Having traveled around Europe over the years, Jules and I have managed to visit quite a few royal palaces and have often been astounded by the opulence and indulgence of many of these residences. However, it would be fair to say that few would match the sheer scale (720,000 square meters) of the Chinese Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties located in the centre of Beijing. Better known to the wider world as ‘The Forbidden City’, this enormous walled enclosure was once the home to Emperors and their entourage between the 15th and 20th centuries. As the name suggests, this was once a ‘forbidden’ place, where you could not enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission. However, since the Cultural Revolution, the gates have been thrown open to reveal a glimpse of the ceremonial and domestic life of the countries past imperial leaders.
Walking under the giant portrait of Chairman Mao, through ‘The Gates of Heavenly Peace’, Jules and I joined the hoards of local and overseas tourists in stepping back into a world that had once remained a mystery to all but a few. With the sun shining and fresh snow on the ground following an over night downfall, we passed through the ‘Meridian Gate’ into the first of the outer courtyards to cross one of five beautiful bridges that span the ‘Inner Golden River’. Our guide informed us that the centre bridge was traditionally only ever used by the Emperor … so naturally we took that one! Passing through the ‘Gate of Supreme Harmony’ we entered the second and largest of the courtyards (30,000 square metres) to see the unusual sight of groups playing in the snow. Such frivolous behavior would never have been tolerated in this most sacred and ceremonial arena during the reign of the great dynasties, but it was good to see it happening now. Avoiding the temptation to join in, we took the stairs leading upward to the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ where officials were met and affairs of state conducted. From here the Emperor would have looked out at his subjects standing in this vast courtyard; it would have certainly have been as magnificent a sight then as it still remains today, despite the ever present crowds of tourists.
As we passed through several other ‘celestial halls’, the crowds eventually began to thin as we entered what was some of the most interesting areas of the palace, the private domestic quarters. Here we learnt about the life of the Emperor, his wives and countless concubines. Indeed, looking around the smaller buildings and courtyards it revealed much about the reality of everyday life within the walled city, as depicted in the brilliant Bernardo Bertolucci movie ‘The Last Emperor’, which was filmed on location here during the 1980’s. We also learnt much about the Empress Dowager Cixi, (who is infamously referred to as the ‘Dragon Lady’) and her abuse of powers and villainous ways over 47 years, eventually leading to the ultimate downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Communist propaganda perhaps, but we oddly found her reputation for once having eaten a 150 course meal at a banquet somehow quite impressive!
Having spent a pleasant few hours leisurely wandering around the Forbidden Palace, we eventually exited through the ‘Gate of Military Prowess’. This was a particularly fitting title, as it was exactly what was needed as we ran the gambit of street sellers thrusting souvenirs toward us as we walked along the path surrounding the palace moat. Within just a few paces we could have bought everything from miniature matchstick models to traditional Chinese headpieces, however we thought that a military style retreat might well be the best possible option.
Our next destination would be the Imperial Summer Palace, which turned out to be conveniently close to the Imperial Palace. This meant a very easy commute for both us and for past Emperors, who would have spent a considerable amount of time during the warmer months enjoying the cool breezes from Kunming Lake. Not surprisingly, this is an entirely man-made lake covering 2.2 square kilometres and was used not only for recreation, but also the cultivation of the much-cherished black pearl. The palace is certainly smaller than the Imperial Palace, but no less impressive, with the numerous temples, gardens, pavilions and bridges further highlighting the sophistication of their design skills. Here again stories of the infamous ‘Dragon Lady’ began to emerge, with claims that she embezzled funds to build a magnificent two story marble pavilion in the form of a river boat designed to sit in the shallow waters of the lake and to never leave its shores. Today, visitors flock to have their photograph taken near the famous ‘Marble Boat’. The structure remains testament to the self-indulgent lifestyle of the Dowager Empress and most of the Emperors who had preceded her.
Such Imperial relics are no doubt a constant reminder to the good citizens of China of why the revolution eventually occurred and that it was ultimately necessary. No doubt ‘The Party’ would be quite happy with that particular message. Yet such places also serve to highlight the cultural sophistication of those early times and provide evidence of how the Chinese monarchical system actually rivaled those of Europe. Either which way, we could not help but be impressed by efforts of the government to preserve these great Imperial Palaces and share them with the many visitors to Beijing.