Words: Robert Fry
Images: Nicky Almasy & Getty
If you’re single, big cities are never a fun place to be on romantic holidays. Whether it’s due to the fact that we never feel more alone than when surrounded by people, or because the probability of seeing a happy couple is exponentially higher in a big city – who knows?
Beijing, like the rest of China, can be even more unforgiving on the lovelorn, as the Chinese not only celebrate Valentine’s Day with the rest of the world in February, but also Qi Xi, a festival dedicated to everything romantic in August.
If this seems a little overwhelming, fret not. There are ways to mend a broken heart. Once you find closure, you learn that acceptance is not defeat and inspiration is just around the corner.
Hidden far out in the outskirts of Beijing’s Tongzhou district, a fascinating museum awaits the broken-hearted. Housed in a nondescript warehouse in the village of Renzhuangcun Bei, the Beijing Museum of Lost Love (accessible via the Beijing Subway, Line 6, Dongxiayuan Station), which only opens on weekends, sits between strawberry fields and orchards. For those in search of closure, this homage to lost love offers weary souls a place to rest their broken spirits.
The unusual collection of over 100 artefacts on display here has been painstakingly accumulated over the past decade, and each piece chronicles a story of love lost. While the prospect of spending an hour in a space dedicated to heartache may seem a little grim, the stories here actually capture a happy time and the fleeting beauty of childhood romances, summer loves, and forbidden passions. The transience of different phases of life is showcased perfectly, with trinkets revealing lives made exciting with numerous admirers and ardent courtships. After all, few jewellery boxes would be complete if the treasures came from just one suitor.
The first floor boasts a display of eclectic items, some cherished once upon a time, others left behind in the wake of a relationship cut short. Among the artefacts are a series of staged photographs featuring a couple in matching outfits; a box of boarding passes belonging to lovers who once travelled together; and a thick bundle of love letters.
The second floor houses the Lost Love Library stocked with books that reminded their previous owners too much of their broken relationships. Patrons are free to order a coffee and peruse the titles, but none are for sale. The main draw card here though is an art installation where items of rich sentimental value are suspended from the ceiling. A postcard immediately catches my eye, for the writing is in French. ‘Le vent se lève!… il faut tenter de vivre!’ meaning ‘The wind is rising, we must try to live’. It is impossible to tell whether this is a prelude to a breakup or a passionate cry not to give up. Dangling nearby is a bag containing a pair of wedding rings. Two of the museum’s founders – Wang Ying and Zhang Peng – approach me. Wang Ying uses a simple analogy to explain how this precious artefact ended up here. “A relationship is like a fire – while one half rests, the other half must add fuel to it,” she says, as happily married Zhang Peng points to a boxing glove and explains its significance, “Sometimes, you must fight to make the relationship work; sometimes, you must fight to walk away”.
The founders have been collecting what they call ‘broken-hearted goods’ for the better part of the last decade, and the museum, which opened in 2016, accepts new donations at the end of each month. No stranger to heartache, Wang Ying is optimistic and her expectations of marriage have not been compromised. “Marriage must have the foundation of love,” she says, steadily. “Everything else changes, but love remains the same.”
According to Wang Ying, the majority of visitors are born in the 1980s through to the 90s, while the artefacts themselves have mostly been bequeathed by the younger generation. The museum itself is not melancholic, but instead, a place to find closure and peace.
When it’s too painful to be reminded of past passions, but you aren’t able to just toss out an old love letter, donate these relics and tell the world your tale. Baby portraits or wedding photos may share the story of a ‘happily ever after,’ but for everything else, there’s the Beijing Museum of Lost Love.
Seeking a Soulmate
Perhaps, the next step – once the grieving heart is ready to be happy again – is to get out there and be comfortable with one’s newfound single status. This means opening oneself up to the possibility of new relationships. Some people allow themselves to be set up by friends, others focus on themselves and do things they enjoy, paving the way to meeting people who share similar passions or values – a great place to build from.
