Beijing, Part 2: The Forbidden City, Parks and Hutongs, and Beijing Duck

Distance Travelled: 7573 miles
Date: 17-22nd July

As I walked the moat surrounding the walls of the Forbidden City the air swarmed with hundreds of dragonflies, darting and shimmering in the sun, and rang with the high-pitched whine of cicadas.

The moat and walls of the Forbidden City. Not a place I'd like to attack without modern technology.

My second attempt to get into the Forbidden City was markedly more successful than my first. After a walk around the moat and external wall, I entered the external courtyard through the Tiananmen gate, under the gaze of Chairman Mao. Once through, I left the modern world of the communists and was transported back to the power and opulence of the imperial Ming and Qing. Along with hundreds of other tourists, foreign and domestic both.

Tiananmen gate, lit up at night

Tiananmen Gate after closing time.

I was still outside of the Forbidden City proper however, and had to queue with the hordes of my fellow visitors. I had decided to get an audioguide to take me around the complex, largely because the old Lonely Planet I had picked up reported that it was narrated by Roger Moore. No such luck, I was instead greeted by a well spoken Chinese woman, who would explain what I was looking at with the aid of a slightly temperamental location monitoring system.

Chinese police playing basketball. For a police state, the Chinese police force is incredibly unimpressive. It seems to be made up exclusively of really young boys barely out of school, coupled with ancient old men that were probably old when Mao was around

The Forbidden City hasn’t been forbidden for visitors since 1925 with the creation of the Palace Museum. This institution was set up in the aftermath of the coup of 1924, which removed the last emperor, Puyi, from his palace. He had abdicated his power in 1912, bringing an end to the political power wielded from inside the walls since 1420.

The complex itself consists of 980 buildings, with a total of 9,999 rooms. This is a deliberate and specific number, one fewer than the rooms in the palace of the Celestial Emperor. While the earth bound emperor held supreme power, he apparently didn’t dare to place himself above the gods. With a size of 720,000 m2, the Forbidden City is the largest surviving palace complex in the world, and took most of the morning to explore.

Once you finally get inside the Meridian Gate – the main entrance gate once used by those petitioning the Emperor – you encounter the winding Inner Golden Water River, spanned by five bridges. Beyond is the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony, leading to the vast and imposing Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Meridian Gate - entrance to the Forbidden City. It doesn't look busy because it was closed the day I took this.

The river

The Forbidden City is divided into two sections, the Inner Court and the Outer Court. The Inner Court is where the emperor and his family and staff lived, along with being used for matters of state. The Outer Court was reserved for ceremonial purposes, and is where all the largest and most impressive structures are found. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest of them all, and the largest surviving wooden structure in all of China. The current version has stood for over four hundred years, and together with the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, makes up the heart of the Outer Court.

Impressive, no?

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, with attendant lion

As you walk towards the hall (making sure that you walk on the marble walkway previously reserved for the emperor just because you can), you will notice what appears at first glance to be an incongruously boring looking sculpture. At this point, my disembodied tour guide pipes up to inform me that this is in fact a sundial, and a set of measuring boxes. These were in place to remind everyone that only the emperor had the power to dictate the proper measurement of time and distance and space. I can only imagine how intimidating it would have been for the people coming to petition the emperor – the man must have been as close to a living god as it’s possible to get.

This would have made things even more intimidating. If you can't make it out, the caption reads: "Quieting Whip, placed on the both sides of the imperial path before the Hall of Supreme Harmony to enforce order at grand ceremonies". The imperial Chinese did not mess around.

The ornate carved bas relief on the walkway up to the hall

To the North is the Inner Court where most of the true power lay. The buildings are smaller, but still exquisitely designed and ornamented. The most impressive were the living quarters of the emperor and empress, and interestingly, the emperor’s concubines. It also holds the beautiful Imperial Garden, which I imagine would be tranquil and stunning were it not full of hoards of people. Despite the size of the Forbidden City it was always obscenely crowded, to the point that I doubt it would be worth visiting at all over a weekend.

One of the many ornate decorations found everywhere within the complex

It’s strange how quickly things can become ‘normal’. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t bored, and the Forbidden City is certainly spectacular, but a few times I had to stop and think “I’m in the Forbidden City! This is really cool! I’ve travelled seven and a half thousand miles, and I’m now standing where Marco Polo (probably apocryphally) once stood. His journey was a true Epic, and everyone knows his name. And I did the same! How cool is that?” Because sometimes you can start to think “another ornate roof. Meh”. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘Pagoda Fatigue’ because after a few months in Asia, you’ve seen so many of them that they become quite humdrum.

One thing that was particularly interesting though was the huge amount of symbolism that is employed everywhere. I’m just going to quote Wikipedia directly for this, because they have a pretty decent summary.

