After Tienanmen Square, we headed north towards the imposing Tienanmen Tower and the entrance to the Forbidden City under the large portrait of Chairman Mao. There were literally thousands of tourists like me with the same goal in mind. Naturally, there was a little jostling, not too much to make it uncomfortable, just enough to make you mind your manners and your pocketbook. I had been warned of pickpockets, present at all crowded tourist destinations across the world.
Military guards in crisp uniforms stood erect at their posts and others in black suits kept a watchful eye on the crowd. Slowly we passed through the portal and entered the Forbidden City.
This was a momentous occasion for a history buff like me. I had heard and read about this historic place where for centuries the Chinese Emperors lived in unimaginable splendor. Originally built in the 14th century by Kublai Khan, grandson of Chengiz Khan, the warrior Mongol whose armies swept like a whirlwind from the eastern steppes to the gates of Vienna and left an undeniable stamp on the history of the world. In China his descendants gave rise to the Yuan dynasty. In the west, food items like steak tartare owe their origin to the Tartars who were themselves conquered and became part of the Mongol armies. The poem –Tartary, by the English poet Walter de la Mare flashed through my mind. Would I see “courtyards where peacocks flaunt and pools where great fishes slant”? Just a passing thought while I checked the battery usage of my camera.
I looked at the high, smooth scarlet walls of the Meridian Gate in front. Ever since I had seen the movie “The Last Emperor” directed by Bernado Bertolucci, I had wanted to see this place. This is a good movie to watch before a first time visit to the Forbidden City. It gives a snap shot of a crucial time in Chinese history; the last days of the empire and the beginnings of communist rule. This is where the Dowager Empress Cixi and the last emperor Pu Yi, then a little boy of three, lived as the revolution swept through China bringing an end to imperial rule and the birth of modern China. I took pictures as our guide went to get our entrance tickets.
The Forbidden City is built along a north-south axis in accordance to the principle of yin and yang. It is a series of palaces with huge courtyards enclosed by a high, rectangular wall surrounded by a moat. The emperors took good care to protect themselves from sudden attacks. The palaces and halls face south accepting harmonizing energy while keeping out the dust, cold and occasional sand storms that sweep in from the Gobi desert to the north. In this walled city the emperors spent their lives in the company of their wives, beautiful concubines and plump eunuchs. On rare occasions they ventured outside on state visits. Our guide returned with the tickets and we headed into the heart of the city.
There were huge throngs but they were orderly. The place was clean; I saw several litter bins placed strategically and being emptied regularly. There were groups of school children visiting, no doubt as a part of an outing to learn about their nation’s history. And here, there was much to learn.
This is where the emperors lived in luxury issuing imperial edicts, dispensing justice and planning military campaigns. Here there was the divine right to rule, conspicuous consumption and immense opulence. And in the countryside there were overtaxed, starving peasants, who revolted in an attempt to better their lot. And this ground is where the two intersected; the palaces where the emperors ruled and the gate where the People’s Republic was proclaimed, in effect ending the emperor’s rule. It was a lot to take in. I gazed slowly around me as I absorbed this fact of history.
We went through the several palaces and halls. Here the crowds were thickest but on the periphery, next to the walls there were very few visitors. We stood in the shade resting and enjoying the scenery. I could see in my mind’s eye the emperor in flowing golden robes coming down the stairs in a sedan chair acknowledging the salutes of his armies ranged in the huge courtyards or kowtowing to the Son of Heaven.
Almost all the buildings are of wood and lacquer, great fuel for fire. And almost all the buildings had, at some time in their history, been destroyed in a conflagration, either deliberately or accidentally, then meticulously restored. The walls are a deep scarlet and roofs a bright yellow bordering on gold.
Yellow was the royal color which only the emperor was entitled to. Needless to say, a commoner wearing yellow was in danger of losing his head. The same was true if a commoner set his eyes on the emperor. Hopefully, we have come far from those trying times. Over the golden roofs of this ancient city I could see the skyscrapers and construction cranes of modern Beijing looming through the haze that often envelops the city.
We finally came to the well-kept Imperial Garden and exited through the north entrance. We saw the surrounding wide moat and high protective walls of the imperial city. Around us were thousands of tourists waiting for their tour buses to take them to their next destination. We walked over to our car. I was suddenly feeling very hungry. It had been a long, memorable walk from the southern end of Tienanmen Square to the northern exit of the Forbidden City!