THE FORBIDDEN CITY, NOW KNOWN AS THE PALACE MUSEUM, HOUSES OVER 1.5 MILLION RELICS:
One of the most important historic sights in the centre of Beijing is the Forbidden City, officially known as the Palace Museum. From within this huge complex of imperial buildings, twenty-four Ming and Qing emperors ruled imperial China over a period of nearly 500 years. During this time, the Palace complex was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries and forbidden to ordinary folks.
Visiting The Forbidden City
Since 1949, the Forbidden City has been open to the public and from the crowds today, it is obvious that it is a very popular attraction for the locals. As our coach approaches the area, the masses of locals heading in the direction of the Forbidden City forewarns us of what to expect at the site as far as crowds are concerned.
We enter the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate, the southern entrance to the imperial palace. As we walk through the central passageway, most people in the crowd are probably unmindful of the fact that in the past this was reserved solely for the emperor. Officials would take the left gate and members of the royal family would use the right gate.
The balcony of the Meridian Gate is also where the Emperor reviews his armies, as well as presides over the annual ceremony for issuing the official lunar calendar.
The Meridian Gate leads into a large square where five bridges cross the Inner Golden Water River. Beyond this is the Gate of Supreme Harmony, which was the grand formal entrance to the Outer Court of the Forbidden City.
Outer and Inner Courts
The Forbidden City is divided into two sections: the Outer Court, which is used for ceremonial purposes and the Inner Court which includes the residence of the Emperor and his family.
The Outer Court is the area where grand audiences and ceremonies take place. In this huge square three main halls stand on top of a terrace. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the southern-most, then the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest of the three halls, and it’s also one of the largest surviving wooden structures in China. The marble carriageway up to the hall is a ceremonial ramp and is part of the Imperial Way, reserved for the emperor. The central ramp, a star feature in the Forbidden City, is decorated with elaborate carvings of dragons chasing pearls among the clouds. The dragon is considered the most powerful of all creatures and you’ll see dragon motifs all over the imperial palace.
This long ramp is made from two stone slabs which are joined together. The joint is cleverly hidden by the use of overlapping bas-relief carvings. It was only discovered in the 20th century when the gap began to widen as a result of exposure to the elements.
This copper pot looks like an attractive piece of Imperial City ornament, but it actually was a part of the fire-fighting equipment in the palace. There were a total of 308 copper and iron vats of various sizes and these were filled with water to be used in case of fires. During the winter months (October to February), the vats had to be covered with quilts to prevent the water from freezing. Sometimes, on very cold days, it was necessary to heat them by charcoal fires. Eighteen of the copper vats were inlaid with gold and you can see these on the sides of the three imperial halls.
As mentioned earlier, the Outer Court of the Forbidden City was used for ceremonial purposes such as coronations, investitures and imperial weddings. In each of the halls is the Emperor’s throne and the locals are very keen to see these.
We follow the crowds up to the Hall of Supreme Harmony and find people jostling to get to the entrance to the Hall. Tony and I visited the Forbidden City in the early 1980’s and remember going inside the Hall and being able to get quite close to the throne, up to where the roped off area is. There was hardly anyone there and it was quite peaceful. Now that it’s forbidden to go inside, we have to fight with the crowds just to get a glance of it. It’s difficult to get a good view as the huge columns within the hall obstruct the view of the throne.
To see the throne, we have to push and shove with the locals to get to the doorway. An official, with his loud speaker, tries to get people to move along, but he doesn’t get much attention from the crowd.
Even when you get to the doorway, it’s difficult to take a good picture as you’re continually being pushed by the crowd. Tony has to hold his camera above his head to avoid it being bashed around.
With a population of a billion people, the Chinese are well-practised at pushing and shoving in crowds, but it’s all done in good humour as you’ll see from the smiling faces. But this is not for everyone. As I leave, I try to help a young Italian guy slot into my spot but he gives up saying that it’s a bit unsafe. Tony comes out smiling, whereas I on the other hand lose my jumper in the scrum. The crazy thing is that we make a second attempt into the crowd to get a view of the throne room from a different angle.
After the big scrum at the Hall of Supreme Harmony we need something more soothing so we proceed to the Imperial Garden. Unfortunately we do not have time to visit the Palace Museum with its 1.5 million pieces of relics.