The Formative Years of Cao Xueqin 1715–1745
5. “Buildings Rich and Elegant, People Lively and Numerous”
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“Buildings Rich and Elegant, People Lively and Numerous”
In chapter three of Honglou meng, Lin Dai-yu travels to Beijing via the famous Grand Canal. Shortly after arriving in the capital, she peeps through the gauze window of her sedan chair and is astonished to “see streets and buildings more rich and throngs of people more lively and numerous than she had ever seen in her life before.”1 Her perception was not unusual, most travelers (and Dai-yu is coming from the urban and cosmpolitan city of Yangzhou) to Qing dynasty Beijing were also amazed by the city. Even the exhausted and demoralized Cao family, coming from a cosmopolitan city like Nanjing must have found the capital imposing.2 Beijing, at that time had a population of over 700,000 ← 75 | 76 → people and was equal in size and population only to Edo, the Tokugawa capital of Japan. But it was unmatched by any other world capital in terms of the ← 76 | 77 → beauty and harmony of its geometrical design (Marco Polo compared the layout of the city to a giant chess board), diversity of its population, elegance of its imperial architecture, sophistication of its systems of administrative governance and food security, and the efficiency of its maintenance of public order. This meticulously designed city was based on geomantic and mythological principles and was considered the center of the Chinese empire.3 Wide and spacious avenues ran from north to south in...
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