The ‘best’ photograph of Beijing – a somewhat subjective and perhaps bold claim. However, we’ve seen one particular shot that could come close to claiming that title.
The picture was taken from the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, which viewers can see clearly in the foreground. Meanwhile, directly ahead in the clear sky-background lies the iconic modern Beijing skyline with the China Zun (CITIC) Tower standing out as the tallest building.
Perhaps what makes the photograph so captivating is that it captures so much of Beijing in one snap. The Great Wall represents the capital’s past, while the CBD skyline shows the city’s present.
The “ultimate” Beijing photo was taken by Tom van Dillen. Image via Tom van Dillen
The shot was taken by Tom van Dillen, a Dutch national who has lived in China since 1999. We should stress that the photographer himself does not believe this is the best photograph of Beijing ever.
Beijing-based van Dillen owns and runs Greenkern, a management consultancy firm which helps large organizations with “far-future” scenario planning.
He said his interest in photography was sparked in 2003 when he got his hands on a Canon 300D digital SLR camera. After sending a photo of Beijing back to his family in the Netherlands, van Dillen says he has been “hooked ever since.”
“It’s so brilliant to be able to connect my thirst for new gadgets with finding new ways of showing the world how beautiful Beijing can be,” he tells That’s.
The story behind van Dillen’s ultimate shot of Beijing is a combination of good fortune and spontaneity, yet also one of pro-activeness, careful preparation and even friendship (more on this later).
So, what was the sequence of events that led van Dillen to take the photograph? Here, he explains in his own words:
“Since early 2007, we’ve had a cottage near the Great Wall, about 20 minutes’ drive from Mutianyu. I usually drive there on Wednesdays to mow the lawn and clear my mind.
“On this specific day, September 9, 2020, I noticed that I could already see the Great Wall at Mutianyu from my car while driving just outside the sixth ring road. I could see about four or five ‘layers’ of mountains. This was definitely a ridiculously clear day!
“I had always wanted to take a photo that combined the Great Wall and the city, but I had never had the right camera or lens with me when the weather was so good. So, while driving over the expressway, I called our team assistant to check if Mutianyu was open for visitors – it was, but I needed my passport. Thankfully, I had it with me in my bag.
“The next question quickly became ‘Where should I go?’ Luckily, I have a close friend and co-photographer, Chas Pope, who, despite being in Singapore, was quickly able to tell me that the best angles would probably be towards the west side of Mutianyu. He used Google Earth to check.
The Mutianyu Great Wall lies in Beijing’s Huairou district. Image via Alistair Baker-Brian/That’s
“As for the gear, I was incredibly lucky to have been offered to borrow my friend Tom Lapham’s incredible Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens, as he was stuck in Seattle due to COVID-19. Even more fortuitously, that’s exactly the lens I had on my 5D Canon camera.
“While going up to the wall on the cable car at Mutianyu, I decided to call my dad as I imagined something cool might be about to happen. While talking to him, I decided to look behind me.
“Suddenly, in shock, I noticed that I could already see the skyline of Beijing from the cable car. I apologized to my dad and immediately hung up to take some photos; I had already arrived at the top station.
“I quickly started walking to the west, and kept looking back to find the perfect angle. After passing about four towers, I found a cool angle where you see the wall curving away with the skyline in the background. I liked the shot, but noticed that the wall started to ‘slalom’ even higher up the mountain.
“That’s when I found the perfect spot – in between the fifth and sixth tower to the west of the cable car stop. It was there where the wall lined up with the city, and instead of ‘protecting’ the city, it seemed like an access road to the city.
“I also noticed how, from this angle, China Zun – aka the CITIC tower, rising up 528 meters – created the perfect eye-catcher in the middle of Beijing’s skyline.
“This shot wouldn’t be the same only a few years earlier; it wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t had that right lens with me; and it probably wouldn’t have been the same without my friend’s great help with directions, all the way from Singapore.
“That’s why I say that I’d waited 20 years to take this shot, and that luck and friendship all came together to make it happen.
“After I took the shots, I decided to share one of them on WeChat, LinkedIn and Facebook.
“That’s when the whole thing kind of ‘exploded.’ Before I knew it, it had already made it onto Weibo and was viewed more than 30 million times. People had such incredibly different experiences and comments about the shot.”
The Great Wall does indeed make for some iconic shots. It’s almost become a rite of passage for political leaders, celebrities and others to get a snap on the Wall while visiting China, from Queen Elizabeth II…
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the Great Wall of China, 1986. Image via China Daily.
… to Nelson Mandela…
Nelson Mandela on the Great Wall of China, 1992. Image via China Daily.
… to David Beckham…
David Beckham on the Great Wall of China, 2018. Image via China Daily.
… to Tom Cruise.
Tom Cruise running on the Great Wall of China, 2013. Image via People’s Daily.
The Wall was also the site of an infamous photograph by an American visitor to China in 1979, when the country was still in the infancy of the Reform and Opening Up period.
A young Chinese boy dressed in military attire can be seen sipping a can of Coca-Cola through a straw.
A Chinese boy in military attire drinking Coca Cola on the Great Wall in 1979, in what would become a symbol of the country’s Reform and Opening Up. Image via @新浪财经/Weibo
He would later be known as “the first boy in China to drink Coca-Cola on the Great Wall,” or even “the first boy to drink Coca-Cola in new China.”
Whether or not these claims are true is of course, an entirely different topic.
The picture was later published in National Geographic. It came to represent a new age of market capitalism in China, something that was inherent to Reform and Opening Up.
In many ways, van Dillen’s shot symbolizes how far China has come since said opening up to the world. He explains it like this:
“[The photo] combines two things that people haven’t seen in one shot together before – the Great Wall and the city skyline which shows the CBD.
“Once people start looking at it, other things start bubbling up: how the skies have cleared up enough to allow for this; how far China’s development has come; how China went from being closed (with the Wall) to the effects of its opening up (the skyline), etc.
“It really creates different feelings for different people.
“A professor from Yale contacted me to ask if he could use it in his lectures about China. He felt that it was the first shot he’d ever seen that combined the past, present and future of China in one shot.
“Chinese viewers often got more emotional and philosophical, noting how the distance between the wall and the skyline represented the ‘river of Chinese progress.’
“I could go on and on!”
The fact that van Dillen was able to take the shot on such a clear day was indeed a stroke of good fortune. Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in the Chinese capital will likely be familiar with the high levels of harmful pollutants such as PM2.5 and ozone.
However, the photograph is also representative of how far Beijing has come in tackling heavy pollution. In 2021, the city’s air quality met national standards for the first time since records began.
Average concentration of PM2.5 has fallen by 13% year on year. Meanwhile, levels of ozone, a pollutant somewhat less notorious than PM2.5, also dropped in 2021 to meet national standards, as reported by CGTN.
Meanwhile, since popularity of the shot exploded, van Dillen has been busy keeping up with demand.
The first print of the photograph was gifted to the Dutch Ambassador to China, and is now hanging in his residence. Prints have now been sent to “nearly every continent.”
Van Dillen says that the photograph seems to be particularly popular among those who have left the city and want a “special ‘reminder’ of their time in Beijing.”
Whether or not this really is the ‘best’ photograph of Beijing ever is not for us to say, of course; again we must emphasize that van Dillen does not believe it is.
That said, given the deep and rich meaning that so many read into, not to mention the fascinating story behind how it was taken, we’d say it’s pretty damn good.
[Cover image via Tom van Dillen]