The Forbidden City is probably one of the most iconic sites of China and it’s probably more globally recognized than the White House. Since very little of my stay in China has been the picturesque, touristy China that you see in movies or hear other visitors describe, I’ve had little ambition or desire to see this place. But today on New Years Day, we went. And why not? It was built in the 1400’s (and been has remodeled in some way, shape, or form, about every five years since then until the end of the Qing Dynasty (yeah, the early 1900’s).). (Also, yes, that was a parenthesis within a parenthesis. My asides in their various forms are getting a bit ridiculous, but suffice to say we all have New Years Resolutions, and I won’t critique you on your progress or lack thereof if you’ll only do the same).
Now, I’ve seen the Forbidden City only about a billion times in movies, music videos, on the news, in Olympics 2008 footage…and can I just say that it disappoints in two ways? Because I’m going to. It disappoints in two ways: It’s simultaneously smaller and so much larger than I could have ever surmised from my countless viewings of it through various media forms. When you walk in, it looks a little something like this:
(yes, even the Forbidden City is falling apart).
I was like: “What? That’s it? I thought the courtyard stretched on for miles. This will only take about seven minutes to walk across.” But then I passed through the second gate to see a second courtyard. And I passed through a third gate to see a third courtyard. And then I passed through a fourth gate…you get the picture. It lets you down and then it never ends. That Forbidden City is a minx, I tell you.
Within the City there are more than a handful of smaller “Palaces” or “Halls”. They all have promising names like: “Hall of Supreme Harmony” or “Palace of Heavenly Purity” or “Hall of Mental Cultivation” or “Palace of Earthly Tranquility”. Sounds wonderful, no? Until you arrive at the Halls or Palaces and can’t actually walk through them. You can stand at the entry ways and look in. And they all have intricately carved thrones on diases that span over painted rivers and have carved, arched bridges branching out in several directions. But you have to stay forty feet away to see anything! (I might be exaggerating just a scoshe). And, as with everything in China, to even get close enough to the doorway to see in, you have to battle (literally) hordes and throngs for the right.
Now, I’m sure as the avid reader that you are, who has read several times over each and every one of my posts, you have a few burning questions for me. And let me tell you right now, no, there were not a lot of people holding umbrellas like when I wen to the Great Wall. This time the big thing was matching hats. Tours or groups that come together (I saw a bus of Russian retired grandmother types) all wear matching hats. I saw a group with neon orange baseball caps and a group with Burberry print bucket hats. So take note: umbrellas are no longer in vogue. For family pictures, go with matching hats. Granted, in these pictures you’ll spy precious few of these aforementioned articles but I submit that as a sign of it being a growing trend. Be ahead of the fashionista curve, get yours today.
Back to the Palaces and Halls. Not only can you basically only get a tease of what life in Ancient China was like at these numerous spots, you also can read what went on inside of them. And those Emperors of Ancient China had Halls for EVERYTHING. Some were used to review ceremonial harvest tools. Some were used as a brief nap or resting place before a ceremony (I bet it’s because the Emperor would have to walk SO FAR from his bedroom to the ceremony hall, that he’d have to stop half way there and have a cup of tea or something. So they built a small “Palace” for it). Some are for reading prayers aloud (so does that mean there is one for reading prayers quietly to ones self? I didn’t see one. Must have missed it). One is where an Empress gave birth to a baby boy. Did they build the building specifically for that purpose? Some things were unclear on the signs.
Aside: Actually, most things were unclear on the signs. They say helpful things about beauty, but nothing that really answers my burning questions. Like this one:
It was beside this tree:
If you ever go to the Forbidden City, be prepared to walk a long way over uneven stone paths. I wish I could tell you more of the history or the culture of the Forbidden City, but I kind of just walked from building to building and looked from afar. After five months here, I’m still not comfortable elbowing people away just so I can get a decent look at something. But that’s the culture here.
What I can tell you is this: they have these large pots everywhere. They were once used to hold water in the event of a fire (seemed to be a constant problem here back then) (probably because of the Chinese obsession with fireworks and pyrotechnics).
All of the doors look like this (I’ve learned from Karate Kid 3 that touching the nobs (or is it ‘knobs’? (there was no helpful sign to say)) will bring good luck. I feel it’s highly auspicious that I spent my New Years Day touching almost every nob I came across…which was at least 200).
Also, all doorways are constructed with this at the bottom so you must step over it (I’ve heard stepping on it is bad or disrespectful).
The tops of the walls, gates, halls, and palaces are all decorated with these fellas:
And there were a lot dragony things. Like this one that looks incredibly happy:
If you ever go to the Forbidden City, I therefore do not suggest going with any natives unless they’re really interested in history. All told, I didn’t get a lot of time to read about the pointless things every Hall and Palace was created for because we just kind of kept constantly walking. My opinion of the lot of the friends I’ve made here is they’re more interested in just looking and admiring the beauty of things (which is fine, don’t get me wrong. In fact, Chinese are so focused on aesthetics, they have a standard for the “perfect” smile – it shows exactly eight teeth. They have a standard for the best way to hold chopsticks and what each grasp means about your future and your personality. I could have stopped and read things because it was what “I” wanted to do – but that’s another part of Chinese culture. Never do what you want to do. It’s rude. Be hospitable and do what others want to do). In conclusion, always wear matching hats with your party members.