Tuesday, 14 February 2012

18. Wonder: The Forbidden City

(For the Forbidden City preview, please click here.)

Of all my Wonders, Beijing's Forbidden City has one of the greatest names. It is a name dripping with intrigue and mystery, a locked city of the unknown. The name alone grabs your attention, demands your interest. Give someone a box but tell them they're not allowed to open it, and immediately they want to open it, even if there's nothing inside. That is what the Forbidden City's name does - it makes you want to see inside. The name derives from the old Chinese name, which translates literally as the "Purple Forbidden City"; purple refers to the Pole Star, said to be the home of the Celestial Emperor, and the Chinese word for city is the same as wall, so a fuller name could be "The Forbidden Walled City of the Pole Star". But whatever you called it, for most of its existence, you weren't allowed in.

Fortunately for those unable to sit next to an unopened box, the Forbidden City is now open to the public seven days a week, for the very reasonable price of 40 RMB (£4). So not at all forbidden. And not a city either. In fact, the modern Chinese name is far more accurate: Palace Museum. Doesn't sound so intriguing of all a sudden, does it? After being the home for twenty-four emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasty, beginning with its completion in 1420 and finally ending with the eviction of the last emperor of China in 1924, the Forbidden City's gates are open to peasant public and foreign devils alike to stick their beady eyes and big noses into the personal quarters of the many Sons of Heaven.

And so that is what Burness and I did on during a couple of cold February mornings in Beijing. Our hostel being just a stroll from the east wall and moat of the palace, we had the luxury of a short walk by the side of this candidate Wonder before reaching the public entrance. I say short, but the north-to-south length of the Forbidden City is almost a kilometre, with the east-to-west distance being about three-quarters of that, so a full walk round the perimeter would take almost an hour. We weren't doing the full circuit, but including reaching the conventional entrance via the Gate of Heavenly Peace that faces Tiananmen Square, it was a good twenty minutes of walking.

Along the outside of the Forbidden City, there isn't much to see. With walls around eight metres high, and the moat a considerable fifty-two metres wide, the curved and tiled roofs of the palace just peak into sight. Any time before the 20th Century, unless either very privileged or castrated, this would have been about as much as I'd have been allowed to see - a wall and a moat, with watch-towers at the corners. During the winter months, the wide moat is frozen solid, as it was during our strolls, thus lessening somewhat its defensive value. Not that it ever mattered. In the history of the Forbidden City, the enemy never invaded using ice-skates and sledges - they always walked in right through the gates.

And likewise did we. The Gate of Heavenly Peace first, adorned with Chairman Mao's benevolent face, the death of millions apparently forgiven - or forgotten. In fact this, and Duan Gate that follows, are not technically part of the Forbidden City, hence they are free to walk around, no 40 RMB charge yet (to climb the Gate of Heavenly Peace costs a very reasonable 15 RMB). They are part of the larger Imperial City, an area pre-dating the Forbidden City although the gates themselves are from the same era. The real entrance to the Forbidden City begins at the 35-metre tall Meridian Gate, the tallest structure in the Forbidden City with no building permitted to exceed it, and dominating the Beijing skyline until the 20th Century. It is here you get your 40 RMB entry ticket, perhaps opt to go for the audio guide, and take your first steps into the forbidden...

A quick word on the audio guide. Like the audio guide at the Badaling section of the Great Wall, the guide was triggered apparently by GPS. This meant that, as you walked around the site, the lady's voice would begin an explanation of the surroundings at the appropriate point. Great - in theory. You see, the system for both was inclined to be a little temperamental. This wasn't a big deal at the Wall, as you could manually put in the correct number, or pause the guide. But at the Forbidden City, there was no such option. You could adjust the volume, and that was it. All there was otherwise was a map and a bunch of blinking diodes.

