Korean Air: A Thousand Tiny Paper Cuts by Thomas O'Malley

I wrote the cover story for the May 2017 edition of Morning Calm, the inflight mag of Korean Air. 

Korean Air feature

The art of jianzhi, or paper-cutting, has been a fixture of Chinese life for centuries. Regionally diverse in style, form and function, it can be both popular folk craft and high culture.

Two millennia ago, China was ruled by the Han Dynasty, a golden age in the epic history of the Middle Kingdom. While the Roman Empire was busy conquering the tribes of Europe, thousands of miles away, a Chinese court eunuch named Cai Lun, serving under Emperor He, was writing official inscriptions on bamboo tablets and pieces of silk. These materials were costly, weighty, and inconvenient, however, so Cai, an enterprising man, experimented with making a writing material by suspending tree bark, bits of hemp, and other odds and ends in water, which he then dried into thin sheets. Though his exact formula has been lost to history, he had invented paper. It would be a thousand years, over which time the Roman Empire would vanish and others would rise to take its place, before the secret of paper finally found its way to Europe.

This historical context is key, because we can assume that the art of paper-cutting followed not long after the invention of paper. Very few ancient pieces of paper-cutting survive. The earliest known example is believed to come from the Six Dynasties period (222-589 AD), found buried in the bone dry sands of what is today Xinjiang Province in China’s far west, along the ancient Silk Road.

What’s wonderful about this find is its simplicity – a folded, symmetrical paper floral motif of much the same type that adorns windows and doors in China today. Thanks to this discovery, we know for certain that the art of jianzhi has a history spanning at least 1,500 years.

“Paper-cutting in China is for everyone, it represents their needs and aspirations, or simply just comforts the soul.” The words of Zhang Fanglin, a fourth generation paper-cut artist from Nanjing, a city on the south bank of the mighty Yangtze River.

Zhang explains how for centuries paper-cut art permeated every aspect of Chinese peasant life – weddings, childbirth, harvest, birthdays, Chinese New Year. As an art form it is transitory by design, often displayed in the open air and lasting only until the spring rains. At funerals it is burned or buried with the dead. Almost exclusively red, these folk images, such as a carp leaping over a dragon gate or goldfish among lotus flowers, symbolized good fortune and happiness, and were affixed to windows (also made of paper) and entranceways. Most common of all were - and still are - the Chinese characters fu (lucky) and xi (double happiness). Shou, meaning longevity, is used for birthdays of senior citizens.

“In the northern regions, paper-cutting was a folk art, created during the slack farming season, with bold, simple motifs of peasant themes, made mostly by women and passed down on the female side,” says Zhang. “But in the south, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the art-form evolved to new heights of refinement.”  Of which Master Zhang is a progeny.

Encircled by the remains of one of the largest city walls in the world, Nanjing was the birthplace of the Ming Dynasty. Within its stone battlements, Chinese arts attained new aesthetic heights before the capital decamped north to Beijing. One of these was silk brocade weaving, where garments were embroidered with intricately complex patterns rich with imperial symbolism, crafted exclusively for the Chinese imperial family.

Closely related to silk brocade was paper-cutting, another art-form that peaked in the Yangtze River region during the reign of the Ming. The intricate techniques of paper-cutting were also used for embroidery pattern design, and it became known as the Jiangnan School (meaning 'south of the Yangtze') with Nanjing and nearby Yangzhou at its heart.

Today, Zhang’s studio is based in a white-walled, 300-year-old mansion complex in the heart of the city. The former residence of a noble Qing Dynasty family, it’s one of the few complexes of its kind, whimsically known as “99 and a half rooms” for its scale and majesty, to have survived the 20th century modernization of the city. Appropriate, then, that it preserves the ancient art of paper-cutting within what is now the Nanjing Folk Museum.

“Here in the south,” explains Zhang, “paper-cutting was based on a rich embroidery style, with smooth, exquisite line work. It was the preserve of male artisans, who would master the form over the course of their lives.”

Zhang shows us his art pieces, impossibly delicate with filigree line work revealing leaves, flowers and auspicious symbols. Many are perfectly symmetrical, showing repeating images like fish following face to fin, or exquisitely rendered zodiac animals encircled by rural motifs.

