In China, the first week of October is known as ‘Golden Week’ and is a national holiday. Most businesses close for the week, though everyone has to work the following Saturday and Sunday to make up the time. We decided to take advantage of the holiday period, and together with another couple we headed out of Beijing to spend four days in a town called Chengde.
Chengde is in Hebei province (the province which surrounds BJ) and is 256kms North East. We travelled by train (not one of the super-fast trains) going ‘soft-seat’ and the journey took 4.5 hours. Coming, as I do, from southern Africa, I provided plenty of padkos!
In 1701AD (or CE if you want to be pedantically modern) the Emperor Kangxi decided to build a summer retreat close to his favoured hunting grounds.
He chose this area, and called the place ‘Bishushanzhuang’ which translates as something like: ‘ Fleeing the Heat Mountain Hamlet’. The palace he built himself in the area – starting in 1703 -was called Chengde, and the palace has now given it’s name to the town which grew up to service the court. Kangxi’s whole retreat complex is vast, with fabulous woods, formal gardens and artificial lakes emulating both south and northern Chinese gardens. The entire establishment is a walled area which covers some 5.6sq kms.
Every summer, Kangxi and his successors – particularly the Emperor Qian Long – spent many months in this retreat every year, and therefore it became the second most important political centre in China at the time. Indeed it was to Chengde that the British emissary Lord Macartney came to try to persuade Emperor Qian Long to make a treaty with Britain and allow more trade between the two countries. Therein lies quite an interesting tale. The Chinese and their rulers had no real interest in doing business with anyone from ‘outside’. They considered that they were a ‘Celestial’ nation and that the world owed them obeisance.
Macartney arrived bringing gifts from King George III, which were received as ‘tributes’. The court officials said Macartney had to kowtow to the Emperor, kneeling and bowing 3 times, and each time touching his head to the ground three times – nine times in all.
Macartney said ‘no way Jose’ – he was the personal representative of the King and would only do what he would do for his own monarch, namely go down on one knee, bow his head and kiss the Sovereign’s hand. Much debate ensued and then the Chinese said ‘ok, but go down on two knees and no kissing’. When the moment arrived all the hundreds of Chinese courtiers were told to turn away and not witness this shocking treatment of their Emperor. So they said Macartney HAD kowtowed, but Macartney said he’d only done one knee and slight bow of head! Who knows what really happened. Macartney had left the artist who was to record things in China back in BJ – which is the equivalent of Barack Obama not having an official photographer with him during some State visit. What a loss to history!
Around the Summer Palace and retreat there were 12 Tibetan Buddhist temples built on various hills though only eight of them still exist today. These were built by various Emperors as they all followed the Tibetan strand of Buddhism. Back in the day, Tibet, being a suzerain state of China, sent tribute every year and both the Dalai Lama (who pitched up in Chengde with a caravan of 5000 camels!) and the Panchen Lama, would spend months and months in Chengde every summer. So much so that Qian Long had the Putuo ZongCheng Temple specifically built for the Dalai Lama so that he would feel ‘at home’; it is a smaller version of the Potala Temple in Lhasa.
To this day one of the nicknames for Chengde is ‘Xiao Lassa’ which means ‘Little Lhasa’. The temples are still places of worship and there are monks in their deep red robes everywhere. All the inscriptions on the temples are in four languages: Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese and Manchu.
We spent hours exploring six of the the temples (two were closed for restoration) and we were awed by their beauty and riches, including the tallest wooden Buddha in the world , ancient bronzes and beautiful tapestries.
One temple in particular blew me away – the roof tiles and roof sculptures of several of its buildings were made of gold-plated bronze – the most fabulously exotic thing I have ever seen. At the time Macartney visited, when they were newly built, they must have been a very impressive sight.
In 1994 UNESCO placed Chengde on the World Heritage List, and yet hardly any foreign visitors have heard of it, let alone visited it. In the four days we were there we saw many Chinese tour groups but the numbers of non-Chinese visitors we could have counted on two hands. Westerners who visit China tend head for Shanghai/Beijing/Xi’an and Guilin, all of which are well trodden paths, it is such a pity none of them visit Chengde where they would see fabulous sites and learn a great deal about China’s history.