The Beihai Park

There is an ancient Chinese myth about a fathomless pit east of Beihai where the waters of all the rivers on earth are supposed to converge. Rising above them fire three mountains where the gods live. Seeking immortality, many emperors in Chinese history built lakes and islet-hills behind their pa!aces where they hoped to live forever like the gods. Beihai Park, built as an imperial garden behind the Forbidden City in Beijing(Peking), fitted perfectly into this pattern.

About half the park is taken up by the lake, in the middle of which i s Jade Islet, an islet-hill topped by the imposing White Dagoba which has become the landmark of Beihai Park There were originally three islets, but over the years the other two were joined to nearby land.

Beihai Park has a history of eight hundred years. Although the Site was chosen as a pleasure ground for the imperial family in the ioth century, it was not until 1179 that a Jin dynasty(1115- 1234) emperor decreed it an imperial garden. In the l3th century the Mongols conquered the Jin and established the Yuan dynasty(1279-1368), which made Beijing its capital. Kublai Khan, the first Yuan emperor, carried out large-scale reconstruction of the garden. One of his most magnificent feats was the expansion of Guanghan Palace on Jade Islet. This was an imposing and splendid edifice extending 40 meters from east to west, 20 meters from south to north, and standing 16 meters high. It was pleasure palace of the imperial family and also the scene of grand ceremonies and banquets. When Marco Polo visited Beijing in his travels in China at the end of the 13th Century, he heaped praise on this imperial garden of the Yuan rulers, comparing it to paradise.Unfortunately, Guanghan Palace was badly shaken by an earthquake and collapsed three Hundred year later. In l651the White Dagoba, a Buddhist tower in Tibetan style, was erected on its ruins at the suggestion of a famous Tibetan lama priest by the name of Nomhan. Emperor Shun Zhi of the Qing dynasty had agreed to this project as a gesture of devotion to the Buddhist faith and of a desire for unity among China’s various nationalities. He also saw in this towering structure, which was to be the highest in the capital for many years to come, a vantage point of military significance. In times of danger flags would be hoisted and lanterns lit around the White Dagoba to summon the imperial troops to battle. An iron cannon was actually installed for the purpose of subduing invading forces but was dismantled with- out a shell ever being fired.

The White Dagoba as we see it today was rebuilt in l741 by Emperor Qian Long, who spent a large amount of money and mobilized enormous manpower to redecorate the entire garden. A description of the scenery and the process of reconstruction by the Emperor was inscribed on a stone and is mounted in a pavilion at the foot of the hill.

A dagoba differs from a pagoda in shape. While a pagoda is a multi-storied pyramidic tower, a dagoba is a single rounded structure topped by a spire crowned by a golden tip. The White Dagoba of Beihai Park is35. 9 meters high, built of brick and stone whitened with lime. There is no entrance, but an intriguing possibility is that a red emblem on the body of the tower was an opening which was sealed when the tower was completed. It is believed that Buddhist scriptures, Lama robes and other sacred articles are stored inside. The tower commands a magnificent view Directly south is the quiet Zhongnanhai(Central and South Seas), two adjacent lakes which are now part of the grounds housing the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council. A few steps to the east take one within view of the yellow of the vermilion-walled buildings of the former Imperial Palace. Clearly visible directly north of this Forbidden City are five pavilions arrayed along the ridge of Jingshan Hill, which served as a screen for the Palace. South of the former imperial area, along a new east-west boulevard, are blocks of new apartments, while north in the distance the green Yanshan Mountains form a huge jade backdrop to the capital.