Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.