Zhang is the fourth generation of paper-cutters in his family, a line that stretches back more than a hundred years. “My works represent the culmination of decades of effort,” says Zhang, who believes that each generation builds on what has come before, evolving and moving the art-form forwards a little each time.

But Zhang’s own artistic journey was nearly derailed by the political upheavals of China in the latter half of the 20th century. He first started to dabble with paper-cutting at age seven under the stewardship of his father, and at 14 he entered the Nanjing Folk Art Factory to study paper-cutting formally. The year was 1963. Zhang graduated three years later, the same year that marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a campaign aimed to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, culture, habits and ideas. Deemed a traditional, bourgeois pursuit, paper-cutting was banned. The Nanjing Art Institute, where Zhang hoped to complete his studies, was closed. His dream looked hopeless.

“Where could I go to learn? I had few options. It took great effort, but I managed to get hold of a few pamphlets from the former Soviet Union about sketching and oil painting, and these became my teachers. I copied them over and over, but failed to grasp the essence of them. I was going nowhere.”

In 1970, the Worker’s Cultural Palace in Nanjing started to offer amateur art classes, and Zhang enrolled. Freezing in winter and stifling hot in summer, nevertheless Zhang attended classes every single day after his work finished. But by the the time the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the mid 1970s, Zhang found he was too old to take the entrance exam for the Nanjing Art Institute. “I was heartbroken, but I realized there is more than one road to success. And my road would be hard work.”

Over the next forty years, Zhang dedicated his life to his craft. It was a tough road, but he was buoyed by the words of his father from years before. “When we cut the shepherd boy and cattle, it’s not about simply showing the detail in the cow’s hair - we must really care about the emotions between the two.” Since China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, these words have helped guide Zhang through a career in which he has achieved national recognition and success, travelling around the world with his scissors to give classes and exhibitions, and spread jianzhi far and wide.

Today, paper-cutting is supported in China by both the government and private enterprises. Inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it is growing in stature both at home and abroad.

A thousand kilometers north of Nanjing, a very different school of jianzhi blossomed in the Hebei countryside, in a county called Yuxian well beyond the mountains that guard Beijing’s western perimeter. A garrison town in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Yuxian was charged with protecting Beijing’s western flank from Mongol invasion. It was around this time that the ‘Yuxian’ style of paper-cutting began to flourish.

It’s fitting that it was here, in the heart of China’s arid North Plain, a region where the color washes from the landscape every winter, that a uniquely vivid school of paper-cutting was born. The Yuxian style employs ink pigments and a dyeing process after cutting to produce its colorful works, chiefly based around characters and masks from Chinese opera, harvest images, flowers, auspicious animals and themes of happiness and longevity. 

The avuncular Gao Dianliang, a dusting of white on his hair, welcomes us into his studio with a generous smile. His plain navy jacket contrasts with his technicolor art pieces, drawing on different Chinese art styles like silk painting, lacquer ware, and oil painting.

Gao was a boy of six when he first picked up a knife. Since then, he’s evolved a unique style that he believes is spiritual as well as practical, informed by the philosophies of Taoism.

“Yuxian style is the only form of paper-cutting that combines both yin carving and yang carving together,” says Gao, as he works. Yang carving, he explains, is where the central portions of the image are cut away to reveal just its delicate outline. Conversely, yin is the opposite. The fine lines of an image are cut to let the central shapes remain, giving the image the essence of realism. A little like the difference between a photograph and its negative.

And the cutting, explains Gao, is only part of a long and complex process. “A good knife technique is essential, but then there is painting, engraving, dying, stippling and pointillism. The techniques to master are many.”

In contrast to the scissors used in the Jiangnan School, Gao works with a set of small, razor-sharp carving knives on several sheets of ‘xuan’ paper, a high quality calligraphy paper from Xuancheng in Anhui Province. Once the cutting is complete, he moves on to the coloring process, then mounting. He must also sketch, inscribe, draw and paint.

Despite the differences between the Yuxian and Jiangnan schools of jianzhi, Gao echoes the words of Zhang when explaining how he insists on looking for artistic inspiration in nature before he starts a new work. “I go outside, observe nature and try to see its subtleties, experience it, think and learn from it.”

