Thursday, 11 August 2011

Preview: The Forbidden City

Emperor or eunuch? Given the choice, I suppose most of us would opt for emperor and its world of power, prestige, wealth and more concubines than are strictly practical. However, the position of emperor has traditionally always been a fairly limited one, and unless you were feeling bold enough to try and oust the ruler of all under heaven, as the Chinese believed their leaders to be, if you weren't born into pole position in the imperial family then becoming ruler of the realm might not be a very realistic dream. Don't worry, in Chinese terms it usually wasn't very desirable anyway - in the 2133 years from the First Emperor in 221 BC to the very final one, who abdicated in 1912 and died a model citizen in Communist China in 1967, there were something in the region of 550 emperors who ruled. You do the maths, it doesn't equal a very long average reign. Only one emperor ever lived beyond 80 years, only four made it to over 70 years old, and less than 10% - and I think this is astonishing - made it to the age 50.

So eunuch it will be then. Despite the rather obvious drawback, it wasn't a bad career choice. Indeed for a boy born to a peasant family it was a way out from the grinding poverty, although it was generally preferred that eunuchs were prisoners-of-war or especially the prisoners' sons. And once the sickle-shaped knife's single stroke had removed - for Chinese eunuchs - both the testicles and penis, and the tears had eventually subsided, being sold to the imperial household wasn't too bad a fate at all and many eunuchs grew fat, rich and powerful. Plus, unless you were the emperor himself, for a male born any time from 1420 to the fall of the empire in 1912, being castrated and living as a gender-neutralised servant would have been the only way to have seen behind the scenes of the vast Chinese powerhouse - within the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City, in the heart of the chaos of Beijing, was for five hundred years the home of the Chinese empire for two ruling dynasties, the Ming and the Qing. From its very inception it was designed to be a place of display and spectacle, for the public and private life of the Son Of Heaven. It was not a place for peasants. The Outer Court, though for public life, was not for the public - it was here the emperor would hold court and discuss affairs of the state with his officials, or that formal ceremonies would take place, such as the emperor's birthday, the lunar new year, and troops being dispatched to war. For the men, if you knew the right people, or had been savvy enough to attain some kind of power, you might hope to stand here. But no matter how much favour you curried, the deeper Inner Court would forever remain a mystery. Entry through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, dividing the Outer and Inner Courts was reserved for the emperor, the imperial family and domestic staff. Including loads and loads of eunuchs.

Spread over a massive 74 hectare/183 acre site, the Forbidden City was always designed as a city within a city. It has almost a thousand buildings, built largely of wood and in traditional Ming architectural style. But it is not a sprawling and random set of buildings: the Forbidden City is very deliberate and heady with symbolism. The tiles are an imperial yellow - yellow being considered the most beautiful colour and with ancient symbolism. The main halls are arranged in groups of three in a manner supposed to represent heaven, with the residences of the Inner Court arranged in groups of six to represent the Earth. Lining the sloping roofs are small statues, with the number of statues indicating the status of the building - the maximum of ten is held by the imposing Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the Outer Court, where the most grand ceremonies, such as weddings or coronations, were performed.

It has been the heart of the capital as long as Beijing has been the capital, since its completion in 1420. China has gone through its fair share of capitals and when the Ming dynasty took power in 1368, the capital was in Nanjing, in the south, and literally meaning "southern capital". It was quite a sensible place to have a capital, being in the heart of China and safe from the scourge of the nomad barbarians up north. The Ming Emperor, Yongle (pronounced "Yong-le" rather that rhyming with "dongle" I'm quietly disappointed to report) disagreed. He reigned from 1403-1424 and quickly decided he wanted his capital somewhere a bit, well, more risky. Like right up north where the barbarians were. In the year he took power, he chose the city of Beiping (literally meaning "the north pacified", formerly the old Mongol capital but renamed since the Ming dynasty took power) and renamed it Beijing ("northern capital"). This was to be the new capital of the realm, he announced, much to the immense displeasure of pretty much anyone of sense, who were all quite settled in Nanjing and didn't really fancy moving up north to face the greater extremes of temperature and the even greater threat of roaming bands of barbarians (at least from their perspective) who were a little too close for comfort. But there's no arguing with an emperor sometimes, and Yongle has his vast palace complex built between 1406 and 1420, with the major structures built after 1416.

And since then, nothing fundamental has changed. Upon being completed in 1420, Beijing was officially named as the capital, as it remains today, despite brief flirtations with other cities during the unstable late Ming period and the wars of the first half of the 20th Century. There has been plenty of refurbishment over the years - indeed major works are going on now and till 2020, in preparation for the 600-year anniversary - and smaller buildings have gone down or come up, but the empire or eunuch propelled forward in time to the present day would recognise his surroundings. That is upon entering the Forbidden City via the 36-metre high Meridian Gate and passing through the courtyard and then through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, just as he would have in the 15th Century he will still arrive in the huge central courtyard featuring the three main halls: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Medium Harmony, and the Hall of Protective Harmony - there's a lot of harmony going on here. Beyond this are the many buildings of the Inner Court. What he might be a little alarmed by is the barbarian hoards that truly have invaded all corners of this now-not-very-"Forbidden" City: seven million tourists visit every year, and about 20% of them are the foreign devils once treated with disdain by the imperial court.

Because the Forbidden City, like many great monuments of the past, has become a museum to itself. The Outer Court was first opened, in parts, to the public in 1914, three years after the fall of the empire, with the Inner Court opening in 1925. After the Communists took power it 1949, it was lucky to avoid being taken to pieces to allow a huge road to built right through it. It went onto UNESCO's world heritage list in 1987, and was again, this time fully, opened to the public in 1988.

I'll be visiting the Forbidden City in about February or March, and will give a fuller account of its history and my own impressions then. The last emperor died in 1967 and the last eunuch only in 1996, so I'll have to make to with simply meeting normal civilians. It's probably for the best.

Reviewed 22nd February 2012.

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