My Beijing: The Sacred City

by Ian Johnson

When I first came to Beijing in 1984, the city felt dusty and forgotten, a onetime capital of temples and palaces that Mao had vowed — successfully, it seemed — to transform into a landscape of factories and chimneys. Soot penetrated every windowsill and every layer of clothing, while people rode simple steel bicycles or diesel-belching buses through the windy old streets.

Then, as now, it was hard to imagine this sprawling city as the sacred center of China’s spiritual universe. But for most of its history, it was exactly that.

It wasn’t a holy city like Jerusalem, Mecca or Banaras, locations whose very soil was hallowed, making them destinations for pilgrims. Yet Beijing’s streets, walls, temples, gardens and alleys were part of a carefully woven tapestry that reflected the constellations above, geomantic forces below and an invisible overlay of holy mountains and gods. It was a total work of art, epitomizing the political-religious system that ran traditional China for millenniums. It was Chinese belief incarnate.

Beijing’s cosmology changed in the 20th century, especially after the Communist takeover in 1949. Its great city walls and many of its temples and distinctive alleys, or hutong, were destroyed to make way for the new ideals of an atheistic, industrial society. The 1980s brought economic reforms and uncontrolled real estate development, which wiped out almost all of the rest of the old town. Lost was a vast medieval city of 25 square miles and also a way of life, just as the local cultures of the world’s other great cities have been swamped by our restless times.

Over the years, I have watched some of this transformation, first as a student, then a journalist and now a writer and teacher. Like many people who have fallen in love with this city, I was disheartened and felt Beijing’s culture was lost.

I came to know the park eight years after that traumatic period ended. I studied Chinese language and literature at Peking University from 1984 to 1985 and biked over to this area because it had become the country’s chief diplomatic district and one of the few places where homesick Westerners could buy chocolate and postcards. In the post-Mao era, China was opening up, and so it built embassies and modern apartment blocks to house foreign diplomats and journalists. This area became an international hub, with a “Friendship Store,” an International Club and a western-style hotel that had one of the city’s few bakeries. I came for the croissants, but stayed for the tree-lined streets and the Temple of the Sun.

I remember walking through the park, its altar recently reconstructed, but many of the buildings so dilapidated that the grounds seemed abandoned. A few Beijing residents ventured in occasionally to fly kites from the original stone balustrades, which were cracked and discolored like old bones. Diplomats’ children would run around the altar’s low peripheral wall testing its acoustics; if you whispered into it, a friend could hear your voice a dozen feet away.

In 1994, I returned to China to work for seven years as a journalist, first for The Baltimore Sun and later for The Wall Street Journal. I ended up moving into one of the diplomatic compounds and the neighborhood became my home. Again, I was drawn to the Temple of the Sun.

Back then the park had an entrance fee that kept it relatively empty, especially in what was now a crowded, bustling city. It cost only 50 cents to enter, but China was still relatively poor and people weren’t inclined to spend their time on exercise. You worked, you went home, you rested. Parks were for special occasions. It was possible to walk the roughly one-mile perimeter path and encounter only a few people, often diplomats from the nearby embassies or spooks keeping an eye on things.

The Temple of the Sun wasn’t just empty of people but looked barren. This was a time when Chinese parks rarely had grass. Instead, the hard-packed dry earth of arid Beijing was raked by crews every few days. It was odd but had an austere beauty that set off the ginkgo and persimmon trees that lined the paths.

But in recent years, I have begun to think I was wrong. Beijing’s culture is not dead; it is being reborn in odd corners of the city and in unexpected ways. It is not the same as the past, but still vibrant and real — ways of life and belief that echo bygone days.

I see this in two places in this city where I now live. One is the Temple of the Sun neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, and the other a Taoist temple in the western part. These are places that seemed forgotten and irrelevant, but they have slowly taken on a new importance in recent years as Chinese search for new values and beliefs to underpin their post-Communist society.

For most of my time in Beijing, I have always lived within walking distance of the Temple of the Sun. A 50-acre park in the Jianguomenwai diplomatic district, the temple was built in 1530, one of four shrines where the emperor worshiped key heavenly bodies. The others are dedicated to the moon, the earth and heaven. The Temple of Heaven is easily the most famous, but the Temple of the Sun reveals more because it is less of a showpiece.

Like virtually every landmark in Beijing, the temple was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution. This was a period of radical Communist violence from 1966 to 1976, when every place of worship and many symbols of the past were attacked. The main stone altar, a flat disk about 20 feet across and raised about two feet off the ground, was smashed by Mao’s zealots. Later, the park became a dumping ground for rubble when the city’s walls were torn down.

By the time I returned to China in 2009 to work as a writer and teacher, all of this had changed. China had enjoyed three decades of fast economic growth and government coffers were overflowing. Besides aircraft carriers, the Olympics and high-speed rail, it spent its money on parks and greenery.

The Temple of the Sun gained grass, new trees, flower beds of tulips in the spring and geraniums in the summer and stands of bamboo that are so foreign to this colder part of China that they have to be laboriously bundled up against the cold each autumn.

Best of all — or worst, depending on your selfishness — the authorities also got rid of the entrance fees. Suddenly the park was part of the city, embraced by residents eager for activity. Unlike years ago, many Chinese want to exercise, and so the park is now filled with joggers in black spandex sprinting past restaurant workers in greasy smocks.

But this need for green space clashes with another trend in China: the surrender of public areas to the rich. Just as Beijing’s bike lanes have become turning lanes for cars and its sidewalks overrun with motorbikes delivering hot meals to the upper-middle class, huge swaths of the Temple of the Sun have been sacrificed to benefit a wealthy minority.

