When I first came to Beijing in 1984, the city felt dusty and forgotten, a onetime capital of temples and palaces that Mao had vowed — successfully, it seemed — to transform into a landscape of factories and chimneys. Soot penetrated every windowsill and every layer of clothing, while people rode simple steel bicycles or diesel-belching buses through the windy old streets.
Then, as now, it was hard to imagine this sprawling city as the sacred center of China’s spiritual universe. But for most of its history, it was exactly that.
It wasn’t a holy city like Jerusalem, Mecca or Banaras, locations whose very soil was hallowed, making them destinations for pilgrims. Yet Beijing’s streets, walls, temples, gardens and alleys were part of a carefully woven tapestry that reflected the constellations above, geomantic forces below and an invisible overlay of holy mountains and gods. It was a total work of art, epitomizing the political-religious system that ran traditional China for millenniums. It was Chinese belief incarnate....
Once in a while, somewhat awkwardly, the Communist state even recreates the old rituals. In March, some friends of mine, retirees who are amateur singers and musicians, were hired as extras for a ceremony on the spring equinox. About 30 of them dressed up in gowns and Qing dynasty-era hats and marched solemnly to the altar. Accompanied by a small orchestra of musicians playing gongs, cymbals and kettle drums, they strode up to a table filled with imitation dead animals laid out for sacrifice. A young man dressed as the emperor then kowtowed and made the ritual offerings, all under the strict guidance of experts from the local cultural affairs bureau who had read accounts of the ancient practices. Later, videos streamed around social media platforms like WeChat, reinforcing the popular idea that the past is returning.
Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers' request form.
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