…was different than I expected. Well, unconscious expectations are interesting. I become aware of them only in that brief moment when I first lay eyes on the famous sight. The way turning on the light erases the dream, for an instant the contrast of reality exposes the imagined, illuminating its images in a flash before extinguishing them forever.
I think I expected the Forbidden City still to be vibrantly alive, filled with soft impermanent things like silks, rugs, robes, incense, wood, leather, music, and fragile things like ceramics and paintings, but the Forbidden City comprises mostly hard substances–stones and structures. Like other exposed antiquities, only the things that couldn’t be carried off still remain. The Chinese have proudly restored pigment to the gorgeous eaves and ceilings of the Forbidden City, and they have carefully preserved the bit of furnishings spared by British and French soldiers whose gentlemanly sensibilities thankfully restrained their conquering hands from grabbing the interiors of the women’s quarters. I hope that other treasures that are scattered in museums throughout the world will soon make their way back home where they belong.
I’ll start with the women’s quarters, where we can still glimpse the rich layers of daily life. Unfortunately, like all examples of excessive power, there is the grotesque and immoral side to the story. Girls were selected as concubines for one of the emperors, and kept here in these rooms with the emperor’s wife. Having a daughter selected for the emperor’s (lascivious and decadent) possession was an honor for the family but a disaster for the girl. Anyway, I won’t go into detail about the girls’ lives, but will note that the female occupants were not allowed to leave the inner city during this period. A raised barrier lies at the foot of the gate between the deep interior of the city and the outer part. These raised steel panels must still be stepped over, an easy feat for tourists in sneakers, but not so easy for women crippled by bound feet. The barriers were both symbolic and effective in that sense.
My impression is that symbolism abounds in the Chinese culture and in these historic sites. To me, these symbols are fascinating from sociological, historical, and art-appreciation standpoints, but, like bound feet, can cripple those who let superstition govern their thoughts, choices, actions, and lives.
Once I adjusted to the reality versus my expectation, the Forbidden City amazed me. It is vast! Walking through the bones of the ancient city gives a sense of the events and lives that took place here. Marco Polo sat on his horse on the stone expanse below the emperor’s platform (The Gate of Supreme Harmony…I think). You can imagine this huge courtyard filled with horses and the awesome power manifest in the ornately attired emperor up there on the platform with all his attendants.
The first set of photos is of the beautiful interiors of the women’s quarters where we can still see the wood, ceramics, tapestries, paintings and other artifacts. These rooms are behind glass, so that’s my excuse for the quality. I think they will still interest you despite their photographic flaws!
This picture shows the women’s quarters from outside. This is in the far back of the Forbidden City.
Look at these gorgeous rooftops and terraces.
Here is where the emperor would rest and have tea after the tiring task of being carried out of the private area.
Here’s the biggest building at the center (the Palace of Heavenly Peace) and the raised marble platform surrounding it.
Here is the stone courtyard with deeply layered stones capable of holding a lot of weight, a whole army on horseback.
Again, the largest building, the Palace of Heavenly Peace:
The gate to the left of the Palace of Heavenly Peace, through which we passed into the inner part of the city.
And just some photos for you to enjoy:
Here’s the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Here’s Tiananmen Square, which you cross to go to the Forbidden city. It’s huge. These flowers are just in a small corner of the square.
Here is another view of Tiananmen Square, showing its size: