Sunday, 20 February 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Forbidden City, Beijing, China (April 2009)

Forbidden to all but 7 million visitors a year...

No trip to China, let alone a trip to Beijing, would be complete without seeing the Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum as it is known in China).  My visit there was part of a larger tour around China in 2009.

On this visit I was fortunate on two counts – firstly that my wife (fiancée as she was then) knows people who work there so we were able to get in for free, and secondly that we missed some of the massive crowds that can plague these iconic attractions.  Unfortunately, the day was rather misty and drizzly, which hampered the taking of too many great photographs but wasn’t enough to ruin the experience.

The Forbidden City is a place of contradictions.  An iconic site, the image and name of which are recognisable across the world, but one which I imagine most visitors don’t really understand much about, and would struggle to name even one of the many Emperors who lived there, or even how old it is.  Maybe it’s unfair to say that of the Chinese visitors (maybe), but for foreign visitors it’s more likely to be true.  Not that I’m saying that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that – I know I’ve been to many heritage sites knowing far less about them than someone else – it’s just that the Forbidden City is so unique, a little extra knowledge goes a long way in appreciating the site.

Because of our fortunate free entry, we actually walked around the moat (that’s the only English word I can think of to describe it) to enter the City from the north (the ‘Gate of Divine Prowess’), rather than from the ‘main’ southern entrance from Tiananmen Square.

Plan courtesy of

Using this entrance meant that we began by exploring the maze (and I don’t use the term lightly) of Imperial palaces and halls, designed for various Emperors, Empresses and vast hordes of concubines and eunuchs.  Most of these buildings are inaccessible, but you can peer inside at some displayed objects, and the interpretation of the history of the major ones is well worth the read.  The main experience in this part of the City, however, is simply to wander around.  To have the feeling that you never know what is round the next corner, to marvel at the tiny architectural details on the buildings and their roofs, to suddenly come across a scholar stone, ancient tree or brightly painted pavilion.  If you have done some reading on the City before visiting, then the little thrill of pleasure when you come across a building with a particular connection to famous figures such as Ci Xi or Qian Long is memorable.

The grand, ceremonial pavilions such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony were therefore the last buildings we visited.  These large, impressive buildings set in larger courtyards are the most iconic buildings on site, and the ones everyone pictures when thinking of the Forbidden City.

The sheer size of the site cannot fail to impress, and you get the feeling that it would take numerous visits to really start to feel you’d explored everywhere, and a lifetime to know every nook and cranny intimately.

The raw statistics of the Forbidden City are quite mind-boggling.  The site covers 178 acres.  It measures 961 metres (3,153 ft) from north to south and 753 metres (2,470 ft) from east to west.  There are 980 surviving buildings containing 8,707 rooms.  Even the positioning, alignment and landscape of the City is planned and of significance.  The City lies in the dead centre of Beijing, aligned north-south.  The southern axis extends through Tiananmen Square, the north axis to the Bell and Drum Towers.  Some have postulated that the northern axis also aligns with Xanadu – the other capital of the Yuan dynasty.  The wall surrounding the City is 7.9m (26 ft) high, and the moat 6m deep and 51m (171 ft) wide.  These impressive defensive walls served a dual purpose – keeping the rest of the world out, and keeping the Emperor in.  Rarely has a royal palace been so like a prison for the monarch living within.

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