FINE CHINA: Exploring a city long forbidden
Anything forbidden immediately becomes a magnet to people.
No wonder then that China’s Forbidden City has a strong pull on the more than nine million who “trespass” on the grandeur of its massive complex annually.
The prohibitive admission cost means that it is mainly the privileged who explore this once unquestioned centre of authority, in which the emperor dwelled in luxury and extravagance. The large number of visitors are mainly Chinese – and in a population of 1.3 billion that figure is relatively small.
But you can be easily consumed by the magnificence of a place that measures 753 metres from east to west and 961 metres from north to south in the heart of China’s capital of Beijing.
The 720 000 square metres of area space consists of about 900 elaborate structures that include, among other things, 30-foot walls, watch towers and four giant gates, all designed in ancient Chinese architecture that is still a sight to behold more than 600 years later.
With this building, the construction of which started in 1406, the Chinese are laying claim to having one of the largest and most complete imperial palaces in the world. Never has the term “rich cultural history” been more embodied than in the Forbidden City.
The Palace Museum, as it is called, is home to a million pieces of historical relics from the Shang Dynasty (16th Century – 771 BC) through to the Qing Dynasty.
But as spellbinding as the structure is, so are the inspiration and history behind it. Some of its artistic features incorporate animals and colours.
The crane symbolises longevity, the lion strength and protection, the dragon authority and goodness, red represents fire and black water.
As the visitors move through the succession of gates to the inner sanctum where the emperor once presided, they are retracing the footsteps of world leaders, diplomats and some of the most influential people of yore.
They are also being accorded a privilege once denied many Chinese. In the days of the emperor only eunuchs were allowed beyond certain points, and in some cases subjects could not even approach the outer protective walls of the palace.
Our tour guide was mesmerising with her gripping recount of history, the trembling subjects in the presence of nobility, the emperors’ reign and the myths that surrounded the rule. Some of her accounts sounded as though they should begin “. . . once upon a time hundreds of years ago . . .”.
But now the huge doors that once kept out citizens are flung open to visitors. They are beside themselves taking photographs, peering into once forbidden areas and rubbing the doorknobs for good luck. For a brief moment they walk in the footsteps of royalty before exiting back into reality.
In my case, the reality far exceeded any expectation of this cockeyed visitor to this world cultural heritage site.