Behind the red walls: the Forbidden City

For centuries, this was the powerseat of China. Home to 24 emperors from two dynasties over 500 years. Yet the behemoth of a place must have felt more like a prison than a palace at times – even to those who lived in luxury here at the height of their power. Hall after hall, courtyard after courtyard, after a while it all began to merge into one yellow and red blur. You can’t help but sympathise a bit with its occupants many of whom must have chafed to leave at some point or other – the eunuchs, the maids, the concubines and yes, even the odd emperor or so. Even the Kangxi emperor and the Emperor Qian Long often made long sojourns out of the palace walls. Not for nothing is the place known as the Forbidden City.

The sight that grabbed me the most was the entrance at the Wu Men or Meridian Gate, and the moat the gracefully curved in front. That was beautiful and impressive. And crowded though if you move a bit to the left or right instead of standing smack in the middle, you might have the corners to yourself.

little girl looking from inside out

little girl looking from inside out



We left it for the last day – this must-see sight. And then tried to cram it all into one afternoon. Big mistake. Especially after gleefully romping round Tai Miao in the morning we were already a bit palace-fatigued and to be honest all the red and yellow just seemed to merge into one after a while.

Standing at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, looking towards the awesome Meridian Gate, the Forbidden City is invaded by tourists.

Standing at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, looking towards the awesome Meridian Gate, the Forbidden City is invaded by streams of tourists.

On the other side of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, raised like an orange wedding cake on three levels, sits the Hall of Supreme Harmony (why do I have the urge to hum the theme from Star Wars at this point?) and this is where Ming emperors held court. Qing emperors preferred a more low-key location for court so this huge hall – apparently the largest wooden building in China – is left for the formal kingly occasions like coronations and investitures.

Okay from this point on, everything sort of merged because I was so numbed out by both the cold and grumped out at having to trudge across what felt like miles of endless courtyards to find similar buildings waiting for me. It sort of felt like Groundhog Day after a while.

wedding cake

wedding cake

Did not help that signage in the Forbidden City was brief, terse and uninspiring. The buildings were largely shells. There was little or nothing to recreate the sense that this was a space that people once lived in, much less the fact they were in fact royalty.Yes I confess there is a teensy part of me that is a voyeur for royalty and royal kitsch. It made me grumpy that here in this place, where I was so curious about – having been bred on a diet of  Cantonese soaps and dramas on the eeeevil Empress Dowager and hapless concubines in my formative years – that I was to be denied clearer, more intimate insight into their lives here at this place where they lived, walked and schemed!

It all felt cold (okay literally since we were really feeling it at 5°C in the afternoon!) and rather lifeless. Could not help but contrast this to the tiny Pena palace at the top of the hill in Sintra, a small town outside of Lisbon Portugal. The gaudy palace was Disneyesque in terms of style but at least it gave an intimate peek into what life was like for the Portuguese royals since the place was left intact and untouched when the last queen of Portugal left in exile. There we could walk past bedrooms and bathrooms, see a book left upturned, observe utensils laid out on the dining table etc. I loved it. These lived-in human touches, staged or not, still help to lend an emotional resonance to a space and I wish the Forbidden City had done that.

The closest we got to the seeing Puyi’s wedding suite and how the dowagers Ci Xi and Ci An lived was a blur of their living quarters all through glass walls that were murky from years of dirt and mucky fingerprints of curious tourists. I found it more fascinating to note that only the buttprint and footprints of absent lions now dot these pedestals now (right). Wonder who pilfered the lions? Perhaps they were bronze lions? Can’t think why else people would steal heavy stone lions? Then again never say never since the palace was looted when the Japanese moved in during the occupation years and then again later when the communists took over, the Kuomintang happily packed and Fedexed several thousand boxes of national treasures across the Straits to Taiwan. And of course there were the occasional petty thefts when dispersing eunuchs claimed the odd timepiece, statue, sculpture etc when the Qing dynasty finally fell. No wonder a hollow shell is left for us today.

We sort of hiked it out quite quickly and before we knew it, we were at the gardens at the back of the palace, complete with ponds and rockeries. By the end as we crossed the north gate facing Jingshan Hill, we realised we did miss a few sights – KH was disappointed to miss the Nine Dragons Screen and I wanted to see the well where the concubine was pushed into by an eunuch/forced to drown herself in (take your pick). Looks like we might have to come back – yikes – and tramp across miles of courtyard again!

Forbidden City at dusk

Forbidden City at dusk

I think the only thing that stirred my imagination was probably the huge red wall encircling the city. This little signboard below sort of explains it in a very romanticised way:

So actually, maybe more than  200 years. But it is true that the red walls have seen much. A whole different world existed behind these walls. They served to keep the inner palace a tantalising mystery for most. Just as it has for China as a whole for so many centuries. If only walls could talk. But then I say this for all walls left standing – the castles in Japan, the crumbling Via Appia in Rome and for the Forbidden City.


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