Sunday, July 27, 2008

At the Forbidden City

Here I am, squinting a bit, in the Forbidden City. I had often been warned that the Forbidden City was unbearably hot, but since I had already got up for church, and since today's especially bad pollution ought to shade the sun a little, I decided to head over there on my own. It was a very bright day, despite the haze, and very hot too. The picture above, taken by an obliging kid I trusted with my camera, doesn't show what a sweaty mess I was this morning. But the Forbidden City is the Forbidden City. The Chinese actually don't call it that anymore: its former name, 紫禁城——the Purple Forbidden City, has been replaced with the somewhat more pedestrian 故宫——the Old Palace.

Tourists can only see a portion of the city; now and then I would peek through the crack of a locked gate and see alleys and passages stretching off into the haze, the pavements overrun with as rich a carpet of weeds as any of the rugs in the great ceremonial halls. Whether intended by the Party officials in charge or not, there's a melancholy feeling about the whole place, more than anywhere else in the exhibits given over to the unfortunate last emperor Puyi; although much of my sympathy for him was lost when I leafed through his English-language memoirs in a gift shop and found him luridly praising the Communists. The Forbidden City everywhere hints at a decline: peeling paint and crumbling pavement and gutted treasuries all hint, like an empty church or decaying palace in Europe, at a cultural heritage that the present can't manage to equal. I am as big a fan of the Olympic constructions as any Chinese nationalist; but when you have something like the Forbidden City in town, a few new awe-inspiring buildings really just aren't enough.

In the old days, of course, there were feasts and pleasure gardens and armies of eunuchs and concubines waiting on the emperor's every need, but the life of an Emperor of all China doesn't seem to have been all that enjoyable. In room after room of the Forbidden City, here in the Hall of Middle Harmony, the Emperor would have been trussed up in ceremonial robes while all sorts of obscure rites were conducted. The emperor was not really thought of as a god, as far as I know, but he had religious duties as well as political. A sign on a minor building pointed out that Chongzhen, the tragic last emperor of the Ming, had retreated there to fast in reparation for natural disasters that struck China during his reign. Overally, the layout of the city, designed as it is for ceremonial processions and large-scale rituals, reminded me a bit of the Vatican, at least until I stumbled upon the concubines' quarters. Each major concubine had a small palace of her own; I got lost in the 后宫 or Imperatricial Palace and think I found my way into every concubine's quarters before I found the way out. Except for the names over the gates (in Chinese and Manchu, a reminder that the Qing rulers were not themselves Chinese), every alley and court in the palace is more or less identical, an obession for hierarchy and order playing itself out over yellow-roofed acre after yellow-roofed acre.

After I had seen enough of the Forbidden City (including the very pleasant Imperial Flower Garden where I completely forgot I had a camera), I decided to head out to Tiananmen Square for a walk, since I had never seen the place by day. Even since I passed through on my way to the Forbidden City, new banners, trees, and displays had been set up to welcome the Olympics. "The Five Continents and Four Seas Celebrate the Olympic Festivities," proclaims the banner at left, using a classically Chinese idiom referring to the whole world; to its right an incomplete banner was getting ready to praise the policies of the Party. Elaborate displays of trees and flowers had sprung up, where a few days before the plaza was paved straight across. The days of Confucian ritual may be gone, but the rulers of China can still pull off pomp and circumstance if they feel a need for it.

I walked a little farther, to the very south of the square, where I could catch a train back home at the Qianmen subway stop. Right above the station is the Qian Men, the Fore Gate of the ancient wall. Mao demolished the walls and used their paths for roads and subways, and the roads live on in the names of subway stops, most of which end in -men, meaning Gate. The Qian Men and a few other places were important enough to preserve, and the traffic in this city would be even worse if there were massive stone walls everywhere, but like the weeds that find homes on the roofs of the Forbidden City, the unnaturally truncated walls on either side of the Qian Men hint at something that's been lost. But it's hard to be melancholic in Beijing for long; the city just won't let you. The walls may have been demolished, but three new subway lines opened last week; the emperors may have been laid low by European gunpower and internal disorder, but it's an Olympic year. Every third person I saw on Tiananmen Square, excluding the legions of Olympic volunteers, had some bit of clothing on celebrating the Olympics. They may no longer bring tribute to furnish the palace, but the Five Continents and Four Seas are converging on Beijing again, and everybody in Beijing knows it.

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