Spotlight on History: the Walled Gardens of Andingmen
by Reg Micklewhite
Nestled a little way north of the Drum and Bell Towers, and south of the ring road, is a real gem for those of you in search of historical oddments of lao Beijing. The delightful Walled Garden was built in 1640 by a favoured courtier of the Ming emperor Sizong, whose name has since been sensibly erased from history. Naturally, the tides of history have washed over Beijing like the produce of a backed-up drain time and time again, and the Walled Garden did not escape unscathed. Still, much remains for the curious visitor. A veritable plenipotentiary of Ming dynasty delight.
The garden is arranged into several walled courtyards (hence the name! Ha ha!). Most of the walls are now only about three feet high through disrepair and cat damage, or have only their foundations visible. Many, however, are largely intact.
The courtier who commissioned the garden, like most nobles of the period, was obsessed with the concept of rendering primates in sandstone. As such, you will find sandstone monkeys, baboons, gibbons and more dotted about the place. Their features have been worn over time, but many are still recognisable as the bizarrely-fixated works of art they are.
The most interesting aspect of the gardens? Perhaps the quirky, idiosyncratic "downwards walls" themselves. The courtier decreed that "As all virtue descends from heaven to earth, so shall the walls of this garden". This necessitated the building of very complex scaffolding, to allow the walls to be constructed starting at the top and working downwards - the opposite of the usual technique at the time. In some cases, the height measurements were a little off. You can see these miscalculated walls today, with a two- or three-inch gap between the bottom of the wall and the ground.
How to Get There
The entrance to the Walled Gardens is concealed behind a siheyuan entrance in a nameless hutong alleyway. Walk northwards from the Drum and Bell Towers until you have to turn either left or right. Go right, then take the second left. Hopefully, the steward (a demented old woman with a blue armband - you can't miss her) will be around. You will need to know the password in order to gain admission. At the time of going to press, the password was "bandicoot". Get a Chinese-speaking friend to write down the characters for "bandicoot" for you, if need be.