The last days of the empire

We walked through the Summer Palace in Beijing on a very hot day. The leafy roads were protected from the hot sun. The cooling breeze from the Kunming lake gave respite from the heat. In spite of the crush of people you saw immediately on entering palace gates, the rest of the huge grounds did not seem crowded. We walked through the corridors of the palace of the Empress Dowager Longyu. She was married to the emperor when Chinese empire was already crumbling. She brought the two thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom to an end by signing the instrument of abdication in 1912 on behalf of the child emperor Puyi. China burned through the next century. It is only now that you see a new society being born.

If you know the outlines of the history of those troubled times you feel odd walking through these peaceful leafy corridors. The country was already torn apart when these halls were being refurbished for the Emperor’s consort. The European powers had burned and looted the Summer Palace twice, the Boxer rebellion had occupied it, China had lost battles to Japan. But the opulence of the palace of the last empress did not reflect this. You walk through the corridors as an exquisitely painted cat turns its back on you in contented peace from its place in the rafters, forever seeking mice in the gables. Chinese tourists walk past, cameras clicking on simulated auto.

The Zoology of Dragons

Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).


The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.


The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.

Guardian lion in the forbidden city

Hybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.

Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.

Magical Mystery Musical Instrument

Near the north gate of the Summer Palace grounds, outside Beijing, I saw an all-women musical group playing this mystery instrument. It has a lovely mellow sound. The double lobed chamber gives on to three flute-like stems with openings which you can finger. I sat and listened for half an hour while The Family went climbing the Longevity Hill. Other audience came and went. Most listened in silence, some clapped at the end of a piece. I waited until The Family came back and joined me. We stayed a while, and then had to leave.

Does someone know the name of this instrument?

After a search I found that this instrument is called a Hulusi (葫芦丝).

Stereo photo of a rockery

left right

Chinese gardens are full of wonderful rockeries, and the Summer Palace in Beijing is no exception. It’s difficult to convey the complexity and beauty of a rockery in a simple photo. Here is my attempt to present a stereoscopic view. Keep some distance from the screen, and try to focus some distance behind it. When you succeed, the left eye should see the photo on the left, and the right eye the one on the right. Some people tell me that putting a vertical piece of card between the two photos helps.