Crystal Palace Chinese style? More on the Forbidden City

Beijing’s Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City, has been on my bucket list of places to visit for as long as I can remember. Now,you would think that having had an opportunity to see it in June I’d have ticked it off my list but oh no, just the opposite has happened! Seeing it once is just not nearly enough, and all this first visit has done is to whet my appetite further, has made me go to the library to read some more about both the palace complex and its inhabitants, especially the last few Manchu Emperors, and now its not just the Imperial palace that has firmly gone back on to the bucket list, but right next to it is the Summer Palace, too.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Looks like at some point, I need to try and get back to Beijing… Anyway, back to the Forbidden City and the ‘Crystal Palace’ referred to in the title of this blog. The Forbidden City, or rather the  complex housing the Forbidden City, the Gugong, is arranged from the South (from Tian’anment Square and where the ticket office now is) so the modern visitor enters from the Imperial Way, through the most prestigious entrance to the complex of over 800 buildings and gardens. The great entrance of first the Tian’anmen (the Gate) and then the Wumen, led into the front sections of the Forbidden City which house the great imperial, outward-facing ceremonial halls. These were strictly off limits for women (no woman entered the Forbidden City through the South Gate except the Empress on the day of her wedding), and largely off-limits for everybody else too as much of the Manchu court ceremonial shrouded the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in strictest protocol and very limited visibility. The great halls at the entrance of the Forbidden City, the Halls of Supreme Harmony, Central Harmony and Preserving Harmony lie on the central axis of the Imperial City and form staging posts on the Imperial Way across Tian’anmen Square, out through the gates that surrounded the Forbidden City and towards the temple complex in Tiantan Park which still harbour the exquisite Temple of Heaven. These ceremonial halls are astonishingly opulent in their decoration and assigned to overwhelm and awe. There are staircases to climb, approaches cross massive, empty courtyards devoid of any plants or distraction, where everything focuses on the impact of the building as the setting for ceremony. These courtyards formed the backdrop to the ceremonial halls, and are all about spectacle and display;  colour is added to the scene almost exclusively through the lavishly gilded roof tiles (yellow roof tiles were exclusive to the Forbidden City and then gilded, providing a (literally) dazzling contrast to the sapphire-blue skies of Beijing pre-pollution) and of course the colourful silk robes of the court. Today, colour comes from the wonderfully whimsical parasols of visitors to the Forbidden City, many of which are iridescent and sparkle in the sun, creating a fabulous evocation of the Manchu Dynasty at its ceremonial best. So the front section of the complex is about power, about authority and also about distance and performance. There is nothing ‘human’ about the scale of the buildings or their furnishings- these buildings are the backdrop and foil to the Son of Heaven and were as immutable and immortal as the reign of the Imperial house itself. Even now, the ceremonial halls are in immaculate repair, beautifully touched up and the colours as fresh as if they had been applied only a few days ago. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the ceremonial halls come the Imperial living quarters, first those of the Emperor, then those of the Empress, and buildings, courtyards and a variety of outdoor and indoor spaces proliferate, home to the many people- and animals- living at Court. All of a sudden the scale changes from spectacle and temple-like worship to something more manageable and if not everyday, but at least human. And its in those back sections of the Forbidden City that every so often a visitor gets a glimpse into the material culture of a dynasty that had been on their throne since the 18th century, and which spoke a different language and was ethnographically different from the majority of its subjects. For example, the Manchu, derived from a Mongolian nomadic tribal context, never practised foot binding, which was in contrast practised widely amongst aristocratic Han Chinese; the two groups also adopted very different dress. So, for the Court, fashioning a visual identity that was distinctive, and using these visuals as one of their assertions of dynastic legitimacy and historical justification and authentication for rule, resulted in a tendency to be historicising and traditional in their visual choices, whether dress, hair style, etiquette or buildings. But, by the second half of the nineteenth century, the writing was clearly on the wall for this dynasty that had held the throne for close on 200 years, and who faced quite unprecedented political challenges, all of which were accelerated and exacerbated by the increasingly territory-hungry interest of European powers in China. Add a run of quite weak and ineffectual emperors, and a succession crisis with fewer heirs to choose from, and the challenges facing the Manchu in the final quarter of the Nineteenth century look formidable indeed. Add to this external pressures, notably the combined arguments of foreign gunboats and a need for increasing trade revenues, as well as, clearly, an awareness of needing to innovate and change, and all of a sudden the visual context of the Imperial Court changes. All of a sudden, there are some surprising traces even in the very heart of the Forbidden City itself that speak of the winds of change. IMG_1864Cue: the ‘Crystal Palace’ referred to in the title. Now this is a ruin, situated way off the central axis of the great ceremonial halls, and located towards the back of the Forbidden City, in the living quarters of specifically the harem, where alley ways are closed in, walls are high and forbidding, but where the scale of the halls and houses is more ‘normal’ and where the context speaks of a busy town. There are little houses surrounding courtyards that look lived in, and in a way, its these back-sections of the Forbidden Palace which kept me poking about for much longer than the front parts with their awe-inspiring but remote ceremonial splendour. In there princes and princesses grew up and were taught, the royal concubines led their households served by the ever-present eunuchs, and it was here that the art the Court prided itself on was produced (calligraphy and painting were crucial skills for any court official and especially for the Emperor himself). Also in the back-sections of the Forbidden City are indications of the Court changing and adjusting to Western Influences. So, for example, there is one hall dedicated to mechanical clocks; one of the emperors, Guanxu, loved taking clocks to pieces and repairing them, while EmpressDowager Cixi was the first Empress to be photographed, with prints decorating her living quarters both  in the Forbidden Palace as well as her residence, the Summer Palace. The presence of a ‘Crystal Palace’ structure, an iron-framed hall (glass panels missing) designed as a garden retreat, on at least three floors and suspended over a whimsical water feature/pond, intrudes quite unexpectedly into the spaces of the Gugong. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Or maybe not quite so unexpectedly? The building – and to my deep regret I don’t even know the name of the architect at this point- is a pretty thing, clearly conceived along the lines of a garden structure, and deliberately ‘foreign’ in its use of stone for the lower walls, with the blazing colours so ubiquitous elsewhere in the buildings missing, and reds, golds and blue giving way to cool marble and of course, the clear panels of the glass for the upper parts of the structure. I would imagine such a building to be utterly impractical in the extremes of Beijing’s climate, but as a spectacular showcase and a visual proof of a court familiar with, embracing and adopting modern Western technology? Is this glass ruin one of the rare instances where one can see a conflict between the unflinchably traditional public face of the court, described by Western diplomats as a court of doors firmly closed, and more private, tentative moves to alter the public face of a Court that ruled supremely and autocratically over a third of the World’s population, where tradition meant stability and change could take so long to filter through that politics by design had to move slowly? Its just a thought but buildings are powerful sites of memory, and nowhere more so than in the strange no-man’s land of the private spaces of a court, where the boundaries between being seen and allowing to see are so carefully guarded. One thing is clear though- I really need to get back to the Forbidden City, with another stack of research under my arm, and have another look.


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