Written by Isaiah Smith and Robert Young

oday was a day packed full of travels across Beijing and a huge amount of learning. We started the day by taking a few Ubers to Peking University (colloquially known as Běidà) for class at the Stanford Center, a beautiful building with two basement levels and a mixture of Chinese and Californian influences. 

In class, we began by discussing design thinking methodology and its application to urban planning and our class. Design thinking entails five key steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. We’ll be beginning these steps while in Beijing, and will continue the design process back at Stanford throughout the rest of the quarter. In order to empathize with the people in the city and define the problems we wish to solve, we also learned some urban observation tools. These tools include counting, trace measures and tracking among others, and will help us to quantitatively observe the occupants of the city in order to get a better understanding of their lives and needs. Tomorrow we’ll be continuing with urban interaction tools, which break the gap between researcher and subject.

Following class, we took a brief look around the Stanford Center before walking to lunch nearby. We picked up take-out noodles that promised to “be spicy enough to make our mouths numb” and returned to the hotel by taxi. Although the noodles failed to achieve their ambitious promise, they were delicious and prepared us well for the adventure ahead. We hopped on a bus to the center of the city, arriving about an hour later to travel the central axis of the city from Qianmen to Jingshan Park.

When we arrived at Qianmen Square, we were greeted by Lars of Beijing Postcards. Lars was the most dramatic tour guide we’ve ever met, with the growling voice and extensive gesturing of an inspirational army general and an impressive knowledge of Beijing history. We began with Qianmen, the southern gate to the inner city, outside which migrants in imperial times would gather in order to make final preparations before crossing the wall into the main city. 

We then continued through two security screenings to arrive at Tiananmen Square. Lars described the square as the “eye of the tornado” of Beijing, as it has hardly been changed since its political significance reached a peak after the 1989 June Fourth protests and massacre that occurred there. The Square is the home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (also known as the Maosoleum) as well as the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which commemorates the many challenges faced by China in its revolutionary period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, up to 1949. 

From Tiananmen Square we passed through the Tiananmen Gate, the imposing remnant of the imperial wall that still bears Mao’s portrait, through yet another security checkpoint, and into the inner Forbidden City. Lars described the Forbidden City as the “elephant in the room” of Beijing, as many visitors discuss its aesthetic aspects without discussing its significance as a symbol of imperial history, a history that often clashes with modern Communism in China. Traveling along the outer wall from our entrance point, we came to a small gallery housing maps and models of the city, as well as a video showing plans for areas to be restored. Here our Tsinghua TA Rebecca gave the group a crash course on Qing Dynasty architecture and its influence on the construction of the city.

Moving farther north into the city, we came to the first of the throne rooms, located in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall is aligned along the central axis of the city with its two lesser companions, the Hall of Middle Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Each of these three halls, where the emperor would entertain wealthy elites as well as military and government leaders, houses an ornate gold throne alongside jades vases and patterned rugs. From here, a short walk led us through the Imperial Garden and out of the northern most gate of the city.

As we emerged, we looked up to see the foreboding hill of Jingshan Park rise above us. A stop for water and ice cream bars (waffle-shaped and flavored with green tea, red bean paste and mochi) held off our exhaustion long enough to get us up the hill to a gorgeous pavilion that provided views of the Forbidden Palace and other areas far off into the city. This stop was certainly one of the highlights of the day, contrasting the view of our path across the historical center of the city with the massive sprawl of modern-day Beijing. We also watched as a 2-year-old girl performed tai chi in an Imperial-era dress, a scene worthy of a small crowd of tourists and locals with video cameras and phones.

After the long day, we said goodbye to Lars and returned to Tsinghua University via the bus. The Stanford crew visited a local Korean restaurant for dinner and returned to the hotel for some much-needed rest. Today was a day full of history and deeper exploration of the city’s past in order to better understand its present. We’re looking forward to using some of our new knowledge as a starting point for our observations of and interactions with Beijingers over the rest of our study here.