Inspiration also comes from other traditional Chinese art forms, such as ink painting, woodblock printing and fabric dyeing. In this way, Gao sees his works as the culmination of a deep well of cultural processes, disciplines and learned wisdom in China. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the printer, the calligrapher. The spirit of all these artisans through the dynasties are present, tangibly or otherwise, in his finished pieces.

Receiving national support is something that Gao values deeply, and why he believes the future is bright for paper-cutting. When he started, a piece of jianzhi sold for just one fen in his home village. Then, moving to Beijing as a young artist, he discovered he could sell a piece for two yuan, twenty times the price.

Along with other master craftspeople engaged in everything from traditional Suzhou embroidery to to silk screen painting, Gao’s studio is located at Beijing’s new Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, a cultural incubator located on a recently renovated street south of Tiananmen Square. A mix of private and public investment of around CNY 25 billion (USD 4 billion) has brought this impressive new complex to life, hoping to do for ancient Chinese folk culture what California’s Silicon Valley has done for tech. As well as incubating and nurturing small businesses engaged in traditional cultural enterprises, it is set up to host expos, trade fairs, auctions, and be a hub for tourists, as well as spreading China’s folk art soft power around the world.

Qiao Xiaoguang, another Hebei artist based at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, created ‘City Windows’ in 2015 at the Chicago O’Hare airport in the US, transforming fifteen window panels into scenes of Chicago and Beijing. Xin Song, a female jianzhi artist from Beijing, created paper-cut installations at New York Grand Central Terminal in 2013 to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born in 1970, her recent works have used paper from magazine pages to make a comment on hyper-consumerism in contemporary China.

As Gao says, it’s vital that jianzhi keeps evolving and spreading. In his own way, he has worked to improve the physical longevity of his work through the use of new mineral color pigments that don’t lose their luster over time, and the introduction of longer-lasting foil paper. It’s this sense of carrying something forwards for future generations, and making an artistic legacy that lasts the test of time, that is all-important for Gao.

“Craftsmen like me don’t just do it for fun, it’s more than a hobby or a profession. We use our whole lives and all our energy to carry this folk art forwards. Chinese paper-cutting comes from life, from the people. Nothing makes me happier than helping the world understand more about the culture of China.”

Morning Calm cover

Pearl of the Andaman Sea: 10 Phuket Highlights by Thomas O'Malley


This piece was originally written for the good folks at Interval World magazine. 

Sand, Sea and Sun

It’s no secret - Phuket has some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. Anything goes in Patong, Phuket’s party capital that juts up against a fabulous crescent of white sand. The beach here is packed with sizzling sunbathers, and you’re never more than a few feet from a tropical cocktail (or a souvenir seller). For something more pristine, in-the-know travellers seek out compact and quiet Kata Noi beach, with its turquoise waters and coral sand. For beach life with a side serving of glamour, Nai Harn beach in Rawai is where the beautiful people strut their stuff. The Nai Harn, an exclusive resort hotel, overlooks the postcard-perfect bay - treat yourself to a sundowner drink at one of its trio of bars.

Explore Phuket Old Town

Before tourism, it was tin that lured foreign visitors and their money to Phuket. Traders from China, the Middle East and Europe transformed the island capital into a melting pot of cultures, and today Phuket Town still retains its old colonial soul. A stroll through the Old Town reveals pockets of fine Sino-Portuguese architecture, much of it rapidly gentrifying into hip cafes and galleries. History buffs won’t want to miss the well-preserved Chyn Pracha House, a century-old mansion turned museum built by former tin barons when the island was a centre of the trade, or the Standard Chartered Bank building, Thailand’s oldest foreign bank.

See the Sunset at Laem Phromthep

It’s said you haven’t been to Phuket unless you’ve watched the sun dip into the Andaman Sea from the island’s southern tip. Yes, Laem Phromthep is a tourist cliché, but a gorgeous one. If the clouds roll in and spoil the show, a shrine by the car park has a quirky collection of elephant sculptures on display, and there are plenty of souvenir sellers and snack stalls to browse. To bypass the crowds, you can hike a slippery path to the rocky limit of the cape, where you’ll have the vistas all to yourself.

