Monday, July 21, 2008

Beijing: the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

With the all-important food posts (1, 2, 3, 4) out of the way, let's move on to some of the sights. We'll be posting them out of order, so try to to be confused if the posts don't match what you know about our itinerary.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum, as it's known to locals) is, surprise surprise, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of every tourist's first stops in Beijing. But the mobs of foreigners don't make it any less worth your time--mostly because they're there for good reason, as the Forbidden City is one of the most impressive sights I've seen in my life.

First, some background. The Forbidden City, besides being an essential Wonder of the World in Sid Meier's Civilization III, was also the Ming and Qing imperial palace, in service from 1420 to 1924. The place in its current form dates to around 1800, when a Qing expansion project was completed, though many of the structures in the current Forbidden City are older.

It is the world's largest surviving palace complex, and the overwhelming impression it leaves is of its immensity. Situated smack in the center of the city, and bordering Tiananmen Square to the south, the Forbidden City sprawls over a huge swatch of downtown Beijing. The current Forbidden City, which doesn't include the imperial courtyard gardens that were opened and paved over to make Tiananmen Square, is a rectangle almost 1 km long and 3/4 km wide. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from end to end without stopping, and exploring the whole complex (or at least the whole of what's open to the public) would take days.

The palace, like most monumental structures in East Asia, is laid out according to the principles of Feng shui, facing south with the main gate at the south end of the complex and with a hill our mountain at the back (north). Most visitors enter through the southern gate of the complex (above), which you'll learn more about in an upcoming post on Tiananmen Square. (Yes, that's a giant portrait of Mao on the front.) This gate isn't even technically the front door--two gates on the southern side of Tiananmen Square, almost another whole kilometer from the gate above, were the traditional entrances to the Imperial City.
The gate below, known as the Meridian Gate, marks the outer limit of the truly "forbidden" part of the Forbidden City: during the Qing dynasty, no commoners--and essentially no foreigners--were allowed past this gate. Violators were killed on the spot, as were any commoners unfortunate enough to glimpse the Emperor as he processed in or out of the gate--looking directly at the Emperor was a big no-no, seeing as the Emperor ranked only one step below the most powerful god.
Fortunately, the emperor wasn't home. There was, however, quite a strong military presence about--though understandably so, seeing as this is Beijing's greatest cultural landmark and a centerpiece of advertising for the upcoming Olympic Games.
Beyond the Meridian Gate lies the Gate of Supreme Harmony, across another cobblestoned expanse. The Gate of Supreme Harmony marks the entrance to the Outer Court, a series of gates, buildings, and courtyards used for ceremonial purposes. As you'll see, they're build mainly to impress, and they do a darned good job of it.
Between the Meridian Gate and the Gate of Supreme Harmony, a small man-made stream runs through the courtyard. This is a common feature of feng shui architecture. The stream is crossed by three bridges: one for the emperor and two for everyone else.
Don't tell the emperor that we stopped for a photo on his bridge!

Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony lies the centerpiece of the palace, the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, in addition to being the tallest building (by statute) in downtown Beijing and the oldest surviving wood structure in China, was the emperor's ceremonial throne room. Originally, this was where the emperor would hold court, though eventually the Hall was reserved for major events, such as coronations.

Symbolically, the Hall was the center of imperial power in the Ming and Qing dynasties. That didn't save it from the ravages of imperialism, though. The cauldron below, one of hundreds used around the palace to store water for fire-fighting purposes, used to be covered with gold, which was taken by the British and the French. Fire also took its toll on the Palace: the Hall of Supreme Harmony alone was destroyed by fire a dozen times in its history.
This fellow fared better (it probably helped to be made of bronze): one of the stylized lion-dragons guarding the Hall of Supreme Harmony, enjoying a light-hearted moment with its cub.
Beyond the Hall of Supreme Harmony lies the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (below). These buildings mark the transition from the Outer Court, which was the public wing of the palace, to the Inner Court, where the imperial family and its numerous people lived. The first was used as a place for the emperor to rest before and after ceremonies--remember, when you're emperor, going anywhere involves a giant procession, so if you're tired or hungry, you don't want to have to process a half a kilometer back to your pad for a nap. The second is a rehearsal space--court rituals were bewilderingly complicated--and the site of the last stage of the imperial examinations, which all public officials in feudal China's massive bureaucracy had to take.
Beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony is the Inner Court, some of which is closed to the public today, but most of which has been converted to a museum on life in the Forbidden City. Below, you can see a replica of the empress's sedan, which would be carried by servants. If you look closely, you can see an ornamental phoenix on each corner--the phoenix was the symbol of the empress, and the dragon the symbol of the emperor. Together, they infest souvenir shops throughout central Beijing.
Here's a replica of the emperor's coat. As you may have noticed, the emperors liked yellow--it was a symbol of the imperial family.
And here's a replica (notice another pattern? many of the originals are either in storage or in Western collections) of the ancestral spirit tablet the emperor would have kept in his quarters for morning and evening prayers.
Further back in the Inner Court is the emperor's own personal arboretum (don't worry, it wasn't his only personal arboretum--see Jingshan Park below or the Summer Palace in an upcoming post). It's a pretty space, though the emperors often shunned it--they were afraid of the possibility of assassins in the trees.
Jingshan Park

The northern (back) gate of the Forbidden City opens up to a view of Jingshan Park, which Nana and I explored on one of our free days in Beijing.
Jingshan Park consists of an artificial hill built from the material excavated in digging the Forbidden Palace's giant moat. The hill was built to satisfy feng shui requirements: it was seen as good luck to have a hill at the back (north) of your house and a river or stream near the front (south--see above). It has the added benefit of being the highest point of elevation in the city, affording some of the best views of the palace.
This was also where, while shooting the video below, I was attacked by the world's worst pickpocket. (Not really.)

The park served as the emperor's spiritual retreat. It's dotted with little Buddhist pavilions, though most of the Buddhas are gone, having long since been pilfered by the British and the French.
Below, you can see some long views of the city: first, Beihei Park to the north; then the Jingshan Park buildings.

And, just to make sure we end on a happy note: below you can see the tree where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself. After the Forbidden City had been overrun, this quiet corner of Jingshan Park was his end.That's all for now. Stay tuned for some more of Beijing's Greatest Hits, including: The Great Wall! The Temple of Heaven! The Summer Palace (through an apocalyptic haze)!


Rosa said...

When I first saw the sedan picture, I thought y'all had somehow snapped a picture of dead Mao. Did you go see Mao's body?

Nana said...

We did! But no cameras allowed. We refer to his ceremonial burial hall as the "Maosoleum." I think I'm doing that post later this week.