The lack of a pause button, coupled with the system only going through the spiel for each location once only, meant that as soon as the lady spoke, I had to stop and listen. No pausing for thought, no rewinding to hear again: once she started, there was no stopping her. Worse though, half the time she just refused to speak. According to the map, I'd be in the right location, and sometimes she'd be speaking to Burness, but I'd get nothing, as though I'd offended her. The only way to trigger her was to walk around in circles in the area, hoping the GPS system or whatever was used would snap in. Ultimately, this meant I only managed to extinguish half the diodes, although as many were in parts of the Forbidden City closed to the public, I had little hope of completing the set. However, after two hours and barely half way there, this wasn't something I was too upset about. Because - and please don't tell the lady, as she was a little stern - it was really all a little boring...

Any suggestion of boredom was still a little ahead, however, as we passed through the Meridian Gate into a forecourt with an attractive, iced-over canal running through it before the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

And then the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

By now you may have seen a pattern emerge. And this is not a pattern that changes as you wander around the hundreds of buildings in the Forbidden City. Yes, you'd better like traditional Chinese architecture, because the Forbidden City has a whole big load of it, and it hammers away at your senses as you wander about the 720,000 square metres (178 acres, or the size of 32 Sydney Opera Houses, or almost twice that of Tiananmen Square, if you like). The size and grandeur varies considerably, but the style does not. Depending on your view, the Forbidden City is a cohesive masterpiece of traditional architecture or an endless and unsubtle series of the same type of building over and over. My own view? It depends whether you ask me as I stand before the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or after hours of walking around lots of smaller versions of it.

Because the Hall of Supreme Harmony does exactly as it was intended to do - it impresses. The Forbidden City was designed as a display of power, and this is aptly conveyed. Unlike Western architecture, which often focuses on height for impact, classical Chinese has an emphasis on breadth, using a large curved roof to increase the visual impact of the width. The Hall of Supreme Harmony epitomises this, with a colossal roof that spans the supporting building, and sat atop a high marble platform, it has grandeur in spades. It is the largest wooden building in China and one of the largest in the world (an ancient Japanese temple called Todai-ji is typically given the accolade of the largest, although Seville's remarkable Metropol Parasol, finished last year, also claims the title), although being wooden has its drawbacks - since construction in 1406 it has burnt down seven times, and the current incarnation dates from 1697. Set in the Outer Court of the Forbidden City, it was where the emperor would hold public court, to discuss - or dictate - affairs of state with officials. This was the case during the Ming dynasty, when holding court wasn't too frequent, but by the Qing dynasty it was moved into the Inner Court for convenience and the Hall of Supreme Harmony was instead used for ceremonial functions, such as coronations or weddings.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is part of a trio of harmoniously-titled buildings that constitute the visual core of the Forbidden City, along with the smaller Hall of Central Harmony and the similarly large Hall of Preserving Harmony. In the Outer Court, all three buildings are on the same marble platform as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, elevated from the rest of the palace, and have an expanse of space around them. It is these buildings, framed by the huge sprawl of the Forbidden City, that have the most impact. They feel big, grand, important, and have a bit of the big-boy swagger that the world's most confident monuments have.

It's a real shame, however, that appreciation is restricted to the outside. Unless you enjoy pushing in with three hundred Chinese to lean against a railing and peer inside a gloomy doorway, the interior of the buildings aren't easy to appreciate. I can understand that it's not desirable to have thousands of tourists traipsing through these precious buildings, but a system of controlled entry would surely be possible. Because the interior of all three halls looked fabulous, what little I could see. But the "forbidden" part of the Forbidden City still has some meaning, it seems. Here's what I managed to capture of the Hall of Union and Peace.

The "museum" part of the modern Chinese name, the Palace Museum, kicks in for much of the rest of the walk around the Forbidden City. Lots and lots of smaller buildings, lots and lots of displays of old artefacts and artwork. With all the buildings beginning to look alike, and my confused automatic guide not making much sense, it is here where interest waned. Connoisseurs, no doubt, will have much to get excited about with the abundance of pottery and jade around. Normal people, I suspect, will not. Only a fraction of the vast amount of treasures once owned by the emperors remains, much of it being stolen either by crafty eunuchs or as the spoils of war, and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan has a huge amount, taken from the mainland in 1947 after the Nationalists had lost to the Communists. Should this be returned? Probably, although I can understand why the little tiger would be reluctant to relinquish anything to the big dragon next door, which would swallow them whole given the chance.