But, if finding that special someone is what you’re after, in Beijing, there is an old form of matchmaking that exists to this day: the Beijing Marriage Market. In a secluded corner of Zhongshan Park in Dongcheng district (accessible via the Beijing Subway, Line 1, Tiananmen West Station), surrounded by willow trees, a group of passionate parents convene on Thursday and Sunday afternoons to find prospective spouses for their children.
They perch on plastic stools and small wooden boxes, eagerly anticipating a match that meets their requirements. Placards and posters dot the sidewalks. The descriptions of their children are succinct. ‘Beautiful! Nice figure’, ‘Good salary. Athletic, non-smoker’, ‘32 years old, childless’.
The majority of sons and daughters depicted in the promotional materials appear to be between the ages of 28 to 35 years. Like a networking event, business cards are exchanged and many handshakes take place, but similarities to arranged marriages in other, more conventional, parts of the world are quickly dismissed.
“We don’t have to marry. It’s our choice,” says Li Maomao, a restaurant manager who just celebrated his 31st birthday. “Nobody wants to be alone. There is always pressure from family or society, but nobody is forced to marry anyone.”
>Standing on the fringe of the market, Li Maomao gazes intently at one stall in particular – his father’s. Despite initial objections, Li Maomao finally relented and agreed to let his father help. “My dad belongs to the older generation; he thinks I’m too old to still be single,” he says. “But, I think he really just wants a grandchild!”
Keep Calm & Carry On
Although my parents have spared me probing questions about my love life, in Beijing, I’ve learnt not to expect taxi drivers or curious waiters to follow suit. Questions about spouses and children, as well as inquiries into one’s health, age, weight and financial status are par for the course when making conversation. However, some things are universal and even school children know better than to ask a woman her age.
However intrusive the questions may seem, they are never malicious and are intended only as a means of bridging the gap between strangers. Unfortunately, this is easily forgotten on days coloured pink and heart-shaped.
For a peaceful jaunt that provides boundless inspiration to persevere in my search for a soul mate, I catch a high speed train two hours east to Shanhaiguan, the first pass along the Great Wall of China in the east, located in the port city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei province.
This charming coastal city offers impressive views of the Great Wall, but, for me, its main draw is the temple dedicated to Meng Jiangnu whose tale, though tragic, celebrates a love so strong that it transcends death.
The story of Meng Jiangnu is one almost every Chinese person knows; it has been retold in films, sung in folk songs, depicted in oil paintings and recited in poetry for centuries. It is another one of China’s Four Great Folktales and has many variations.
According to one telling, Meng Jiangnu was a charming young lady who lived during the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) and fell in love with (some say married) a frail, but intellectual man by the name of Fan Qiliang. When Fan was forced by federal officials to head north to help build the Great Wall, Meng waited with great anticipation for his return.
However, after a year had passed, Meng set out to find Fan herself. Unfortunately, upon meeting some workers who knew Fan, she learnt that he had already succumbed to hunger and exhaustion at Shanhaiguan Pass. Hearing this, Meng fell to the ground and a steady stream of tears fell from her eyes with such force that a large section of the Great Wall crumbled to dust, revealing Fan’s remains.
The emperor at the time, Qin Shihuang, was said to have been enraged at first, but after witnessing Meng Jiangnu’s beauty first-hand, proposed marriage. Meng agreed but set three conditions: first, that Fan be given a grand burial; second, that the emperor go into mourning and attend the funeral in person; and lastly, that she be allowed to visit the ocean. The emperor fulfilled all of Meng’s conditions, but rather than marry him, Meng cast herself into the Bohai Sea and took her own life.
The temple dedicated to Meng Jiangnu is located just a few kilometres away from Shanhaiguan Pass, where Fan is said to have died. It was first established about 1,000 years ago during the reign of the Song Dynasty. Those who visit must climb 108 steps from the foot of the Fenghuang Mountain (Phoenix Mountain) to the temple halls. Here, poetry is carved into great boulders, while tranquil gardens and ponds can be seen in the valley below. An exquisite sculpture of Meng, draped in robes, gazes solemnly into the distance, deep in thought.
