Before traveling to China, I never fully understood why it was called the Forbidden City.
Chinese history wasn’t my forte and I never really cared enough to do the research for myself. I just knew that the movie The Last Emperor won a bunch of Academy Awards and was based in the Forbidden City. I had also heard that there was a Starbucks that opened at one time right in the middle of it all.
While there isn’t a Starbucks there anymore, I now understand more of the history behind this famous site in China’s capital city and why it is indeed called The Forbidden City.
We gathered at the front gate with our tour guide on a very cold day in Beijing. Even though it was cold, the day was clear which for Beijing is a rare thing we hear. December is the time to travel to China as we had many a blue sky during our visit. We joined the rest of the tourists piling in to see what was behind these walls and we huddled around our guide to listen to a very long history lesson on the very old building.
I am going to have to admit right away, I didn’t care very much for the long winded explanations and Dave cared even less. He left to take photographs while I pretended to be interested for the next 4 hours. Yes, we froze and walked through gate after gate looking at building after building for four very long hours. Every section looked the same to me and after looking at the 3rd or 4th room and wandering around the 3rd or 4th building, I had enough.
I just felt like finding a Starbucks and having a Chai Latte.
You have to remember, are the couple of people that told our tuk tuk driver to keep driving after pulling up to yet another temple at Angkor Wat. We love visiting ruins and historical buildings, but we like to do it quickly and breeze by the highlights. Many people like the long history lesson, we like the crib notes.
But while we’re here, let me tell you a little bit about what I learned during the 4-hour tour.
Built in the 1400′s during the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City housed the ruling Emperors and their households for 500 years. It has a whopping 980 buildings and over 8000 rooms. Commoners were not allowed in the city and many of the Forbidden City’s inhabitants were not allowed to leave.
The only people living with the inner walls of the city were the Emperor, his Empress, his concubines and his guards that were castrated men known as Eunuchs. Even male relatives of the Emperor were not allowed to stay over night in the inner circle of the city.
Eunuchs guarded the concubines. Castrated men were the only other people that lived in the palace and allowed into the inner courtyards of the Forbidden City. This was to ensure that the Empress and the concubines could not be impregnated by anyone other than the Emperor. Eunuchs lived a privileged life gaining power in politics and wealth. They just had to do without he hem…the other stuff that goes along with being a man.
By the time of the Qing Dynasty (China’s final dynasty) there were 20,000 concubines on the premises. Some never even met or saw the Emperor, but were kept in the city until the end of their days. Other’s who were in favour with the Emperor lived a rich life and had enough wealth to spread to their extended families. Competition was fierce to be in good favour though and many times lead to murder. It was a cut throat and lonely life for the concubines. Only once a year were they allowed to look out from behind the walls and see their families and friends.
No commoner every saw the Emperor and if they tried to enter the city without his permission, they died a slow and painful death. And so, in the middle of this giant city stood an impenetrable wall surrounding a lavish lifestyle.
Like many of the landmarks in China, The Forbidden City took one million men working tirelessly in dismal conditions over 15 years to make a massive self-indulgent monument for the Emperor. Unlike the Terracotta Warriors, I didn’t find any record of the artists being murdered after their work was complete.
The Forbidden City is divided into many sections, but there are two main areas that divide the complex, The Outer Court and the Inner Court.
The outer court was used for ceremonial purposes and meetings and the inner court was the residence of the Emperor and the rest of the gang. There are buildings with names like The Hall of Heavenly Purity, The Palace of Earthly Tranquility and The Hall of Supreme Harmony that made me laugh since there wasn’t a lot of harmony or tranquility during the time of these dynasties.
The artistry and work that went into the palace cannot be denied though and the Forbidden City is beautiful and certainly worth seeing.
There is one work of art that is extremely impressive. A solid 16.5 metre long marble slab weighing in at 250 tons can be found behind the hall of preserved harmony. It leads up the steps towards the rear entrance carved with dragons weaving their way towards the door. It was moved 70 km from its place of carving. How does one move something so heavy at that time? They formed an ice highway to slide the slab all the way to Beijing. Waiting for winter to arrive, water was poured in front of the slab to freeze as 20,000 men and 20,000 horses pulled the slab to it’s final destination.
We walked through some more walls and looked at some more buildings until we finally came to the end of the road.
The last portion of the tour took us to the Imperial Gardens. That just sounds too cool to say that we have been to the Imperial Gardens. This was probably one of our favourite parts of the palace. The gardens were filled with rock sculptures and gardens. The most impressive is the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, or The Dui Xiu Shan. It’s a high rock mountain where the Emperor and his concubines would climb every ninth day of the ninth lunar month. The amount and size of Rock Gardens indicated the wealth of a person in historic China. So as you can imagine, the Forbidden City had many rock formations of various sizes and scale scattered within the garden.
Under different circumstances this palace could have been a place of great serenity and beauty. But at the time it was a prison for everyone. It was a prison for the concubines, a prison for the Eunuchs that were sacrificed at a young age by their parents and even a prison for the Emperor who was under the constant threat of assassination.
People may have been forbidden to enter, but its residents were doomed to never leave.