It was the mid-90’s, and the little girl would sit perched on her grandfather’s rickety old sofa at 6pm, waiting eagerly for the television program to start.
The TV series, named ‘Princess Returned Pearl’, starred Vicky Zhao, Alec Su and Ruby Lin, and told the tale of a commoner who was mistakenly identified as a long-lost Princess of China, and thus brought into the Emperor’s household. This is actually based on the legend of a real-life commoner adopted by the Emperor Qianlong as his princess.
Now, while the story itself is interesting (the Princess Huan Zhu is really hilarious I can tell you), what really make an impact on the little girl was the grandness of the complex called the Forbidden City, home to the Emperor and his many entourage for many dynasties. Fast forward to 2011, and the girl- now a full grown young woman- can still recall the bright red walls and yellow roofs of the buildings, and the flags waving from the top of the gates of the city as they welcomed the Dowager Empress home from her long pilgrimage, and how exquisite the wooden furniture inside the chambers of the Emperor’s favourite concubine as he sat with her having tea.
That kind of life may well be true or merely depictions from a Chinese production company. Either way, the Forbidden City is the main emblem of Imperial China. It is the symbol of the Emperor’s absolute power upon his subjects and the mark of his wealth.
The Forbidden City today stood at the heart of Beijing as a tourist attraction. It is next to yet another historical landmark, Tienanmen Square (which will be discussed in another post). Walking up to it from Tienanmen Square, I can’t help but feel how small I was standing next to this building. A picture of Mao Zedong, the Republic’s founding father, adorned the Southern Gate, while two stone lions greeted us as we approached the gates.
I believe my breath stuck at my throat the moment I entered the Outer Court of the City, where the Inner Golden Water River ran across the grand ceremonial square, connected by five stone bridges. This square brought back the memories of those years of watching ‘Princess Returned Pearl’ on TV, with my late grandfather. In fact, I can hear the opening theme song of the series as I descended down the square towards the Gate of Supreme Harmony.
As we make our way steadily through the complex, I note that the marble steps have designs of the dragon intricately carved into the very center of the stairs. I learned eventually that this is exclusively meant for the Emperor’s use (and maybe the use of his family as well) as the Emperor, called Son of Heaven, was said to be the impersonation of the Dragon on Earth. An Emperor’s symbol was always the dragon, and Empress the phoenix, so it made sense that the very steps of which the Emperor thread should be adorned with dragon patterns.
Among the many things I find charming about the Forbidden City is that each and every building is given some sort of name symbolizing prosperity, good luck and happiness. For instance, the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ refers to the heart of the Outer Court, the center where the Emperor held his court as well as royal ceremonies. Unfortunately, most of the artifacts within the Forbidden City are being preserved and displayed in the Beijing Museum (which I did not get the chance to visit), so the only thing remaining within the hall is a replica of the Emperor’s throne. The thrones were wrought in gold and bronze, with dragon and crane motives clearly placed around the area.
After trudging around the Outer Court, we took a turn down the steps behind the ‘Hall of Preserving Harmony’ towards the Inner Court, wherein lies the living quarters of the Emperor, his family and their servants. Sometimes we can get the funniest piece of trivia from our tour guide. The fact is I have always known that an Emperor can own up to hundreds and more concubines, and certainly even more children. So naturally, he would need thousands of chambers to occupy them all. What I didn’t always know that the total amount of rooms in the Forbidden City is nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine and… a half. Huh?Well, according to my tour guide, the number 10,000 is meant for the heavens, and to have 10,000 or more chambers will anger the gods. Therefore the emperors built the Forbidden City with the next best number- 9,999 1/2. This carries the message that the Emperor is superior to everything save the gods.
The Inner Court, unlike the Outer Court, has a more homely atmosphere to it, as befitted its purposes as the imperial home. The Outer Court has more space, looked grander and wider. But the Inner Court is filled with trees and finely carved archways and beautiful gardens. The Emperor would have resided in the “Palace of Heavenly Purity’, in reference to his representing the heavens, while the Empress would stay in the ‘Palace of Earthly Tranquility’, referring to her symbol of the earth. There is a large jade in one of the garden courtyards, which symbolizes purity and virtue.
Like the halls in the Outer Court, the chambers in the Inner Court are prohibited from the public. Visitors instead can only look through the windows and glass to see the arrangements of furniture inside the chambers. An average living quarter for a palace official or concubine may include a sitting room, an adjoining chamber and the bedroom, among other things.
After three hours, we exited the Forbidden City through the northern gates or otherwise known as the “Gate of Divine Might’. Before us, the Jingshan Hill stood tall and proud and towered over the more sweeping Forbidden City. I was sorry to leave this place behind so soon- it felt as if I still have much to explore. I certainly would have hunted that half room down and see what it was used for. Heck, if I could spend all day here I would have gone through each and every room and count them all just to prove there ARE 9,999 and 1/2 chambers in total.
Maybe I’d do just that. Next time.