When I first came to Beijing in 1984, the city felt dusty and forgotten, a onetime capital of temples and palaces that Mao had vowed — successfully, it seemed — to transform into a landscape of factories and chimneys. Soot penetrated every windowsill and every layer of clothing, while people rode simple steel bicycles or diesel-belching buses through the windy old streets.
Then, as now, it was hard to imagine this sprawling city as the sacred center of China’s spiritual universe. But for most of its history, it was exactly that. It wasn’t a holy city like Jerusalem, Mecca or Banaras, locations whose very soil was hallowed, making them destinations for pilgrims. Yet Beijing’s streets, walls, temples, gardens and alleys were part of a carefully woven tapestry that reflected the constellations above, geomantic forces below and an invisible overlay of holy mountains and gods.