Fourth in a series
All images by Greg Gross and property of I’m Black and I Travel unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.
Some of the greatest things ever built were little more than monuments to someone’s personal ambition or ego. And China has more than her fair share of them.
For me, it was the Marble Boat that did it.
In a country with a civilization 5,000 years old, you expect to see your share of palaces, temples, castles, monumental monuments of all sorts. And Beijing does not disappoint:
- A single public plaza, Tiananmen Square, big enough to hold a million people at one time.
- A single imperial palace, the Forbidden City, big enough to house nearly 1,000 buildings within it — including gates the size of modern-day office blocks.
- A cathedral-sized Summer Palace, built atop an artificial hill, which in turn was built with enough dirt dug up nearby to create a vast artificial lake at the base of the equally artificial hill.
- The world’s longest covered walkway, every inch of it covered in ornate paintings.
- Expansive, exquisitely detailed gardens, decorated with car- and truck-sized chunks of special perforated rock hauled up from the bottom of a distant lake, stones so heavy that they could only be moved in winter, when you could toss water on the ground to form paths of ice ahead of them. And even then, the moves could take years.
It’s all beautiful, awe-inspiring, but after a few days of this exercise in visual overload, the mind begins to reel a little bit. And as you try to regroup your mental equilibrium, you start to wonder:
Was all this really necessary?
And you start to wonder about the motivations of the emperors and empresses who ruled over this land for so many centuries.
Then, you come to the Marble Boat, which sits on the edge of that artificial lake at the foot of the Summer Palace, built on that artificial hill.
The first time you hear the term from your tour guide, you think it’s some kind of nickname, some ancient imperial warship preserved over time, whose white wooden hull and cross beams were so strong that they seemed like marble, impervious even to Time itself.
Then you walk down to the end of that long covered walkway and you see it, and you realize — yeah, the Marble Boat really is…a marble boat!
Well, sort of.
The base is stone, but the upper structure is indeed wood, painted to look like marble. And as you’d expect, it’s never “sailed” so much as an inch.
It was an imperial pavilion, used for reclining in regal splendor while overlooking the artificial lake in the shadow of the artificial hill.
First built in 1755, it was destroyed by British and French troops just over a century later in the Second Opium War, in which the British forced China into the opium trade. It was restored in 1893, along with the rest of the Summer Palace, by the Empress Dowager Cixi.
By most accounts, Western and Chinese alike, this lady was a real “piece of work.” She spent most of her reign refusing to let China modernize, but apparently spared no expense when it came to her own comforts.
She paid for the restoration of the Marble Boat and the Summer Palace with the entire budget earmarked for the Chinese navy.
Her explanation: It was to be used for “training” Chinese sailors.
I wonder how you say “Who are you kidding?” in Mandarin.
And that’s when it hit me. So many of the monumental, elegant structures that we consider to be must-sees on a travels are really little more than monuments to someone’s ego, some regal expression of hubris.
And the Chinese hardly have a monopoly on it.
Buckingham Palace. Versailles. The great Egyptian pyramids. The Taj Mahal. Hearst Castle. The full list of examples could probably circle the globe. All of them splendid, none of them really necessary, and all of them built at the expense of a lot of other folks.
Then again, how much more ordinary, mundane, even dull might our world be today without these sprawling, magnificent expressions of architectural excess? How many incredible things have we achieved on this Earth, for no real reason except that somebody just felt like doing it?
Could it be that we actually need just a touch of the worst within us to bring the best out of us?
The bottom line to all this may be, believe it or not, in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:2:
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
And vanity can make for some pretty incredible sights for a traveler.
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