Beijing: It’s in the Details

So much about Beijing is big: the wide paved boulevards, the imposing buildings that stretch for whole blocks along them, the spacious, opulent grounds of the imperial palaces and gardens. In all this bigness, it would be easy to miss the intricate details on a roof, a door, or a ceiling that are both interesting and meaningful. It’s the smallness of the city that reveals so much about China and its past, and with the help of our thoughtful tour guide, these details didn’t go unnoticed.

Roof charms (走兽)

The ceramic figurines that adorn the sloping ridges of Chinese imperial palaces are much more than pretty decoration. They indicate that the building was, in fact, a government building and the more there were, the more important the building. An odd number of mythical beasts were book-ended by an imperial dragon on one end, which represented the authority of the empire, and a man atop a phoenix or an immortal atop a fènghuáng or qílín at the end of the slope, any of which were a reminder that the empire is always watching you so you had better know your place.

Roof Charms Front ViewRoof charms on the Hall of  Preserving Harmony at the Forbidden City. See this previous post for more photos of roof charms in Beijing.

Signboards at Imperial Sites

As you roam the grounds of the major imperial sites of Beijing, you’ll notice signs hanging high above you on gates and the front of buildings. They are uniform in shape (rectangular) and color (purplish-blue backdrop, gold written text, enclosed by maroon or gold wooden frames). Obviously, the signs indicate the name of the site or building. That’s not the interesting part. As you see more and more of these, you begin to notice some include more than one language. All include Chinese, but others feature Manchu, Mongol, and/or Tibetan script.


Our guide pointed out the “hairpins” that poke out of the framework just above the doors leading into the one-story, four-sided courtyard homes known as sìhéyuàn. The size, shape, and number of hairpins above a door indicated the profession of the person or family that lived there. I failed to capture share-worthy photos of hairpins in Beijing, but I can show you some examples that I stumbled upon in a farming village just outside of Haiyang. The first are, oh, shall we say, rustic? Look for the corroding round balls on either side of the non-historic padlock.

Hairpin CloseupThe four red-rimmed hairpins in the photo below are much more eye-catching and indicate the home of a wealthier family.

Hairpin ElaborateIn Beijing, the outer walls of yuàn are painted a uniformly bland pigeon gray, so it’s easy to be drawn to the doorways and their ornamental accoutrements as you make your way through the cramped narrow alleyways called hútòngs. Old-timers like our guide and the former train driver who spent 26 years mapping the city’s disappearing hútòngs like to reminiscence about their younger days spent living in them. But, most of these cultural relics have been bulldozed over, casualties of China’s race to modernization and all it promises.

Hutong hútòng in Beijing’s Dongcheng district.

Paintings of the Long Corridor (长廊)

The supposed “wow” factor of the Long Corridor is that it’s the longest covered wooden corridor in the world at 728 meters. Congrats, I suppose. But that’s not reason enough to ping-pong your way down it, trying to avoid the other tourists of the world who stop in the middle of the walkway to snap a photo or the local grandparents who crowd its sides, fully focused on their game of cards, unconcerned that their leisure activity is taking place in the Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I adopted the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality and happily stopped dead in my tracks, unconcerned about those around me, to gaze up at the scenes painted on the wooden beams and ceiling of the structure. The scenes — over  14,000 of them — depict Chinese folklore, myths, or stories from classical literature such as The Red Chamber. As my mom wisely observed, the scenes here are like those found in the stained glass windows of Christian churches, equally full of history, culture, and meaning.

Summer Palace Covered WalkwaySurely, I could have highlighted more of the small things that make a big difference in understanding the political, historical center of China, but perhaps you can fill in the gaps. What are your favorite details — those little things that the average person might overlook — of Beijing?


This entry was published on June 20, 2014 at 6:32 pm. It’s filed under China, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Beijing: It’s in the Details

  1. I’ve never been to China (and I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be with visiting) but it’s great to see those things close-up. Those details don’t come through in the pictures I sometimes come across.

  2. Maybe if I come visit I can help you document the different shapes, sizes, and colors of all the loogies they hawk around China 😉

  3. John on said:

    Definitely, the devil is in the details. Oh wait, that’s not what you meant. 😉 Really cool post! As someone whose career is based on the details within mundane documentation, I certainly can appreciate this. And it gives me a few (more) things to pay attention to/look out for when I finally make it over there to visit!

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