We seem to have been engulfed by a parade of matching baseball caps, from all parts of China, all following their local flag, here in Beijing for the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC). I don’t normally associate willingly smiling people with politics in China, but they seem a pretty happy bunch. To our left is an expressionless line of Police, and beyond them is a very wet Tiananmen Square. We’ve been lucky with the weather, but today our luck has run out. We’re all making our way towards the Forbidden City at the end of this huge square – the third largest in the world – and with so many people on the narrow footpath, it’s slow going. Every so often we see people with resigned looks being stopped and searched; papers are reviewed and calls are made. There are very few Westerners, and the Police aren’t remotely interested in us.
The NPC is the highest body of state power in China. It is composed of deputies elected from 35 electoral units across China. Each congress is elected for a term of five years, and its powers include the ability to cancel train tickets booked weeks earlier by tourists (fortunately processing a quick refund), to close Tiananmen Square, and to prevent the viewing of the body of the man responsible for the death of over 60 million people, lying in his crystal coffin, just across the square from us.
I’ve read that Mao is still regarded as a hero, albeit a flawed one. As flaws go, that’s not a great record. We’d visited a market in Beijing a few days earlier, and there were plenty of Mao figurines to buy, but none too small as to be disrespectful. I can’t actually explain my own curiosity at wanting to see him, but it isn’t going to happen – the NPC have ruled Mao out of bounds this week.
As we get closer to the entrance to the Forbidden city, we’re met with a further series of security checks. There’s a bottleneck of hundreds here now, with everyone being searched and all bags opened – we can see our day in the Forbidden City quickly turning into a day waiting in the rain. But once more, our Western faces rescue us and we are gestured through without a single pat.
Built from 1406 to 1420, the Forbidden City served as the Chinese imperial palace for almost 500 years throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was the home of Emperors, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. It comprises over 980 buildings and covers 720,000 square metres. It was known as the Forbidden City because no-one could enter without the Emperor’s permission. For the Chinese, this doesn’t seem to be any easier today.
We buy our entrance tickets and are immediately set upon by people wanting to either be our guides or sell us umbrellas. My immediate reaction is to check that my wallet is still in place; fortunately it is. One of my few mandarin expressions is “no thank you”, and this comes in very handy – with one exception. One woman is still yelling something, possibly at us. She won’t stop and sounds like a wounded goose. I don’t think we were her target market.
Despite the mist and rain, we decide to take in the view from the top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This gate is the front entrance to the Forbidden City and looks back over Tiananmen Square – there must be a great view behind the mist. The Gate also holds a six metre high painting of Mao, replaced every year due to damage from the Beijing climate. Before taking the climb, we have two further checks with signs indicating no bags, no water and no cameras. And once again, we are allowed through, complete with bag, camera and a forgotten bottle of water, while locals are faced with much far more comprehensive checks. We’re told that the gate was built in 1420 and that this is where in 1949 Mao announced to a crowd of over one hundred thousand the creation of the People’s Republic of China. In fact, the original burned down several times and this version was built in secret in 1970.
Exploring the Forbidden City can be disorientating. It’s hard not to feel a sense of deja vu as the Gates and Halls start to blend into one. One of the first gates after the entrance is the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This is followed by the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which leads to the Hall of Central Harmony, closely followed by the Hall of Preserved Harmony. Most of the halls are of a harmoniously similar design and are generally empty, with the exception of a central throne, in front of which a jostling crowd attempts to all take the same photo.
With all the buildings being made of wood, fire was a constant danger. Outside many of the halls are the original vats that were kept full of water in case of fire. In winter these vats would freeze, so fires were intentionally lit under the vats to prevent this. This in turn caused its own fire risk. The life of a fire warden in Beijing was not an easy one.
In 1923 nearby residents saw flames coming from the Jianfu Garden, which quickly spread to other buildings. Although firefighters and police were notified, they were stopped by gate guards, saying they didn’t have permission to enter. By the time firemen were finally granted entry, buildings had been completely destroyed.
More than 50 fires are on record from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and with all halls seemingly destroyed and rebuilt at least once, it’s hard to know which version of the Forbidden City we’re looking at.
The Forbidden City is split between the Inner and Outer Courts, with the Inner Court being at the northern end of the city, furthest away from the front gate. This Inner Court is where Puyi, the final Qing Emperor, lived for twelve years after his abdication in 1912, aged three. Many of Puyi’s belongings, including toys and photos, are on display here. K and I agree that these rooms and the surrounding gardens the most interesting part of the City. Having spent a long, cold, and wet day on our feet, we wish we’d made it to these parts earlier. I don’t think either of us realised how much of a visit here would be an outdoors experience. We’re both a bit worn out now and in need of some Sweet and Sour sustenance.
There are many ornate features in the larger palace buildings but to me they still feel austere, intimidating, impersonal, and more than a bit repetitive. I’m glad we’ve come here today, but it’s been hard to enjoy the experience.