The main hall houses what looks like three life-sized porcelain dolls depicting Meng with two maidens. The air is thick with incense and a steady flow of visitors bow before her statue – a tribute not just to enduring love, but to Meng’s strong, rebellious spirit that allowed her to defy an emperor in the name of love.
Not wanting to be rude, I wait until the visitors exit the hall to approach them and ask, in my most rudimentary Mandarin, what they had prayed for. Some people pray for help finding their soul mate, while others make a plea for a faithful spouse. One little boy, oblivious and immune to the dangerous web of love, prays for new basketball shoes!
The area surrounding the complex is sparsely populated and rather than buildings and highways, there are nothing but empty fields. In the courtyard, a man in an orange jumpsuit works furiously to remove graffiti from a tree, but he doesn’t seem annoyed. He hums along to a tune only he can hear until he is interrupted by my footsteps. “Hullo!” he hollers in good cheer, a thin smile painted on his lips. We exchange greetings and once I assure him that I have eaten, he seems ready to move on to more pressing questions, but this time I take the initiative. “Are you married?” I ask.
“Yes!” he replies in a thunderous boom. The thin smile stretches from ear to ear as he reaches into his pocket for his phone to show me pictures of his children. The screen is cracked but he beams with pride as his finger swipes between different pictures. He pauses, looks at me uncertainly and asks, “Where is your wife?”
“I haven’t met her yet,” I reply, smiling a genuine smile and feeling optimistic about things to come.
The Story of Qi Xi
Qi Xi has been celebrated for over two thousand years on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar – this year, it falls on August 17. The festival revolves around an ancient legend – now one of China’s Four Great Folktales – called The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl (or Niu Lang Zhi Nu ) that tells of the love between Niu Lang, a cowherd, and Zhi Nu, a fairy who weaves rainbows and clouds. According to one popular retelling of this tale, when Zhi Nu’s mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, discovers that Zhi Nu has married a lowly cowherd, she forces her daughter to return to heaven. Niu Lang refuses to give Zhi Nu up and follows her on his magical cow hide. Upon discovering their reunion, the Celestial Queen Mother creates the Silver River, a river of stars (the Milky Way) between the lovers to keep them apart. According to the legend, moved by their love, the magpies in heaven form a bridge over the river once a year to allow the lovers to reunite.
Inspiration in Beijing
Discover beautiful parks and great places to find inspiration (and kindred spirits) in Beijing.
- Visit Beijing Planetarium to view the stars Altair and Vega, which represent Niu Lang and Zhi Nu from the popular Chinese folktale The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl.
- Beihai Park is one of the best-preserved imperial gardens in China with a history dating back 1,000 years. Go boating on its lake on sunny days or skate across in winter.
- Enjoy romantic walks and boat rides or shop at eclectic boutiques at Shichahai Lake.
- Nanluoguxiang is an 800-year-old hutong (alley designed around a water well) with romantic bars, quaint dessert stalls and charming tea shops – great for atmospheric evening walks or cosy nightcaps.
- You’ve got to love Great Leap Brewing #45 – the microbrewery’s tagline is ‘Take a great leap when you are young and fat’, and its hand-crafted Chinese beers with names derived from local history and folklore are great material for conversation!
- The Beijing Bookworm in Chaoyang District boasts an extensive library and bar, and hosts movie nights, open mic events, readings and author visits – a cool platform for the positive exchange of ideas.
- Get out there and be seen at the right places. Restaurant-cum-bar-cum-nightclub Migas Mercado serves up rustic Spanish fare with spectacular views, courtesy of its location atop China World Shopping Mall. High tea, weekend brunches and salsa events are especially popular with Beijingers.
- Beijing Ancient Observatory showcases instruments that were once used to study the heavens, back when people looked to astrology for guidance in life and love.
- Urban lore has it that couples who visit Taoranting Park (Beijing Subway, Line 4, Taoranting Station) will eventually tie the knot, making it a must for those hoping to nudge their significant other towards popping the question!
- Conceptualised according to Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, Grand View Park celebrates the romance of the characters Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. The landscaped garden features courtyards inspired by those of the Jia family – one of the four great families depicted in the novel – and was the shoot location for a TV series based on the classic.
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