Little bites might be the best way to digest the Forbidden City, as due to its sheer size, it's quite possible to wander for a couple of hours and still not see half of it. And given that probably only about half the huge complex is open to the public, that's even less of the overall palace visited. Fatigue sets in, and in a state of fatigue is never the way to explore a Wonder. So unless you never tire of traditional Chinese architecture, take the Forbidden City in a few digestible chunks, and don't exhaust yourself with a comprehensive exploration.

As with other complexes I've visited, such as Agra Fort and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, there's so many different buildings and sections that to list and describe each one just becomes an exercise in list-making. The most notable would be the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the sleeping quarters for thirteen Ming emperors - to the layman, it looks rather like the three Halls. Then there's plenty of smaller buildings with grand names like the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, and the Hall of Literary Glory (which is now a bookshop). They look like smaller versions of the main halls. But at the very back of the Forbidden City, deep in the Inner Court, inside the Imperial Garden, is a slight break with the architectural norm - the Hill of Accumulated Elegance.

Built from rocks taken from a lake, the emperor and empress would climb to small pavilion on top each month and admire the view across the Inner Court. Sadly, like much of the increasingly aptly named Forbidden City, access to the stairway up is now prohibited.

There are loads of other buildings around, many of minor significance. The palace complex was invaded a number of times throughout the years, and throughout history many of the Forbidden City's buildings have been vacant and ruined, like a decrepit shopping mall. These days, loads of them have been converted into souvenir shops or cheap restaurants, although fairly discreetly done. This brings to mind the controversy over the Starbucks that operated a short while back, from 2000 to 2007. It eventually closed due to public pressure - "How dare they have a Starbucks inside an important historical edifice?!" - but I wonder how on earth you can criticise a small Starbucks shop when you have stuff like this:

The Forbidden City flying tour. Stand against a blue screen and fly over the Forbidden City...

As I've said, like complexes such as Agra Fort and co, the Forbidden City has lots of different buildings, but unlike them the Forbidden City is very much a cohesive unit. As well as being to a strict stylistic form, the layout of the buildings is very ordered, in symmetrical groups of three, and with all kinds of other symbolism related to Chinese traditions. The effect of the symmetry is appealing, but the similarity of the buildings does get somewhat monotonously overwhelming on a long visit. And like these other sprawling complexes, and despite the teeming swarms of Chinese tour groups, the unavoidable sense of it being just a shadow of its former self prevails. The Forbidden City is just a relic of greatness, an echo of its one-time mighty prestige. The feeling is inescapable. The palace is dead. Suddenly the name "Palace Museum" becomes appropriate because this is a Wonder, like many, that has become a museum to itself. And short of reinstating the emperor - which I don't think is currently on the Central Committee's agenda - that's the way the Forbidden City is destined to continue.

After a tumultuous first half of the 20th Century, and despite a few early Communist party plans to build a road right through it, the Forbidden City has been a protected Chinese landmark since 1969 and on UNESCO's World Heritage list since 1987. Currently it's undergoing an extensive renovation, due to be completed by its 600th anniversary in 2020, and the parts that have already been restored look fabulous with fresh, bright colours. That at least differentiates it from some of the other "museum Wonder" - it is enjoying a thorough makeover.

As you might have gathered, I have mixed feelings about the Forbidden City. I suspect for the Chinese, brought up learning about it, breathing in the imperial history, and seeing it brought to life in TV dramas, it means a lot more. To the outsider, even with a knowledge of the history and meaning, the buildings just don't say that much to me. Possibly a less dull audio guide might have helped; make the experience a little more light-hearted, bring in a few more personal tales, and maybe the Forbidden City would seem a little more alive. That's not to say the Forbidden City is unimpressive, far from it. It is the world's largest surviving palace complex and is an incredible achievement. There is considerable impact upon walking through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to behold the expanse of courtyard and the swaggering Hall of Supreme Harmony sat on its platform. The "Harmony" trio are all impressive. And then, exit through Shenwu Gate at the north, and take a walk up the hill on Jingshan Park immediately opposite. From here you can view the entire palace and appreciate its size, its symmetry, and the sheer force of repetition of all the traditional roofs. It makes a lot of sense from a distance. But for a casual visitor, the size becomes its undoing, and there are only a certain number of similar-looking buildings one can take. Don't try and experience everything the Forbidden City has to offer. Just enjoy the highlights and get out before the appeal wanes.

