Beijing. Still having tons o' fun. Yesterday I spent the day at the Forbidden City. I didn't look at or follow a map, so the labyrinthine nature of the City was enhanced. Actually, it's a very orderly labyrinth, but without a map, it first seems very chaotic. However, I ascertained at the end of the day that I had managed to see everything that was open to the public. I had a great time tromping around everywhere with no agenda; I ended up crisscrossing the length and breadth several times. It consists of an Outer Courtyard housing all the large buildings used for ceremonies and official business, and where commoners and foreigners were allowed, and of the Inner Courtyard in which no outsiders were allowed -- this was the private residence complex where the emperor and his family and officials, and reputedly 9,000 eunuchs at one point, lived.
Since I had no idea what I was going to find inside the city and no brochure or map to warn me, when I came through the inner courtyard, where I began my wandering tour, into the outer courtyard, I was truly stunned. By that time I'd spent several hours in the series of small courtyards and rooms, and become accustomed to that scale. Then through a doorway arch in a tall wall to have these impressive spaces unfold before me, with huge meeting halls, many levels of stairs and carved stone railings. It was pretty cool to have done it the way I did and be so gobsmacked and surprised. But I'll show you first the way the city would be to the awe-struck visitor ... entering the spacious, impressive outer ring with the huge halls around them. I'm standing next to some doors for scale.
Most buildings have plaques on the outside in English giving a brief description of what the building is. In this imperial city built to protect the dynastic clans, it seems that the majority of them, at least inside the Inner Court, are there for the concubines! … where they live or play, or whatever. The Empress dowager Ci Xi had quite a presence renovating and living in buildings no one else ever had, including the one where a previous emperor's beloved had died and he closed the building and decreed no one should ever live there again. “Bah,” said the Empress Ci Xi who moved right in. One plaque points out where she allegedly through a concubine down a well. She was the perpetrator of numerous cases of treachery, and is one of the most sensational characters in China's dynastic history, bringing about, in fact, it's very end. She placed her young grandnephew on the throne upon her death, who was soon rendered the last of China's emperors while he was still a child. .
If you haven't seen it, the movie, The Last Emperor, is well worth a view. I thought of it often while wandering around the Inner Courtyard. After he peacefully abdicated the throne (that is to say after his abdication was drafted and accepted in the face of the revolution, for he was only 6 years old at the time), he was allowed to continue living in the Forbidden City, exiled to a portion of the Inner Courtyard for about 12 years until he was finally expelled. If I had to be under house arrest for years, the tranquil inner courtyard really wouldn't be such a bad place, all things considered.
The green and yellow tilework, sometimes with blue also, is one of the most beautiful features inside the Forbidden City. Yellow is the imperial color. Many of the screens have faded, once a bright red backdrop to the tilework.
The City was the project of the early Ming Dynasty, built between 1407 and 1420. One of the ingenious methods employed to build the stairs and huge stone carvings of the huge temples in the outer court of the Forbidden City regards the transport of the stone which was quarried some ways away. In order to move the large and heavy stone, they splashed water on the roads in winter to form a smooth sheet of ice, over which they pulled the stones with relative ease.
The number nine is an important number to the Chinese, representing longevity and eternalness. This number was incorporated in the structure of the Forbidden City ... can you guess how many rooms (including spaces such as anterooms) are inside this walled city? Answer: 9,999. Number of buildings: 980. According the the chinahighlights.com website, here is a comparison of its area for a sense of its scale: "Total surface area in Forbidden City: 720,000 square meters (7,747,200 square feet / 180 acres). For comparison, the Vatican measures 440,000 square meters, and the Kremlin measures 275,000 square meters."
The enormous city is surrounded by a 20-foot deep moat. I saw a lot of people fishing in the moat. I don't know if it's stocked with fish or if there are simply enough to perpetuate a sizable population for the urban fishing crowd. As you can see, the day's weather had devolved into a foggy drizzle.
After staying in the City until it closed, I walked down Tiananmen Square. I was vaguely surprised to see a large portrait of Mao affixed to the outside of the Forbidden City when I exited. (Of course it's rather ironic considering his violent denouncement of imperialism and class structure.) But that was just because I hadn't been in China long enough yet to realize the stubborn ubiquity of his legacy. Even now the official Chinese stance is that his policies were "30% bad and 70% good." Yeah, the government releases this actual percentage figure as their judgment on Maoist policies. Anyway ... not really so much to say about Tiananmen other than it's really big. Naturally one can't help but try to envision the scene of the relatively recent massacre during the student protests of 1989.
Then as the light dimmed on my day, I happened upon this delightful garden stretching alongside a little creek through the city. In the evening light, the flowers and the bridges were practically neon in the coloring, and interested rock formations dotted the sidewalk.
Then I had some delicious food I bought from streetside windows. This is the way for me to go, because I just have to point at stuff. It's still a mystery what I will get most of the time, but I scored last night with a roll filled with sesame paste (I love sesame!) and a huge dumpling filled with diced potato and garlic (love potato and garlic!). I found another park in which to sit and eat, full of lush greenery, children climbing park statues, old women strolling through singing loudly to themselves, middle-aged women walking their toy-breed dogs, and middle-aged men roaming in gangs to swarm in on stone game tables scattered in the park to play very animated card games. (The following year, Erik and I found this park again and I notice a dramatic increase in the number of people walking little dogs, like the dog population exploded in the span of a year.)
So I ended the day completely bushed ... feet aching, legs tired, energy depleted -- the signs of a day most excellently used. :)
Read more articles from China I
See more from the Forbidden City in China II