Of wandering in the Forbidden City

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an earlier blog post about the Great Wall, I mentioned the Great Wall as one of the items on my bucket list. Well, guess what? The next item on that bucket list of mine is the Gugong, the Forbidden City, Beijng’s legendary Imperial Palace and Court until the eviction of the last Emperor, Puyi, closely followed by a third Beijing item, Dowager Empress Cixi’s Summer Palace. I didn’t do badly in June in managing to tick not one but TWO items off my bucket list because the day after walking, or rather scaling!, the Great Wall, I got to visit the Forbidden City, in blistering temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius and under the most wonderful sapphire-blue skies. It certainly helped to make my photos look nice (click here for a link to my Flickr album)…

IMG_1881So, first things first. What exactly is the Forbidden City and where is it? The Forbidden City or gugong is the former Imperial Palace and residence of China’s Emperor, the Son of Heaven, and his Court. Actually, if we want to be precise, its a residential and largely self-sustaining residential court complex comprising of 800+ buildings, and several gardens and parks. Its no problem at all spending a day in that complex and threw will be plenty of things that lie undiscovered- the scale of the Imperial palace complex is breath taking. The buildings range from the great ceremonial halls (the Taihedian, Zhonghedian and Baohedian) to the Emperor and Empress’ separate living quarters, to the buildings and apartments housing the court officials, the entertainers, eunuchs, concubines, nobles, gardeners, scribes, to housing the animals, all brought together in order to create the  living quarters fit for the emperor and of suitably lavish and rarefied status. Maybe the best way of imagining the life of the Forbidden City would be to recall Xi’an’s Terracotta Army for Emperor Qin Shi Huang, with its 6,000 terracotta warriors whose sole purpose was to guard the Emperor from evil spirits after death. One emperor and 6,000 warriors gives you some indication of the significance afforded the Emperor and his every need, and key to the Emperor’s symbolic significance was his visibility or rather lack thereof. Seeing the Emperor was a very rare privilege- on his annual excursions out of the Forbidden City to part in the Temple of Heaven he crossed Tian’anmen Square and followed the Imperial Way to the Temple while citizens were ordered to keep their windows shut . The imposing walls of the Imperial Palace, bounded by deep moats afforded maximum visibility of the palace with its distinctive yellow roofs but also denied a sight of the palace’s inhabitants. The palace complex became a proxy for the rule of the Son of Heaven, so the complex itself needed to be the most splendid representation of a universal ruler at the heart of an immortal empire.

Its important to approach the Forbidden City with a bit of this in mind, as then it becomes not just a residential complex but a map of an Empire,a nd it certainly explains why a regime change in China a) needed to be expressed through making the Forbidden City accessible to citizens and b) why the destruction and the razing of the Forbidden City was never an option. In fact, as I have said before, the Forbidden City endures precisely it is the ost wonderful foil to its modern counter part, Tian’anmen Square.

But, politics aside, as a place to visit it is spectacular and *should* be on the top of any visitor to Beijing. It is a wonderful place to visit, and just so vast, so enveloping, so amazing in the creation of a total and immersive environment that is unlike everywhere else. So, there will be a return to some of the aspects of the Forbidden City on this blog as I try and reflect on the many things I say on my all too fleeting visit. One day, even a ehole day, is not enough to even begin to scratch the surface of this amazing place.

 For more glimpses of the Forbiiden City, have a look at my Flickr album by clicking here.


One thought on “Of wandering in the Forbidden City

  1. Pingback: Isabella Bird Bishop’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond | renaissanceissues

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