Go Island Hopping

At 222 square miles in size, Phuket isn’t exactly petite, and its close proximity to the mainland makes it one of the few Thai islands without the prefix ‘ko’. If you’re craving somewhere smaller and more secluded, the good news is Phuket is one of the best embarkation points to reach some of Thailand’s most paradisiac ko. Ko Pi Pi (from movie The Beach fame) takes 2-3 hours by ferry to traverse the 53km of ocean (or faster if using a speedboat service), and makes for a delightful day trip. A similar distance away, Ko Khao Phing Kan, also known as ‘James Bond Island’ for its role in 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, is famous for its striking limestone tower karsts. Kayak tours let you get up close and personal with these 20m high natural towers, standing like sentries in the azure water. 

Buddy Up With Buddha

For those in search of spiritual enlightenment, or just a break from the beach, there are around thirty Buddhist temples, known as wat, scattered across Phuket. One of the oldest is Wat Phra Thong, whose main attraction is a strange, half-buried Buddha statue poking up from a temple hall. Not too far away is Wat Srisoonthorn, immediately recognisable due to its 29-metre high sleeping Buddha kicking back in all his golden glory atop the wat’s main hall. But if size really is everything, there’s only one contender on Phuket –Big Buddha, the island’s most important spiritual landmark, built in 2007 at enormous cost. Gazing out serenely from the Nakkerd Hills, the 45-metre tall statue is a must-see (and to be fair, you can see it from miles around). A stairway lined with bells and prayer flags leads up to the base of the statue, rewarding visitors with some of the island’s most expansive views.

Gender-Bending Family Fun in Patong

Despite what you might think, the Simon Star Cabaret, sometimes known as Patong’s ‘lady boy show’, really is pantomime fun for all the family. Admittedly cabaret isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the exuberant costumes, ambitious dance ensembles and Vegas-inspired razzle-dazzle make for an impressive spectacle, and best of all the show is funny throughout. A hit with the mushrooming numbers of Chinese tourists, the show has opened up new branches across the island. After the show guests are invited to take their photographs with the performers in all their finery, but expect to pay extra for the privilege.

Master the Thai Culinary Arts

Phuket cuisine is a delicious marriage of Thai cooking with Chinese and Malay influences, thanks to the island’s longstanding role as a trading centre in Asia. To really get to grips with the local food, like creating curry pastes from scratch or practising everyone’s favourite streetfood standby the pad Thai, make a visit to one of the many cooking schools on the island. Most offer take half-day or day classes, but longer courses are available for budding master chefs. The Kata School earns plaudits for the quality of its teachers and the addition of a local market tour helping you get to grips with the dazzling array of ingredients on offer.

Tour Phuket’s Artisanal Rum Distillery

The Chalong Bay Rum Distillery was started by a French couple living on Phuket, and their boozy creations are now making waves on the global craft liquor scene. The best thing about the 30-minute distillery tour is the delicious mojito cocktail at the end – made with their impressive cane sugar rum, naturally. There’s also the chance to take part in a cocktail workshop in the bar and learn a few recipes and techniques.

Graze at Phuket’s Premier Night Market

A great place to snack and shop, this popular market, known as Naka by the locals, is a little way outside Phuket Town. You can munch on a wide range of local bites (try the khao niao mamuang - mango with sticky rice) as well as more esoteric global snacks like Japanese sushi shaped like Angry Birds characters. There’s also plenty of cheap and cheerful shopping on offer too, from mobile phone cases to handbags and jewelry. But be prepared to bargain hard!

Bar Crawl along Bangla Road

At night, Bangla Road, running inland from Patong Beach, is closed to cars and open for grown-up fun until the early hours. Nowhere does nightlife quite like Thailand – neon bars with cheap beer and loud music, packed nightclubs, questionable ‘shows’ - but even the more salubrious streets are imbued with the trademark friendly Thai vibe, so you always feel safe. Take your pick from any number of busy bars and clubs along this strip, or just find a table, order a drink and watch the weird and wonderful world go by. 

Datong: Chinese City with an Identity Crisis by Thomas O'Malley


Once a gateway connecting China to the nomadic lands beyond, the old walled city of Datong was a hub for travelling pilgrims and merchants from Tibet and Mongolia, trading within the old city walls and paying tribute at the ancient Buddhist caves in the mountains nearby.


