BEIJING — You cannot even begin to grasp the grandeur of Beijing’s Forbidden City unless you enter through its mighty gates and see it for yourself.
And believe me when I say the landmark alone is enough a reason to visit Beijing at least once in a lifetime, especially if you are a history or architecture buff.
As the name suggests, the 720,000-sqm complex was once the seat of power of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1912), staffed by an army of eunuchs and off-limit to commoners unless they had the privilege of being invited by the imperial court. Throughout China’s turbulent history, it came close to an annihilation by Western, Japanese, and Communist forces. Nowadays it is open to millions of tourists.
My first impression before entering the Forbidden City, completed in 1420, is the massive scale of the outer gate, called Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
The fortress-like gatehouse is adorned with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. The Chairman stood on its balcony 70 years ago to proclaim the founding of the People’s Republic. This is the same gate that overlooked the 1989 mass protest that attempted to bring about democracy and reforms before it was put down by the military, leading to debatable number of deaths.
Entering the first, second and third massive gates of the Forbidden City, one cannot help but feel humbled and awed by the experience.
At the center of the Forbidden City, and after a considerable stroll, is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall in the palace. Those who have seen the classic “The Last Emperor” would immediately recognize the sight.
Pause here admire the colored ceilings and ornate dragon throne from a distance. This must be done in competition with a throng of other tourists, mostly Chinese. Yet stand there as long as you can to imbibe in the atmosphere.
If you can, use binoculars to admire the imperial Chinese architecture. Notice the roof guardians in odd number of figures believed to protect the buildings from fire.
Our guide, supplied by the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told us that there used to be 9,999 rooms inside the Forbidden City. The emperors were thought to be semi-divine, but only the truly divine beings in heaven have 10,000 rooms, according to traditional beliefs.
Bronze Chinese lions, such as the two guarding the front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, are simply exquisite and filled with an aura of power. A careful observation would reveal that one is male and another female; the male holds a ball beneath its left paw while the female caresses a lion cub.
There are bronze water receptors, used to store water in case there’s a fire inside the city. The guide said the marks of damages on the vessels were caused by Japanese invaders during the occupation of Beijing.
One should also simply sit and admire the majesty of the palace, built by a labor of 1 million people over a period of 14 years. I wonder how many died, and how many of them were willing participants in the grand project.
Whichever direction you look, you will find yourself surrounded by delicate architecture and artisan craft, even though most of its treasures are long gone, with the better of the collection kept at the National Palace Museum located 1,721 km away in Taipei.
The treasures, consisting of some 650,000 items, were evacuated to the southern island due to fear of being looted by the Japanese army during its invasion of Beijing in 1937. Having visited the museum in Taipei myself, I must say a trip there is also a must for a Sinophile.
The fact that the Forbidden City itself is still standing is almost a miracle on its own. In 1860, during the humiliating Second Opium War, it was nearly burned down by the British and French troops who toyed with the idea while encamped in front of Tiananmen.
‘Fortunately,’ they eventually decided to loot and burn down the Summer Palace in northern Beijing instead.
The palace again came close to destruction when the Cultural Revolution reached its height of frenzy in 1966. At the time, 4,922 out of 6,843 designated places of historical interest were already trashed or vandalized by the Red Guards, and they soon set their sights on the most iconic landmark of Chinese feudalism.
Upon hearing about a planned attack on the Forbidden City, however, Premier Zhou Enlai sent troops there and ordered the gates closed, effectively sparing its fate.
The Red Guards are a distant past. By contrast, during my visit the palace is full of young Chinese dressed up in traditional hanfu costumes and taking photos for their social media.
As I exit the Forbidden City through the last gate, the Gate of Divine Prowess, I noticed the blue tablet on the gate written both in Chinese and Manchurian scripts. Apparently when the Qing emperors were in power, Manchurian women of certain young age and class would have to be sent to the palace through this backgate to be selected to serve the emperor.
Such feudal practice is no more. The emperors are gone for a long time now, although more recently Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong brought back the medieval term, branding Chinese paramount leader President Xi Jinping as “Emperor Xi”.
The writer would like to thank the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and the guide for a tour of the Forbidden City.