China: Inner and outer spaces at the Forbidden City

An index to the China series appears at the first post.

September 22, 2016

With lunch complete, Chao Liu, graduate student Xiu-Nan Niu, and I all hopped in a taxi for Tian An Men Square, which is just south of the Forbidden City. Because a flood of tourists pour through the site every day, the government has set the southern gate as the entrance and the northern gate as the exit. Liu had invited his friend Amy to join our group as she is training for her Master’s degree in interpretation (she has spent several months in Chicago, gaining experience).

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Keep in mind that this structure is merely the outermost gate.

In visiting the Forbidden City, it is useful to remember that stagecraft is a vital element of politics. The massive painting of Mao Zedong on the front of the “Front Door” gate is an example. It faces Tian An Men Square, the heart of the new China, with its massive government buildings designed to house the meetings of ministers from all over Asia (these buildings frame the mausoleum of Mao).

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I think this fellow would look great in front of Turtle House!

The Ming Dynasty emperor who built the Forbidden City starting in 1406 intended to send clear messages to his rivals, both foreign and domestic. The first is his power, conveyed by the massive, carefully designed courtyards, the intricately carved stairs, and the truly vast chambers in which his public meeting thrones could be seen.

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Even an emperor likes a soft seat from time to time.

The second is the delicate appreciation of status that his halls reflect. If you were a high courtier, you might occasionally see the emperor in a merely fantastic meeting room near the private apartments, the emperor appearing a mere three steps higher than his guests. If you were a provincial bureaucrat, you would get nowhere near that meeting room; instead you would see the emperor in a far more massive, echoing space, though perhaps on his yellow couch. Others might see him seated in the gold chair atop a massive dais in the largest of the halls. A common soldier might not have made it past the persimmon trees outside that hall.

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The Hall of Union is a far more intimate space.

The spaces behind these formal halls tell a somewhat different story of the emperor’s daily life. The Hall of Union is certainly glorious enough, celebrating “wu wei,” the principle of non-action that is central in Taoism (and which can serve as a warning that the emperor’s actions are his prerogative). The Palace of Earthly Tranquility, directly behind, served as a residence for the empress. Other women who had become pregnant by the emperor would not have experienced anything close to tranquility in a summons to this hall. Sadly, the enclosed private gardens of the empress have been transformed into a beer garden for tourists.

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The extensive gardens within the Forbidden City are a far more comfortable place than the formal palaces.

Through the gate behind these halls, however, one finds a true delight: the Imperial gardens. Trees, rocks, pools, statues, pavilions, and libraries fill every nook and cranny. It is a truly delightful place to visit, despite the crowds. The Pavilion of Crimson Snow, dating from 1420, has been transformed into a gift shop, but the woodwork that ornamented this space is still there to be seen.

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Our Forbidden City team!

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Who knew Chinese Emperors liked rock-climbing?

I particularly liked the Mountain of Accumulated Elegance, dating from 1583. The massive rocks look like they would have been an awful temptation for a young boy who would later become emperor.

Just a few steps more, and one has passed through two massive gates to return to the outside world. As a maudlin touch, the exit directs one’s sight directly at a hill top crowned by a tower. This site marks the location where the last emperor of the Ming dynasty committed suicide as rebel forces converged on the city.

As we walked to a nearby historic district, our interpreter revealed that she had been born after the 1989 protests that occupied Tian An Men Square. She felt confused about why people bring it up; what could possibly have happened that would mark it so indelibly in people’s minds? I was reminded of the comment by a researcher, earlier in the week, who said that China was much more like the United States today than it was like Russia or the Soviet Union. I tried to describe what those Tian An Men protests meant to me. I said that they marked a time that the people of this nation had arisen in order to say that the corruption and mismanagement of China in the 1980s would not continue in their name. Many of them paid a terrible price for making that statement. Perhaps many Westerners thought that nothing would change after the government clamp-down. There is plenty of reason, though, to say that the China of today is a rather different place than it was in the 1980s. Might the 1989 protests have been a turning point in that process?

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These buildings, under renovation, show the architecture of the hutong.

We closed our day in the hutong village of Yuan Da Du along South Luogu Lane. This historic district was originally constructed in 1267, representing an area where skilled artisans could work and live adjoining the imperial government. Today, it is an extremely high-priced district of real estate, filled with businesses that attract shoppers and pleasure-seekers until late night. We stopped at a place for churros in ice cream and fruit syrup, and we examined shops with jewelry, stationery, clothes, porcelain, beads, and any number of other goods. Happily, many consecutive blocks were pedestrian-only, so we did not have to face the aggressive and hooting cars.

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Business hums among the restaurants and gift shops of the hutong.

As we prepared to leave the district, we came across two historic buildings. The first was the home of Mao Dun, a writer and cultural commentator who lived in the area from 1974 to 1981. Just a short distance down the street was the field headquarters of Chiang Kai-Shek, a large complex with a massive gate that had served the general in the aftermath of World War II. History in China, both modern and ancient, is quite alive!

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3 thoughts on “China: Inner and outer spaces at the Forbidden City

  1. Pingback: China: Returning to my world | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: China: Dave visits the Temple of Heaven | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Cahokia: America’s first city | Picking Up The Tabb

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