Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is indeed a remarkable place to see. And it is definitely at its best now, with all its recently renovated golden and red painted buildings, and its contrasting white stones, in preparation for the crowd of visitors during the 2008 Olympic Games.
For us, while we spent 3 days touring Beijing, it was definitely the highlight of the trip. I would recommend however to go to the Coal Hill before visiting the Forbidden City. The Coal Hill is located just north of the Forbidden City and gives you a great perspective of the size and the organization of the city. It is actually interesting to know the reason why the hill even exists: in the Feng Shui tradition, a home needs water in front of it, and a mountain behind it - for good luck. The location did not allow it, so man labor was used to achieve Feng Shui perfection and a mountain and a river were created. The Golden Water River can be seen in the first courtyard.
There is indeed a lot to understand about the design of the Forbidden City: the Outer Court (for visitors) and the Inner Court (private quarters of the imperial court); in the Outer Court, and just in the center of the city - the Hall of Supreme Harmony used by emperors for special occasions (the city walls were actually destroyed and then rebuilt later so that the Hall would be right in the middle); in the Inner Court, the Western and the Eastern palaces and the palaces of the emperor ( Palace of Heavenly Purity) and of the empress (Palace of the Earthly Tranquility) with the Hall of the union between the two, for them to meet; the repetition of the number 9 for luck, in all architectural details, in the number of brass studs on doors (81), the number of rooms in the city (9,999), etc…
The Forbidden City is indeed impressive. It is actually the world's largest palace complex. Everything is impressive about it: the sheer size of its successive empty courtyards and buildings, the large steps with stone balusters and carved stone bas-reliefs. And there is such a mystery associated with the place, as you walk through it, thinking that such a huge place was kept close to the world for centuries, hidden behind these thick walls and these huge heavy doors.
It is fascinating to imagine an emperor with 3000-4000 concubines and a similar number of eunuchs, living in such a space; fascinating to imagine the English ambassadors discovering its grandiose structures, as the heavy doors opened in front of them, and as they walk through the main courtyard, discovering these majestic stairs leading to the emperor, a little more at each step they took; fascinating to see the room where the emperor was receiving his guests, where the emperor signed his orders, where the empress Ci Xi was supposedly imitating the emperor’s signature to sign some orders for him, to see the silk screen between which she was hiding and giving her orders indirectly.
Definitely the most fascinating to me, as I mentioned in a previous blog, was to see all the places where empress Ci Xi had governed, just as they are described in the recent book Empress Orchid, I read a few months ago. So, my humble advice: read Empress Orchid (see my book list for details) before coming to Beijing, come in the spring before the crowds of the Olympic Games (it is going to be simply insane then!), visit the Coal Hill first, and enjoy this very unique place.

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