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Ever-changing China


A Temple for the Ages

Beijing residents call the Temple of Heaven the most photographed building in the world, and standing at the foot of the towering religious site, I found that easy to believe. The architecture alone makes the structure stunning. Built in a perfect circle, which represents heaven in Chinese mythology, the 125-foot-tall temple contains 28 wooden columns, thousands of colored tiles and not a single nail. A triple-gabled roof of blue glazed terra-cotta tiles caps the structure, pointing toward the sky.

The temple was first built on the site in 1409 (the original burned in 1889, so what visitors see today is a century-old replacement). For more than 500 years, the site served as a place of worship exclusively for the royal family.

“This used to be the temple for the emperor to pray for a good harvest,” Eddy told us. “The emperors believed that they were the sons of the god in heaven. That’s why they could have the money, the land, the power and the concubines.”

Much like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven today gives visitors a glimpse into the imperial past. But it also offers a snapshot of modern life in Beijing. The temple and the park that surrounds it have become a popular meeting and recreation spot in this landlocked city, a Chinese version of Central Park. On the day of our visit, a group of 20 people were practicing tai chi near the entrance, with accompanying flute music played over a small portable stereo.

The Modern Metropolis

Shanghai closes the circle on a time traveler’s tour of China. This magnificently modern city represents the future of the country, with industry, riches and a huge population propelling it into tomorrow. Twenty-two million people make their homes in this city, which compares in architecture and wealth with any of the great cities of the West.

“Shanghai is the most westernized city in China,” said our local guide, Joanna. “Things have changed dramatically here in the last 20 years. Once you come here, you realize that our national bird is a steel crane. There’s construction everywhere.”

In Shanghai, we enjoyed a brand-new Sheraton hotel, the unforgettable modern architecture of the Bund riverfront district. But there are also touches of tradition everywhere, such as the small noodle and bun stalls in the neighborhood nicknamed “Chinatown in China.”

For me, it was a visit to the Shanghai Museum that encapsulated the experience. That institution preserves some of the best Chinese art from throughout the ages. Beautiful art is among China’s greatest contributions to the world, and the exhibits at the Shanghai Museum follow the development of various media from prehistory to modern times.

One large gallery traces jade carving in China, from simple 3,000-year-old ceremonial tools to elaborately carved jewelry worn by royalty in the early 20th century. The traditional painting and calligraphy galleries captured my attention; master calligraphers have elevated Chinese writing to an art form, and the very best of their work is presented on long scrolls in the museum’s display cases. The porcelain gallery explains how Chinese craftspeople created a new kind of pottery that grew to become a world-famous art form.

Walking from gallery to gallery in this museum was like traversing centuries of Chinese culture and history with every step, a journey thousands of years in the making.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.