The Forbidden City is imposing. And while it was meant to be imposing, it wasn’t necessarily built to impress all and sundry, since unlike the western palaces with which we are more familiar, until after about 1925, relatively few people saw any part of the Forbidden City except the outside walls because it was built for the eyes and use of one man, completely incidental to the thousands of people who waited upon him and were housed there as well. 173 acres, nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine rooms, all for the Son of Heaven.
The main entrance to the Forbidden City is the Meridian Gate, right across the street from Tiananmen Square, where you are benignly and famously watched over by Mao himself. But now it is open to the public every day. Except Monday.
I had seen The Last Emperor (several times) and had a notion of how things looked and what I was going to see. Like so many other things about China, I was both right and wrong.
There is so much beauty and so much color, everywhere. And there are so many people everywhere that your eyes have to move as fast as your feet, since the Chinese are no big respecters of either personal space or the power and glory of the queue. And moving so fast in a landscape where human scale isn’t the most important element, it is easy to miss some of the small things since there isn’t much chance to plant yourself in a secluded or little-used corner to think about what you are seeing.
I was fascinated by the beautiful lines of the yellow-tiled pavilion roofs and the incredibly intricate painted details of the mostly wooden structures. And though I had heard that many of the pavilions were in sad shape, I didn’t find that to be the case; the city was well-preserved and extraordinarily clean, despite the enormous crowd. My biggest disappointment was that you aren’t allowed inside any of the pavilions, but you can’t have everything.
Most interesting story? The ongoing belief that the Forbidden City is haunted by the spirits of hundreds of courtiers. Most interesting explanation? The ancient red paint on the masonry walls contained chemicals similar to those in modern photosensitive film, and over the centuries have captured the images of hundreds of courtiers, which images appear most clearly at night in the beams of flashlights. Is it in any way true? I have no idea, but the Forbidden City is not open at night and I was told that there is an ongoing project to repaint all the masonry walls. Chinese food for thought.