Then modernity happened. Like many old Chinese cities, Datong's ancient heritage (including its walls) crumbled or was bulldozed aside as the city took on its Socialist industrial guise. But, in 2011, an ambitious mayor decided he'd restore Datong to its former glory, by rebuilding its city walls and creating an 'ancient city of culture' from scratch. Yep, you read that right.


Ahead of a research trip for Lonely Planet (Trans-Siberian 6th Edition), I thought I'd take a leisurely drive around the city using Chinese search engine Baidu's equivalent of Google Street View. The results were so illuminating I just had to share them.


All the pics here are screengrabs from Baidu. I began by cruising around the perimeter city walls. These were complete apart from a short section along the west edge, where you can clearly see the (non-traditional) methods of construction used. Caveat: I have no idea when Baidu last filmed Datong for its Street View, so the wall may well be complete by now (I'll find out when I get there). But when Baidu does update its Street View imagery, this particular snapshot, of a Chinese city frozen in the throes of frankly bizarre transition, will disappear forever. And we can't have that.


I've driven inside the walls now, and the next few pictures show old neighbourhoods being razed.  The mayor of Datong responsible for the project, Geng Yanbo (aka Geng Chaichai, or 'Demolition Geng') is the focus of a documentary by Chinese filmmaker Zhou Hao

It's an excellent film btw, and Geng comes across as a fascinating figure. His heart seems to be in the right place: he wants to restore glory and prestige to dusty old Datong, but to do it, he's got to demolish the homes of tens of thousands of people.


More demolition on show. Rubbly.


Here you can see the new city wall with a freshly landscaped row of trees in the distance. We are inside the wall on what will probably become part of the ancient city. The new ancient city.


Again, worth reiterating that Datong may all be finished and redeveloped by the time you're reading this.


Here's what looks like one of the 'new' ancient sights in the city. It could be the old palace or one of the temples, getting a tourism rebuild or facelift. I'm stumped as to exactly what you'd call this process. It's not modernising therefore it must be whatever the opposite of that word is. Oldernising? Retrofitting? Nah. Maybe the reason I can't think of the right word is because turning a modern city into an even more modern ancient city is A BIT OF AN UNUSUAL THING TO DO.


The roads are getting a bit smarter now, as I drive into what seems to be the start of the rebuilt ancient city, with billboards showing promising images of the future past.


Here we go. A bit lifeless, maybe, but give it time. The construction of these rebuilt 'hutong' style alleyways looks pretty solid, though. Good job, Datong.


People! At last. She lives. It's alive.


The bigger avenues in the centre of the walled city look way more complete, like this wide intersection with period-style street lamps and ye olde Chinese buildings. In the far distance is Gulou, the old drum tower, getting oldernised.


Likewise here. Note also the 'ye olde' style litter bin.


We're back outside the walls now (or maybe we're still inside, I can't actually tell), driving on a patch of scrubby ground that must be a road because the Baidu wagon endorsed it. You can see the watchtowers on the wall snaking away into the distance.


Final shot - I drove away from the city for a while and snapped this - I think these apartments are where many of the residents of the old city were moved to after the oldernising. At least, they looked like this on the documentary. And a final word about Geng. He was abruptly 'promoted' to another city nearby - Taiyuan - in 2013, before he had a chance to finish his work. Did he ruffle too many feathers? Spend too much money? And will the new mayor finish what he started? (I'm guessing yes, yes and hopefully, yes, but with a lot of corner-cutting, no doubt).


Part of research for Lonely Planet's Trans-Siberian Railway Guide 6th Edition, out 2018.

Nightime fun in Tokyo by Thomas O'Malley


This listicle + photos was created recently for Silverkris, the in-flight mag of Singapore Airlines.

One of the world’s biggest and busiest urban playgrounds, Japan’s capital is a city that really comes alive when the sun goes down. Here are eight ways to make the most of Tokyo after dark.

Real life Mariokart

Fans of Nintendo’s retro racing game can don the outfits of Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and the gang and race for real on the nighttime streets of Tokyo. The road-legal go-karts clock up a hair-raising 80km\h, and come equipped with video cameras to record the action. Racers choose from three city “courses” that take in famous landmarks like Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge. An international driving license is mandatory, but banana skins to lob at your fellow racers are optional. Prices start at 5,000 yen and include accident insurance and costume rental.


