City's imperial past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am


Most visitors to Northeast China may not know that the original Forbidden City lies in Shenyang, the first capital of the Manchu people. The Mukden Palace is a reminder of days when Shenyang was one of the preeminent cities of Chinese civilisation. The capital of Liaoning once went by the name Shengjing, or 'rising capital,' referring to its status as the spiritual and symbolic heart of the Manchu people who founded the Qing dynasty in the early 17th century and ruled China from 1644 to 1911.

Much of Shenyang's current draw for tourists stems from its legacy as a Manchu capital. The palace was built for the Manchu ruler Nurhaci just 20 years before he founded the Qing dynasty.

Much of the palace has been preserved and the scrollwork and carvings on the walls, doors and statues reflect the height of Manchu artistry. The palace is on Unesco's World Heritage list and charges 60 yuan at the door.

The first Qing emperor Nurhaci is buried in Shenyang, in the Fuling Tomb, once one of China's most famous. This tomb and the Zhaoling Tomb of Nurhaci's son, Emperor Huang Taiji are also Unesco World Heritage sites.

The tombs are surrounded by the Dongling and Beiling parks - sprawling green spaces with slow-moving streams, rock gardens and small lakes.

Some of the most peaceful and sublime moments in Shenyang can be found around these undisturbed tombs. The architecture is pure Manchu and the small lanes leading from one round building to the next invoke mystery, beauty and a poignant sense of loss for what once was.

Two walls once encircled the city, but now only two gates and a corner of the wall are visible. Nevertheless, a passing glance at the mass of the gate gives a good impression of how imposing the walls of the Manchu's first capital must have been. The gates, Huaiyuanmen and Fujinmen, are located at either end of Shenyang Road. Shenyang Road is the main artery through central Shenyang where the Mukden Palace is also located.

The Manchus built four pagodas on the cardinal points extending out from the palace. The pagodas have suffered slightly during the four centuries since they were built, but all four have been restored and are surrounded by small parks.

The North Pagoda sees the most visitors, but all four locations are good options for afternoon walks or morning runs.

Other than Shenyang's history as a Manchu stronghold, the main draw is the massive statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of Zhongshan Square.

The statue is allegedly the largest tribute to the Chairman in China. The square is always occupied with people - either dancers in traditional Manchu attire, old men flying kites or groups and couples strolling through.

Shenyang is best visited during the summer months when the cool north wind serves to refresh rather than freeze; Shenyang during the winter has its own charms as well, especially if you have an itch for snow.