Confucius Temple & Imperial College

Confucian Temple in Drum Tower & Dongcheng North

An incense stick’s toss away from the Lama Temple, China’s second-largest Confucian temple has had a refit in recent years, but the almost otherworldly sense of detachment is seemingly impossible to shift. A mood of impassiveness reigns and the lack of worship reinforces a sensation that time has stood still. However, in its tranquillity and reserve, the temple can be a pleasant sanctuary from Běijīng’s often congested streets – a haven of peace and quiet.

Antediluvian bìxì (mythical tortoise-like dragons) glare from painted pavilions while lumpy and ossified ancient cypresses claw stiffly at the Běijīng air. There's the Qianlong Stone Scriptures, a stone 'forest' of 190 stelae recording the 13 Confucian classics in 630,000 Chinese characters at the temple rear. Also inscribed on stelae are the names of successful candidates of the highest level of the official Confucian examination system.

Next to the Confucius Temple, but within the same grounds, stands the Imperial College, where the emperor expounded the Confucian classics to an audience of thousands of kneeling students, professors and court officials – an annual rite. Built by the grandson of Kublai Khan in 1306, the former college was the supreme academy during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. On the site is a marvellous, glazed, three-gate, single-eaved decorative archway called a liúli páifāng (glazed archway). The Biyong Hall (辟雍大殿, Pìyōng Dàdiàn) beyond is a twin-roofed structure with yellow tiles surrounded by a moat and topped with a splendid gold knob. Its stupendous interior houses a vermillion and gold lectern. The side pavilions house several interesting museums on Confucianism, the life of the Great Sage and the academy itself.

Some of Běijīng’s last remaining páilou (decorated archways) bravely survive in the tree-lined street outside (Guozijian Jie) and the entire area of hútòng here is now dotted with small cafes, cute restaurants and boutique shops, making it an ideal place to browse in low gear. At the western end of Guozijian Jie stands a diminutive Fire God Temple, built in 1802 and now occupied by Běijīng residents.