not merely to visit for three days or even three weeks, but above all a city to live in. In the early days of the Chinese Republic, I knew many Europeans who came to visit Peking for a week or month but decided to settle there for life. Once you have lived in Peking, it lives on with you after you have left it.

Every city should have its own character. A lady can have charm without character, but a city cannot. All old cities are the outcome of centuries of growth; they bear the scars of wars and the marks of historical events, they stand witness to the dreams and ambitions of men of the past. Just as Napoleon and Haussmann left their marks on Paris, and Empress Maria-Teresa and Franz- Joseph on Vienna, so the Emperors Yunglo and Chienlung have left their marks on Peking--specially Chienlung, who restored, retouched and beautified every historical monument in his sixty-year reign of peace and prosperity to make it the magnificent city that it was.

Yet a city can never be the creation of a single man. Generations of men by their way of life and their achievements give it their heritage and stamp their character upon it. Dynasties come and go, and tyrants rise and fall, but in Peking the life of the common people continues unperturbed. In the sixteenth century the eunuchs spread terror among the scholar officials, and one eunuch in particular, Wei Tsungshien, had his portrait hung in every city throughout the nation, to which the people were compelled to bow. Wei left his mark in Peking, at Piyunsy in the Western Hills, which he helped to beautify. But like the rest, he too passed by. With eternal cities, such short moments pass and . . .

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