Mori Art Museum & Sky Deck

The late opening hours of the Mori Art Museum and Sky Deck make it an excellent evening activity before hitting the surrounding bars. Occupying the top two floors of the 53-storey Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, it’s customary to first take a turn around the museum’s modern art exhibits before ascending to the open-air Sky Deck (complete with helipad) for an unsurpassed after dark vista of Tokyo, the iconic backdrop to many a manga series.


300 Bar

Tokyo has a deserved reputation as an expensive city for drinking, with many bars asking for a 1,000 yen cover charge before you’ve even had a drink. 300 Bar in Ginza bucks the trend by eschewing a cover and pricing every drink, from mojitos to beer, at just 300 yen. A standing bar in a smoky basement, it’s one of the friendliest spots in town, and attracts a lively student-aged crowd keen to make friends.


Taito Game Station

Taito Corporation, the Japanese video games company that lays claim to arcade classics like Space Invaders and Double Dragon, owns arcades throughout Tokyo packed with machines to drain your yen until morning, from retro crane grabbers to the latest multi-player bot-blasters, cosplay photo booths, and even a retro-gaming floor with original arcade Tetris. And if you’re struggling to win that final boss battle, you can even use your credit card to purchase extra gaming tokens.




This tiny Shinjuku watering hole is run by the sort of grumpy pub landlord who will probably only smile at you on your tenth visit. But all is forgiven when you marvel at Tokyo’s best selection of Japanese whiskey, some 400 bottles, many rare and impossible to find, from big producers down to micro distilleries. A selection of tasting flights, in half-shot pours, are a good introduction for whiskey novices, and a projector showing old movies provides ample distraction for solo drinkers.


Golden Gai

Once a red light neighborhood, this tumble-down time warp of tiny streets must surely house more bars in its half-square mile than anywhere else on Earth. Most establishments in the Golden Gai seat fewer than ten people, and each boasts its own theme or personality, from nouvelle vague French cinema (La Jetee) to cute furry toys. Have a wander through the streets and poke your head into a few doorways; some bars welcome regulars only, and most have a cover-charge, but you’ll eventually find one just right for you.


Shimbashi Yakitori

Take the subway to Shimbashi after dark on a weeknight to join the legions of salarymen getting satiated in cheap and cheerful yakitori joints and izakaya squeezed under the arches of the shinkansen (bullet train) line. As a result of the fierce competition here, the grilled chicken skewers (yakitori) are generally excellent and inexpensive, so pick a lively-looking place and you won’t go wrong. Nothing pairs quite so well with charcoal-grilled chicken as frothy beer, but most places also serve whiskey highballs and the ever popular sours – cocktails made with Japanese shochu.


Capsule Hotels

When all the nighttime fun has taken its toll, and you’ve missed the last train back to your hotel, you could do worse than catching some ‘z’s in a capsule hotel. Green Plaza Shinjuku, for men only, claims to be the first in Tokyo; its coffin-sized capsules are made more bearable by extensive spa and pool facilities. Or for the claustrophobic, the new chain of ‘First Cabin’ hotels spread about town offers miniature rooms on same-sex floors modeled on first class cabins found in aircraft.



Hotel feature: China World Beijing by Thomas O'Malley


My latest sponsored destination piece for Shangri-La Hotels Inner Circle site, this time staying at the China World Beijing.

City of Imperial Treasures

Amid the highways and high-rises of a rapidly developing metropolis, Beijing still offers visitors China’s finest collection of imperial art and architectural treasures.

Few cities on earth offer the epochal contrasts of Beijing, a city that hasn’t stopped evolving since it was first established by the Mongols, sweeping down from the plains and conquering China in the thirteenth century. It was Kublai Khan who built Dadu, as the city was then known, the crowning glory of the new Yuan Dynasty. It became capital of “all under heaven” in 1271.

Today, a few remnants live on from the days of Dadu. Beijingers strolling along a narrow raised park in the north of the city might well be unaware that they stand atop what is left 0f Dadu’s earthwork city walls. In the center of town, the lakes of Shichahai, flanked by drooping willows and Tsingtao bars, were once part of an ancient port that connected with the Grand Canal. Under the worn cobbles of Wanning Bridge on Di’anmen Outer Street, a pair of stone-carved ‘water quelling beasts’ are easily missed, but they’ve guarded this strategic waterway since the 1200s.

