Jingshan, the Emperor’s Hill
After a day of exploring the hutong I was on the way back to my hotel when I came across a mesmerizing sight at Jingshan Park. The smog of the previous day had disappeared, and the rays of the late afternoon sun were sparkling off the gold leaf adorning its west gate. Intrigued, I paid the 2 yuan entrance fee and went in to take a look.
Straddling the city’s central axis, Jingshan is an artificial hill that rises more than 45 metres above the surrounding plain. According to feng shui, the Chinese system of geomancy, the ideal place for a dwelling is to the south of a nearby hill. This belief originated in the need to buffer a home against the cold northern winds.
As the seat of a vast empire, feng shui was especially important for the emperor’s palace. For this reason the hill was constructed with earth dug from nearby canals and the moat of the Forbidden City. Pavilions were built on each of its five peaks, and the imperial court used it as a private garden. Because the man-made elevation commanded the best views over the city, it was given the name “Prospect Hill”.
But there is also a darker side to Jingshan’s history. In the spring of 1644, the Ming Dynasty was in its final days and a peasant rebellion was approaching the gates of the capital. As his kingdom crumbled around him, Emperor Chongzhen gathered all the members of the imperial household to a feast – only his sons were left uninvited. With his sword he proceeded to kill everyone who was present, before fleeing to the hill and taking his own life on an old pagoda tree.
At the summit I stand with my eyes to the south, surveying the rows of golden rooftops and the towers on the horizon. Before me are three layers of history: in the foreground the upswept eaves of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, beyond them the monumental Stalinist structures of the fifties, and in the distance, the signs of China’s modern boom.
As the sinking sun turns the tiled roofs a deeper shade of orange, I leave the hilltop pavilion and slowly begin my descent. On a clear, sunny winter’s afternoon, there’s no better place to take in a panorama of the northern capital.