Beihai Park is an ancient imperial garden next to the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. With over a thousand years of history, Beihai Park is China’s oldest classical garden and one of the largest and best preserved.
With ancient Buddhist temples, walled cities, exquisite classical gardens, a large lake and imperial palaces, Beihai Park is one of the top travel spots in Beijing. If you are in Beijing and have time, I strongly recommend you spend at least half a day visiting Beihai Park and enjoying the many attractions there.
Beihai Park was originally built back in 938 by Emperor Huitong of the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Later during the period from 1166 to 1179 Beihai Park was changed to an imperial summer palace for Emperor Dading of the Jin Dynasty (11115-1234).
After pacifying China and putting much of the country to sword, Kublai Khan used Beihai Park as the center of the Yuan Dynasty’s new capital Dadu in 1274. Later when the Ming Dynasty took power in 1368, Dadu was renamed as Beijing and Beihai Park was changed to a palace garden. Later in 1420 when the Forbidden City was complete, Beihai Park was connected to the Forbidden City and the corner stone of the imperial city.
The last change made to Beihai Park was extensive reconstruction by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Qianlong was one of China’s longest reigning emperor’s (1735-1796) and the last great emperor, The park was not opened to the public until 1925 after the foundation of the Communist Party of China.
Grounds and attractions
Beihai Park is almost 70 hectares in size and over half this area is covered by Beihai lake. In the center of the lake is a large island or islet called Jade Flowery Islet that holds many of the parks main attractions. The park holds at least 30 major sites so I have only included below the major sites that are most worth visiting.
Yongan Temple or Temple of Eternal Peace
Located on Jade Flowery Islet and dominating the park’s skyline, the Yongan Temple is the main site in Beihai Park and holds the White Dagoba which is the symbol of Beihai Park.
The temple was first built in 1651 by the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty at the request of a Tibetan lama. The emperor granted the lama’s request as a way of proving he was a devout Buddhist and to unite the different ethnic groups in China that had Buddhism as a common religion. The temple is built in the side of Baita Hill and has three levels.
The first level has three buildings, the Bell Tower to the east, the Drum Tower to the west and the Falundian (Dhama Wheel Hall) in the center. The Faludian is the main structure in the temple and contains images of the Sakyamuni Buddha, eight great Bodhisattvas and eighteen arhats.
The second level is a courtyard at the top of a steep flight of stairs. A number of buildings surround the courtyard and the main building there is the Pu An hall which houses images of the founder of the Tibetan Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism and his two main disciples.
The third level is a platform at the top of the hill that holds the White Dagoba which is also called Bai Tai or White Pagoda. The pagoda is 35.9 meters and was erected in 1651 when the temple was built. The pagoda was damaged by earth quake and rebuilt three times in 1679, 1730 and 1976 during the Tangshan earth quake even after being reinforced in 1964.
The pagoda is made of white stone and is decorated by engravings of the sun, moon and flame. The top of the pagoda holds a large ornament with 14 bronze bells hanging of it. This ornament is clearly visible in all the photos of the White Dagoba. A secret shrine in the pagoda holds Buddhist scriptures, the remains of cremated monks, their mantles and their alms bowls.
Tiancheng City (City of Harmony)
On a small raised hill near the southern entrance of the park is complex surrounded by 4.6 meter high walls called Tiancheng City. Tiancheng City was originally built during the Jin Dynasty almost 900 years ago as a part of the Daning Palace and has since gone through many renovations and transformations. The most recent reconstruction was in 1690 after the main build was destroyed in 1669
The city has a perimeter of 276 meters and has an enclosed area of 4,500 square meters. The city itself only contains four major and four minor buildings.
The main building is the Hall of Divine Light that holds a 1.6 meter tall Bhudda made out of a single piece of Jade that is embedded with precious stones. The statue was a gift to Emperor Guangxu by a Cambodian King. The statue was damaged by foreign barbarians (Eight Nation Alliance) in the fighting for Beijing in 1900. The hall is mostly empty and roped off to tourists with an altar and (I’m guessing) the statue at the back.
The other main attraction here is the Jade Jar made in 1265. Kublai Khan placed a jar in a hall on Jade Flowery Islet that he used as a wine vessel for his feasts and parties. That jar was lost soon after and not found until 1745 and a pavilion in 1749. The Jade Jar has the shape of an ellipse, 0.7 meters high, has a circumference of 4.93 meters and weighs 3.5 ton. Just imagine how much wine the Jade Jar held and the hang overs they had!
Tiancheng City is also the home of the Marquis of Shade. A 20 meter high Chines pine tree over 800 years old that kept the Emperor Qianlong cool on a hot summer day and drove away his fatigue during one of his visits. In gratitude the emperor granted the lucky tree the title of the Marquis of Shade.
Nine Dragon Wall or Screen
In ancient China three walls or screens were made that showed nine dragons playing in clouds. These walls are made out of glazed tiles of seven different colours. The other two walls are in the Forbidden City and in Datong City (Shanxi Province). The wall was built in 1756 and is made of 424 of the glazed tiles. Unlike the other two walls, the Beihai Park wall has nine dragons on both sides not just one side.
The entire park is covered in fascinating and interesting sites, buildings and mini gardens so after you’ve seen these three top attractions there is still a lot to do. Some attractions though are extremely ordinary and I can’t help feeling in those spots that the park management just embellished a bit of history and set up a ticket booth to make a bit more money.
The Ancient Caves of the Jade Islet are a classic example of this. The entrance fee is 5rmb and the ancient caves take a whole 3 minutes to traverse and that is walking very slowly. The caves are also full of really kitschy statues that look like Chinese garden gnomes. Naturally the cave exits into a shop.
There is even a throne like chair to the north of Yongan Temple on the Jade Flowery Islet guarded by an old woman who charges people 5rmb to take a photo sitting on it. I found this very amusing so took a photo of the chair and its ridiculous price tag. Not one to let an opportunity slip by, the old lady saw me taking the photo of the chair and insisted I pay 5rmb for the privilege.I had to run off down the hill to escape her.
So my recommendation is see the three sites listed above, wonder around the islet and the north west section of the lake, have a great and just ignore the less interesting spots.
The easiest and most interesting way to reach Beihai Park is to catch the subway to Tiananmen Square west station and walk. Exit one of the stations northern exits that will be next to a road heading north called Nanchang Street. Nanchang street follows the moat on the west side of the Forbidden City and finishes next to the southern exit of Beihai Park.
The walk will take about 10 to 20 minutes and provide great views of the outside of the Forbidden City and some of the hutongs in that part of Beijing.
Tickets and Times
The main part of the park is open form 6am to 10pm during the peak summer season. The ticket price is 10rmb and many of the sites in the park will also charge between 3rmb and 10rmb.
Officially you need 2 to 4 hours to see Beihai Park. Personally to relax and really enjoy it, you should plan to be there for at least 4 hours.