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Kavitha Dispatch

Inside the Secret World: China's Forbidden City
July 29, 2000

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Incense was placed in this statue's beak in the mornings
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Through the smoke of the incense burning in the bronze crane's beak, the rising sun casts a mystical glow over the city.

TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP

Dressed in their best uniforms, the soldiers march precisely in sync and line up on the stairs leading up to the grand Hall of Supreme Harmony. Standing in attention they wait...

Surrounded by his top officials and most trusted eunuchs, the Emperor enters the courtyard dressed in golden robes of thick silk. He salutes the army officers as he proceeds up the stairs. When he reaches the top, he turns to face the people below. Behind him the Hall of Supreme Harmony looks more awesome than ever. The walls and pillars are painted bright red, symbol of fire and power, and the swooping rooftop is golden yellow, symbol of the heavens and harmony. The colors glow in the early morning sunlight. With a quick raising of his hand, the Emperor brings in the New Year and the band begins to play a joyous song. Immediately he turns to enter the Hall and sit upon his high throne.

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Everything down to the smallest detail was ornate in the Emperor's palace, like this golden inlay on an outer wall
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Throughout the day there will be much rejoicing and festivities to celebrate the New Year. The city will be lit up by lanterns and fireworks and lavish feasts will be served.

It'll be a sight to behold, but alas, you and I can't attend. Don't be too offended though, hardly anyone can attend. Not even the most senior high officials or the diplomats visiting from far away lands will be there, for this city is no ordinary city. This is the Forbidden City....

For over 500 years, a mere commoner like you or I would never dream of a visit to the Forbidden City, the royal palace that was home to the emperors of the last 2 dynasties in China. Even if we were to make the long journey across the country to the capital city to see the royal emperor, we would only be greeted by the large stone walls that surround his palace.

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Nowadays little is 'Forbidden' as tourists flock to see the Hall of Supreme Harmony
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But that was the past. China's out of its elitist past and into the new world, a world of making money. The government of today has long since realized that it can make a lot of money by letting tourists get a glimpse of the well preserved clusters of buildings in the Forbidden City....I mean with a name like the Forbidden City, who wouldn't be interested in taking a peek?!

So I set out on this hot and sticky Sunday afternoon to visit the famous palace and quickly found out that these days the only thing forbidding anyone from entering is expensive entrance fees. But that doesn't seem to stop anyone!

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I joined thousands of other tourists to sneak a peek at the Forbidden
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Fire hydrants in the Forbidden City
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The enormous buildings of the Forbidden City were made entirely of wood, which made things a bit dangerous at times. The City went up in flames on a number of occasions. From fireworks to lantern festivals, if a wind came a long, the festivities would lead to a dramatic ending. Throughout the palace are large bronze bowls that used to contain water for just such an occasion!

I pushed my way through the crowds to enter the enormous southern gates of the palace grounds. This was the emperor's entrance. As the name implies, the Forbidden City was off limits to most people, but the few visitors that were allowed in, were only allowed to enter through this southern gate. The buildings of the southern half of the palace are grandiose and spread out, surrounded by large expanses of marble walkways and bronze statues. The emperor needed to impress the senior officials and elite guests of course! Well it seems the guests of today, elite or not, are impressed-- I haven't seen so many flashing cameras since visiting Luxor Temple in Egypt!! In these large courtyards and halls the emperor would hold official meetings or throw lavish celebrations with entertainment, feasts and fireworks. The northern half of the palace is also very ornate and regal. The buildings are still painted bright red and have the swooping golden rooftops with ceilings painted with dragons and birds, but there is a marked difference. The buildings in this half are not as large or spread out, for this half is the emperor's residence. Even the emperor's most senior officials were not allowed in this half. Only the emperor's family, his concubines, their children, and their servants were allowed here.

The Forbidden City was first built by Emperor Yong Le after he officially moved the capital of the Ming Dynasty from Nanjing to Beijing. From 1406 to 1420 up to a million laborers struggled to complete the enormous task of constructing such an ornate and lavish royal palace. When the Ming dynasty collapsed, the Manchus from the North swept in and established the Qing dynasty. They too made the Forbidden City their home, adding to it and renovating it to incorporate Manchurian styles.

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The royal family left the palace so rarely that they built this mountain in their little world to remind them of the beautiful landscape of their homeland
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Looking into the lavishly decorated rooms and hearing fascinating stories of the emperor's lives reminded me of Topkapi Palace in Turkey. Similar to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the emperors of China kept many women in a sort of harem. These women were known as concubines. And like the Topkapi Palace, the palace grounds were guarded by eunuchs. There are several stories of both concubines and eunuchs that were able to gain considerable power from ineffective or careless emperors.

Since the emperors had everything they could ever want at their fingertips in this royal palace, it's been called a 'city'. Emperors rarely left their isolated, perfect little city, and often became quite disconnected to the China they were supposed to be ruling over. Thus the court eunuchs and the visiting officials had a lot of room for achieving power while the emperor was busy indulging in the luxuries of the palace.

Vocabulary

eunuch - a castrated man, often employed throughout history as guards to rulers' families and harems
grandiose - grand in an imposing or impressive way
concubine - a woman who lives in a man's home, usually a man of power and wealth, and will bear his children, but is not his wife

As I looked out over the stunning rooftops and large courtyard covered with tourists in baseball hats and sunglasses, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live here a few hundred years ago, when it really was a 'Forbidden' City. I imagine it must have gotten a bit lonely at times. While the Forbidden City is very, very large to be a home or a palace (about 1 km squared), it's not quite large enough to be a whole world. As annoying as pushy crowds can be, I have to say I think I'd prefer this to life locked up in a perfect, isolated bubble.

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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