But the greatest living legacy of the days of Dadu is the DNA of the modern city itself. The warren of narrow residential alleyways that still crisscross the capital are called hutong, a derivation of a Mongolian word; the checkerboard layout of old Beijing still owes a great deal to its original planners. Today, these monochrome, grey-brick hutong help make the regal splendor of Beijing’s grand imperial architecture stand out all the more.


It was the subsequent Ming Dynasty that built Beijing’s single greatest art treasure. Hidden from view behind 3.5km of scarlet citadel walls, the Forbidden City is a masterpiece of architectural symmetry and grandeur. It has hosted 24 emperors, scheming eunuchs, harems of concubines, and more than a little political intrigue over the centuries, until the last emperor Puyi was booted out in 1924.

According to an audit taken around that time, the Forbidden City contained over a million pieces of art. Although much found its way to Taiwan with the Nationalists, the bulk of its collection is now on display in the Forbidden City, officially called the Palace Museum, which opened to the public barely a year after the last Emperor’s abdication. Dozens of galleries are home to everything from silk scroll paintings to antique clocks given in tribute by foreign rulers. Millions of visitors, domestic and foreign, visit the Forbidden City each year, and during public holidays the world’s largest palace complex can swell to 180,000 visitors per day.

But with over 900 rooms and halls there’s always a quiet corner to escape to. Especially as, year-on-year, more of the complex is restored and opened to tourists. In 2016, it became possible to walk atop a stretch of the battlement walls for the first time, offering stunning aerial views of gabled rooftops bedecked in yellow glazed tiles – a color reserved for the emperor alone.

For a more intimate classical art experience in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Beijing boasts a surprising hidden gem inside a glass and steel skyscraper along the city’s second ring road. The Poly Art Museum is a private collection of exquisite bronze ware, ceramics and Buddhist sculptures, gorgeously displayed, not behind glass but on exposed plinths, and with barely another visitor in sight. Much of the collection was purchased and repatriated from overseas auction houses. Look out for six of the dozen ‘zodiac sculptures’ that once adorned a fountain at perhaps Beijing’s second most important imperial site - the Summer Palace.


A royal retreat in northwest Beijing, this sprawling collection of pagodas, temples, towers and bridges flanking Kunming Lake was the favourite playground of the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who would retire here in summer to escape the stultifying heat of the Forbidden City. It was she who commissioned its most photographed folly, the Marble Boat – a mandatory stop after visitors have tramped the length of the ornately carved, covered Long Corridor on the north shore of the lake. The lake itself is bordered by willows and crossed by causeways and the 17-Arch Bridge, the largest of the palace’s 30 or so bridges. Its design echoes Lugou Bridge in the far south of Beijing, over which Marco Polo strolled in the 13th century, declaring it a “very fine stone bridge”, with “few equals in the world”.

A fitting tribute to Beijing’s imperial past, the China World Hotel by Shangri-La goes to great lengths to conjure Beijing’s rich artistic history. One of the city’s older luxury hotels, its grand lobby is inset with red columns, evoking the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony whose mighty pillars were cut from trees in distant jungles and floated along rivers to the capital. Every Sunday afternoon, opera singers and a small orchestra serenade guests enjoying traditional afternoon tea under the lobby’s chandeliers. Bespoke art pieces surround the space; motifs of golden bamboo; silk panels portraying traditional Chinese landscapes; wood panels finished with gold leaf; even model elephants, a nod to the ceremonial importance of these royal animals, once housed in stables to the south of the Forbidden City.

The location, too, is fitting for culture vultures. China World Hotel is on the very same road that passes in front of the Forbidden City, built at the same time as the palace during the Ming Dynasty. The Forbidden City sits in the middle of the zhong zhou xian, the city’s central axis of Imperial architecture, starting with the Drum and Bell Towers in the north and ending at the Temple of Heaven in the south. What this means, of course, is that the heart of Imperial Beijing can be found in a direct line from the hotel, just a sedan chair ride (or a few subway stops) away.