As we go through the daily grind, it’s easy to forget that we’re living in a place rich with art, history, and culture. Throughout its various incarnations – Zhongdu, Yanjing, Khanbaliq, Peiping – Beijing has remained the political center of the country for most of the past 800 years. To help you get in touch with the city’s past, we’ve put together a roundup of family-friendly cultural activities. Happy exploring!
Fly a Kite
Kites are believed to have been invented in China during the fifth century BC by Chinese philosophers Mozi and Lu Ban. By the fifth century AD, paper kites were being used for military purposes such as signaling and measuring distances. The legend goes that Cao Xueqin (1715-1764), author of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, wrote a guidebook on how to make over 400 types of yasha yan kites to help the poor earn a living.
These days, locals commonly fly handmade kites to mark the arrival of spring. A classic motif is the yasha yan (崖沙燕) or sand martin, a migratory bird resembling a swallow. In Beijing, the kite string is traditionally cut to allow bad luck to be blown away by the wind. There are kites for sale at the Beidong Flower Market in Shunyi or, for something special, the family-owned Sanshizhai Kite Store in Di’anmen, which has been making kites for over a century. Alternatively, families can learn how to make their own kites at China Culture Center.
Join a Jianzi Circle
Also known as “Chinese hacky sack,” jianzi (毽子) is a folk game that uses a weighted shuttlecock with four feathers attached to a stack of plastic disks. The goal is to keep the jianzi from falling to the ground using any part of the body except the hands. Head to the nearest park and show off your fancy footwork by joining a “circle kick, but watch out for the middle-aged aunties and uncles in track suits – the young’uns have nothing on them. Shuttlecocks are commonly available at markets and the sporting sections of major supermarkets.
Take a Cooking Class or Food Tour
From delicate xiaolongbao to fiery Sichuan hotpot, there’s so much to love about Chinese food culture. Many cultural centers and cooking schools offer a more Beijing-specific experience, such as The Hutong’s Taste of Beijing culinary tour, which explores the city’s Muslim influence and heavy use of bean paste, fermented tofu, and pickled vegetables. From its picturesque new location near the Forbidden City, Black Sesame Kitchen hosts lunchtime cooking classes every Wednesday and Sunday from 11am to 2pm. Sample dishes include pan-fried dumplings with seasonal fillings, five-flavored eggplant, and kung pao shrimp. Near the Lama Temple, Mama’s Lunch teaches visitors how to make northern-style shuijiao (boiled dumplings). Kids under 5 can join for free.
Visit the Poly Art Museum
Tucked away on the ninth floor of an office building in Dongzhimen, the underrated Poly Art Museum makes up for its modest size with unparalleled access to a collection of pristine bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and Buddhist stone carvings from the Northern Qi, Northern Wei, and Tang dynasties. The state-funded museum specifically exhibits pieces recovered from overseas, the centerpiece being four of the 12 zodiac animal fountainheads – the pig, monkey, tiger, and ox – pillaged by French and British forces during the ransacking of the Old Summer Palace in 1860. Fun fact: The most recently recovered sculptures, the rat and the rabbit, are currently housed at the National Museum of China while the horse is located at the Capital Museum.
Chat with a Cricket Trainer
The sport of cricket fighting has roots in the Tang dynasty. Top cricket trainers held positions of prestige at the imperial court and winning crickets were as valuable as prize horses. Though the practice has dropped in popularity in modern-day China, pedigreed crickets can still fetch at least RMB 10,000. Unlike in other blood sports, cricket fighting rarely causes death or injury to the animals; the losing cricket is the first one to shy away from contact or run away from the fight. Boutique travel agency Bespoke Beijing leads a tour in which people can visit the home of a cricket trainer and see his prized insects.
Beidong Flower Market 北东花卉市场
Daily 8.30am-6.30pm (summer), 9am-5.30pm (winter). 150m south of Sundahe Qiao, Jingshun Lu, Shunyi District (8459 3093) 顺义区京顺路孙大河桥南150米
Sanshizhai Kite Store 三石斋风筝店
Daily 10am-8.30pm. 25 Di’anmen Xidajie, Xicheng District (8404 4505, 6403 0393) 西城区地安门西大街甲25号
China Culture Center (CCC) 北京致承文化
Victoria Gardens D4, Chaoyang Gongyuan Xilu, Chaoyang District (6432 9341, email@example.com) www.chinaculturecenter.org 朝阳区朝阳公园西路维多利亚花园D4
1 Jiudaowan Zhongxiang Hutong, Dongcheng District (159 0104 6127, firstname.lastname@example.org) thehutong.com 东城区九道湾中巷胡同1号
Black Sesame Kitchen
28 Zhonglao Hutong, Dongcheng District (136 9147 4408, email@example.com) blacksesamekitchen.com 东城区中胡同28号院
14 Guanshuyuan Hutong, Dongcheng District (134 2628 6012, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.mamaslunchbeijing.com
Poly Art Museum
RMB 20. Daily 9.30am-4.30pm. 9/F, New Poly Plaza, Chaoyangmen
Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6500 8117) 东城区东城区朝阳门北大街1号新保利大厦9层
B510, 107 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6400 0133, email@example.com) www.bespoketravelcompany.com 东城区东四北大街107号B510
This article originally appeared on page 56-57 of the beijingkids February 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Courtesy of Sijia Chen, Tholly, Mills Baker, Janus Bahs Jacquet (Flickr)