Since about 2000, I estimate that about 15 percent to 20 percent of the park’s area has been rented out to relatively high-end restaurants, an exclusive social club, a German beer garden, a yoga yard, a strange antique furniture store that is always empty (and smells of some sort of dodgy corruption scheme), a Russian restaurant and stores exhibiting wholesale wares for Russian traders — all commercial activities that don’t belong in this great old park.

With so much of the park’s area lost to these money-spinning activities, the Temple of the Sun has been reduced to the rebuilt altar in the center, a small hill, a tiny lake and one main path. With no entrance fees and no space, the path is so crowded that it sometimes feels like a fast-spinning hamster wheel that one enters and exits at one’s peril.

And yet I still love the park. When I follow the counterclockwise flow, I keep an eye out for the skyscrapers peeking through the weeping willows, the Tai Chi master by the lake and the old pines that somehow have survived the tumult. I even listen for the screech of the tacky children’s amusement park with its half-broken choo-choo trains.

But the park is more than a window into people’s daily lives; for the government, it is once again a way to increase its legitimacy. The authorities run a tiny museum that exhibits, as if real, recreations of the smashed altar pieces. It has also put a big steel fence around the altar to show its earnestness in protecting cultural heritage. And it has erected an information board explaining the temple’s history while excising all mention of the Mao-era losses. The goal: assuring Chinese that the Communist Party, which once attacked tradition, is now its guardian.

Over the past few months, this message has been reinforced by colorful propaganda posters lauding traditional ways to run a family. Famous theorists from past millenniums are introduced and their works given a quick explanation. We learn the virtues of obedience and of listening to one’s parents, and of course taking care of them, all preoccupations of a government whose decades of draconian family planning policies have left it with a rapidly aging population and a rebellious youth that ignores its parents.

Once in a while, somewhat awkwardly, the Communist state even recreates the old rituals. In March, some friends of mine, retirees who are amateur singers and musicians, were hired as extras for a ceremony on the spring equinox. About 30 of them dressed up in gowns and Qing dynasty-era hats and marched solemnly to the altar. Accompanied by a small orchestra of musicians playing gongs, cymbals and kettle drums, they strode up to a table filled with imitation dead animals laid out for sacrifice. A young man dressed as the emperor then kowtowed and made the ritual offerings, all under the strict guidance of experts from the local cultural affairs bureau who had read accounts of the ancient practices. Later, videos streamed around social media platforms like WeChat, reinforcing the popular idea that the past is returning.

Recreating traditional values is one of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s key domestic policies, but anything like a return to the past seemed impossible in the 1980s. Being raised in a fairly religious household, I had been curious what Chinese believed. I didn’t expect or want Chinese people to share my beliefs, but I figured they must believe in something.

That had seemed like a mistaken assumption. Looking for Chinese religion one autumn afternoon, I rode my bike for an hour down to the White Cloud Temple, the national center of China’s indigenous religion, Taoism. This religion coalesced in the second century out of folk religious beliefs and the teachings of philosophers like Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. The White Cloud Temple dates from the 13th century and is the headquarters of the national Taoist association.

The temple was beautiful but seemed inconsequential. Its main axis of five halls to various deities had been mostly untouched by the Cultural Revolution, and the incense and the old trees gave it a timeless feel. But it was empty of worshipers. The halls and courtyards felt like those token places of worship in Communist countries that were more like museums than functioning centers of a living religion. Surrounded by Communist-era housing and a belching power plant, the temple was much like the Temple of the Sun, a relic of a bygone era.

But over the past decade or so, Chinese have been searching for meaning in their lives. After decades of adopting foreign ideologies like fascism, communism and neo-liberalism, they wonder what remains of their culture. Temples like White Cloud and belief systems like Taoism are part of this search for answers.

And so, cleverly, the government has invested heavily in religions like Taoism (as well as Buddhism and folk religion, but less so in Christianity or Islam). The White Cloud Temple is trying to reclaim some of China’s traditional medical heritage by opening a clinic in a newly refurbished wing of the temple. The state also built a new Taoist academy to train priests. Slowly, a Taoist revival has spread across China.

You can sense this by walking through the temple. The admission fee of $6.50 does keep out many people, but the temple is still filled with priests heading off to classes or preparing for ceremonies. And on either side of the main axis are two new strings of courtyards with temples to various gods.

For fun, but also to see the sorts of Taoist-related products that people buy for their homes nowadays, it’s well worth visiting the temple’s main gift shop. Inside the main gate is one filled with unusual products like wall clocks decorated with the eight trigrams and the swirling Tai-chi symbol, as well as scepters, swords and even Taoist robes if you want to go back home dressed like an immortal. It also sells stone rubbings of some of the temple’s steles, including strange representations of the human bodies showing the energy channels, or meridians, of Chinese medicine.

Compared with the sacred city of the past, today’s Beijing is a slightly out-of-control urban area of highways and high-rises, subway and suburbs. The old cosmological tapestry is in shreds.

But it is a place where places have meaning. The urban historian Jeffrey F. Meyer, who wrote “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” points out that Chinese capitals always reflect the governing ideology. This is true of all capitals, of course, and Mr. Meyer also wrote a book on Washington about the ideas behind its monuments.

But unlike open societies, which are messier and where the official message is often lost or at least softened by competing voices, Beijing is still the capital of an authoritarian state. Beijing’s message is still the state’s message, perhaps not perfectly but still audibly. This state once despised tradition but now supports it. And so the city changes — not back to the past but into something made up of ideas from the past — of filial piety, respect for authority, traditional religions, but also privilege for the rich. As Mr. Meyer put it, then as now, “Beijing was an idea before it was a city.”