Criteria then.

Size: In terms of buildings and area, massive: almost a thousand, in 178 acre site, surrounded by a 52-metre wide moat. Individually, the buildings aren't gigantic, being 35 metres at the tallest, or 63 metres at the widest. The Supreme Hall of Supreme Harmony has an imposing presence, however.
Engineering: Built quickly, to existing forms. None of these are miracles of construction, although the speed the complex was built is impressive.
Artistry: The subtleties are lost on laymen such as I, with all the symbolism and numerological meaning needing to be explained. Nonetheless, the symmetry is appealing, as is the decor, especially the freshly-painted renovations. The repetition of style is both impressive and wearing.
Age/Gravitas: Originally, almost 600 years old, but being made of wood and susceptible to fire has seen numerous fires, so what we see now is a still-old 300 years or so.
Fame/Iconicity: One of China's most famous landmarks, with an image probably eclipsed by the evocative name in terms of global recognition.
Context: It sits within the heart of Beijing, adjacent to Tiananmen Square and within the old Imperial City. But really, with its walls shutting outsiders out, the Forbidden City is independent of context - put it anywhere in the world and it would have the same impact (albeit it would seem somewhat odd in somewhere like the Sahara).
Back Story: The terrific history of the Ming and Qing empires are set here, leading up to the creation of modern China. The Forbidden City is central to all of China over the last six hundred years. I just wish that could be brought more to life when visiting there.
Originality: Not very. It is bigger than other palaces, but the architectural style is traditional. Overall, it is the epitome of that style, but after the fiftieth curving tiled roof of the day, you'll be wishing for some kind of variation.

Overall, the Forbidden City is more about the history than the structure, and that is why it is celebrated. It was the seat of power of one of the world's great civilisations, and for the majority of its history closed off to outsiders. But these days the gates have been opened, the commoners let in, and the mystique has faded. It still retains an impressive air, and clings onto its pride, but we now know its secrets. Like all my "complex-style" Wonders, it suffers from being spread out rather than having a single focus, although its dedication to a single architectural style does make it cohesive. Ultimately, I have to admit just not getting excited about the Forbidden City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony and its surroundings are impressive, and the overall size of the palace is likewise, but it doesn't really pack any "wow" punches. It was built, more-or-less, to a template, albeit bigger, and much of it rebuilt numerous times due to fire, and seems to have been readily constructed with ease each time. It's a grand structure, no doubt, but not a truly awesome one. And so, unfortunately, considering its reputation, the Forbidden City underachieves somewhat, falling safely into mid-table a smidgeon above the smaller but more visually interesting Temple of the Emerald Buddha, but a little below the dinky but divine Golden Temple.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Angkor Wat
3. Sydney Opera House
4. Borobudur
5. Kailash Temple in Ellora
6. Akshardham
7. Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple


  1. I visited The Forbidden City in 2003-ish, Starbucks intact (which was actually amazingly unobtrusive and pleasingly ironic) and had similar feelings to you. We didn't stay too long as after wondering around for a couple of hours you really feel as though, despite not seeing even half of it's entirety, you've seen as much FC-architecture as you can stomach. Saying that, I feel lucky to have visited a place with such interesting history. Can't wait to hear what you think of The Wall...

  2. I'm glad you agree - it's a tough call to take such an iconic landmark and describe it as "boring". In small doses is definitely the way to do it, and due to current circumstances (to be detailed in an entry soon) I'll be in Beijing for another two weeks, so intended to give another visit.

    I'm intending on visiting around six sections of the Wall, and have visited two already. However, as a couple of sections are in the west of China, the review may not be for some time.


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