As Beijing undergoes unprecedented construction around the city for the 2008 Olympic Games, many ancient trees have been rediscovered along with historic relics. Though archeologists and others have always paid attention to these treasures, the Beijing government also has set strict rules to protect Beijing’s oldest trees. It no longer makes news when a highway takes a turn to give place to an old tree. Both the people and officials understand that these ancient trees are living relics with stories and legends.
Ancient trees do not mean old trees. Old trees refer to any trees with long years of growth in the mountains or forests. When it comes to ancient trees, these are trees that not only are at least 100 years old but are also of historical, cultural, and economic value. They are considered historical relics and a part of the culture. The "famous tree" is yet another concept that should be mentioned here. Famous trees are rare, treasured species of trees, trees planted as a memento or a token of friendship, or trees planted by famous persons. They might be old enough to be counted among the ancient trees or just "famous" because of what they represent.
At present, there are 22,637 ancient trees of 29 species, of which 3,804 are over 300 years old in Beijing – making the city the modern metropolis with the largest number of ancient trees in the world.
Xu Beihong, a master painter of modern Chinese painting, once wrote on one of his works an inscription describing ancient trees. He said:
"Beijing is a capital city with the largest number of ancient trees in the world. There are especially numerous cypresses with twisted roots and gnarled branches planted from the Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. They have gone through the vicissitudes of the ages and are still growing luxuriantly, forming a unique feature of the capital city."
As historical relics, the ancient trees have a tenacious vitality and integrate natural with man-made landscapes. The study of the history of ancient trees in Beijing is of great importance to the study of the history of the city's civilization, the development of its urban infrastructure, as well as its political ups and downs.
The ancient trees bear witness to history. The Chinese scholar trees at Huafang (Painted Boat) Studio in Beihai Park, which were planted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the Jiulong (Nine-Dragon) Pine inside the Jietai Temple built during the reign of Emperor Gaozong (618-626) of the Tang regime are more than 1,000 years old.
The cypresses now towering outside the southern gate of the Sheji (Land and Grain) Altar in Zhongshan Park were from the Xingguo Temple of the Liao Dynasty. The ginkgo tree in front of the Vairocana ("Great Illuminator," regarded as the supreme Buddha, by many Mahayana Buddhists of East Asia and of Tibet, Nepal, and Java) Temple at the Tanzhe Temple is believed to have been planted 1,000 years ago. It is called the Diwang Tree (the Emperor of Trees). Other ancient trees in Beijing include the lacebark pine known as Baipao Jiangjun (the General in White Robe) on the Tuancheng (Round City), a structure from the Jin Dynasty, in Beihai Park; the time-honored cypresses from the Yuan Dynasty at the Temple of Confucius; the stretch of cypresses from the Ming Dynasty in the Temple of Heaven; and Chinese pines of the Qing Dynasty at the Summer Palace.
The famous trees and vines in the Chinese capital are like poems and paintings. Some are bold, unconstrained, and vigorous; some are charming, graceful, and refined. They look impressive. For instance, the Lianli Cypresses (Two Cypresses with Interlocking Branches) in the Forbidden City, the Baota (Embracing-the-Pagoda) Pine at Jietai Temple, and the Tingfa (Listening-to-the-Buddhist-Lecture) Pine in front of Xiangshan Temple.
The Nine-Dragon Cypresses of the Liao Dynasty in the Temple of Heaven look as if there are dragons coiling around their trunks, a result of the variability that has taken place in the process of the trees’ cell division. These magnificent, dignified, and vigorous cypresses by the side of the Huiyin (Echo) Wall have attracted people's interest and hold an important position in the classical park. Dr. Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, said during his stay with the ancient trees that the Unites States could build a Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest by modeling the one in The Temple of Heaven, but it was impossible for the country to get ancient trees like those in the park.
The construction of Beijing’s Tanzhe Temple predates the construction of the city itself. So no one could deny that these trees at the temple have been witnesses to the changes in Beijing. The Emperor of Trees is, in fact, a 1,000-year-old ginkgo tree. It stands more than 30 meters high and its trunk requires seven people to join hands to surround it. It is said that whenever a new emperor succeeded to the throne, the tree put out a new trunk. In the course of time, the new trunks joined the main trunk. It was Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty who gave it the name the Diwang (Emperor) of Trees. It grew a new trunk during the reign of Emperor Xuantong, at the end of the Qing Dynasty, however, Xuantong had no successor for the reign of the Qing Dynasty.
(The Beijing Morning Post, translated for china.org.cn by Liu Wenlong)