Inside the Forbidden City, Beijing
When a Chinese dynasty is overthrown, tradition dictates that the old palace must be razed to make way for a new one in its place. But in the summer of 1644 the Manchus broke with the age-old habit, sparing the already fire-damaged residence of their predecessors a similar fate. Instead the new rulers would set about restoring the 15th-century marvel to its former glory.
Today the palace still stands at the very heart of Beijing; it’s a vast complex of some 980 buildings housing more than 8,600 rooms, or 9,999 – and a half – if you count with the Chinese unit of jian. It was believed that Heaven had 10,000 rooms, and the Emperor could not attain that amount or risk incurring the wrath of the gods.
In dynastic times admission to the city was met with the promise of certain death, but nowadays it costs a more affordable 45RMB during the low season (prices are raised to 60RMB in the summer months). By coming in winter, I thought that I had evaded the usual mass of tour groups. But I could not have been more wrong.
Despite near-zero temperatures, the late morning crowds at Meridian Gate are as thick as ever. In Chinese the expression for a multitude is “people mountain people sea”, and this is the exact sentiment that runs through my mind as I am swept up in the human tide. The Forbidden City receives more than twelve million visitors each year, and these days domestic tourism is burgeoning in the most populous nation on the planet.
Once inside however, I breathe a sigh of relief. The crowd disperses through the vast courtyards, moving slowly but surely along the central axis, where it was once decreed that only the emperor could walk. Among the flag-waving guides and tour groups in baseball caps I see the signs of a wealthier, more upwardly mobile China. At Taihemen a row of visitors hold up their iPads, taking photos of the ceremonial throne hall in the bright winter sunshine.
Taihedian, or the Hall of Supreme Harmony, sits at the focal point of a powerful axis that bisects Beijing. Many of the city’s landmarks – the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the old Drum and Bell Towers – are situated on or along the so-called “dragon vein”. Even the Olympic Park, home to the iconic Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, is aligned to the invisible axis.
But more than anything, the Forbidden City is best known as a place of intrigue. Tales of love and betrayal, eunuchs, jealous emperors and concubines colour its 600-year-long history. The more “public” areas of the palace are virtually devoid of trees, a practical move to deter any would-be assassins.
One of the most famous characters who lived within the walls was a woman by the name of Cixi. At the age of fifteen she entered the palace as a concubine, rising steadily through the ranks until she became the emperor’s favourite. Eventually she bore him a son, and when the emperor died she took control in the name of her young child.
Popular culture, both in China and abroad, portrays her as a villainous and cruel woman, hungry for absolute control. Vilified for her extravagant spending (she used funds meant for modernising the navy to build herself the Summer Palace), Cixi was charismatic and shrewd, ruling for no less than 47 years from behind the curtains.
But Empress Cixi also had something of a softer side. In stark contrast to her reputation as a “dragon lady”, she was known to have a great love for animals. As regent one of her first royal edicts was to prohibit the maltreatment of the palace dogs. She entrusted her prized kennel of Pugs, Pekingese and Shih Tzu to her chief eunuch; the latter two, bred to resemble the mythical guardian lions of old, were kept exclusively within the palace grounds.
Cixi ruled China in an age of fragility, social unrest and remarkable change. The weakness of the Manchu administration – and the country’s technological backwardness – allowed repeated incursions from Japan, the United States and the major European powers. To this day the Forbidden City bears the marks of that tumultuous era; the gilded bronze tubs throughout the palace are heavily scratched, marred by invading troops who attempted to peel away the thin layers of gold. It is an episode that is far from forgotten by many contemporary Chinese.
When Cixi died in 1908 at the age of 72, the Qing Dynasty had reached a state of perpetual decline. Less than four years later the monarchy would be overthrown, ending over 2,000 years of imperial rule and ushering in a brand-new republic. In 1925 the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum, and for the first time in its history, the doors were opened to the very people it had tried so long to keep out.