The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. Some noted examples of symbolic designs include:

    • Yellow is the colour of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions. The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity had black tiles because black was associated with water, and thus fire-prevention. Similarly, the Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood, and thus growth.
    • The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three – the shape of the Qian triagram, representing Heaven. The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six – the shape of the Kun triagram, representing the Earth.
    • The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times. As a result, its 10th statuette, called a “Hangshi”, or “ranked tenth” is also unique in the Forbidden City.

Beijing’s Parks and Gardens

After spending the morning wandering around the Forbidden City I decided to head over to a couple of parks nearby. The first of these was Beihai, a beautiful oval opal just to the west. Over half of the area is taken up by a long lake, dotted at all hours of the day with dozens of boats. In the centre is an island, the Jade Islet, connected by a small bridge and half a dozen ferries. In the centre of the island is the White Dagoba, a striking 40m high structure made from white stone. It cost money to get over there though, so I didn’t bother. Besides, I got a good enough view from the shore.

The Jade Islet and White Dagoba, stolen from Wikipedia because my camera was dying most of the day

Around the edge of the water are numerous pavilions where I stopped to listen to some amateur singers, and watch as a woman painted calligraphy on the stone pathway in water. By the time she got to the end of the second line, the first words had started to dry and disappear. It’s an image that for some reason stayed with me, and came back powerfully when I was discussing Wabi-sabi with someone in Japan. Wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of impermanence, and is summarised on Wikipedia as: “[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” But more on that later.

There are a number of temples within the park, including one that I’ve regretted not taking a photo of for a while now. Inside was an incredible intricate sculpture of a mountainside, covered with dozens of fearsome looking men and incongruously, a tiger. It took up the whole of the inside of the temple, leaving little room for anything else.

The other notable feature of the park is the Nine-Dragon Wall, one of only three like it in China. It was built in 1402 of glaze bricks.

The other side is decorated in the same way, with the nine dragons in different poses. There are also dragons crawling all over the roof and sides, giving a total of close to 50

From Beihai I walked around the corner to Jingshan Park. At the entrance is a sign, with a quote from Marco Polo.

“On the north side of the Palace [Forbidden City], about a bow-shot off, there is a hill which has been made by art [from the earth dug out of the moat]; it is a good hundred paces in height and a mile in compass. This hill is entirely covered with trees that never lose their leaves, but remain ever green. And I assure you that wherever a beautiful tree may exist, and the Emperor gets news of it, he sends for it and has it transported bodily with all its roots and the earth attached to them, and planted on that hill of his. No matter how big the tree may be, he gets it carried by his elephants; and in this way he has got together the most beautiful collection of trees in all the world.”

The hill was built in accordance with feng shui, which states that it is good to build a residence to the south of a hill. At the Forbidden City, they did the opposite. It is said that the hill protects the palace from ‘evil spirits’. In actuality, it protects against the large dust clouds that roll in from the north. From the top you get a great view of Beijing’s smog. It’s really terrible there, and I’d never been in a city where the air actually tastes bad. For more of an idea of how bad it can be, check out this (short) blog post:

What would be a great view over the Forbidden City, without the smog.

On the eastern pathway leading down the Prospect Hill there once stood a diminutive scholar tree, which was surrounded by a red brick wall. It was here that the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hung himself on the morning of March 19, 1644. Two days earlier, Li Zicheng had led a peasant army into Beijing and accepted the surrender of Ming troops outside the city. On March 18, the troops guarding Fuchengmen and Xibianmen opened the gates and allowed the insurgents to enter the city. Before dawn on March 19, Chongzhen (reigned 1628-1644) ran out of the palace without his crown, his hair loose and unkempt. He wore a long white gown embroidered with a dragon and a single soft-soled shoe (history failed to record what happened to the other one) borrowed from Wang Cheng’en, a court eunuch. His hands stained with the blood of Concubine Yuan and two princesses, he reached the top of the hill and said, “I have always treated my subordinates well, yet today, finding myself in this wretched state, why is it that not a single one of them is here with me to sacrifice his life? Perhaps because they don’ t know that I am here, which would explain why they are not hurrying after me.” He walked down the hill and hung himself with his belt on an old scholar tree. There used to be a stone stela with this inscription: “The place where Emperor Sizong (his posthumous title) died for his country.” In the 1950s, this stela was replaced by a wooden plague reading, “The place where Emperor Chongzhen hung himself.”

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the hutongs. These are the old arteries of the city, made up of a network of tiny alleys. Traditionally, homes would be built in a square around a central courtyard, in accordance with Feng Shui. These were then connected to each other, forming alleys between them. The neighbourhoods made up this way are also referred to as hutongs. They tend to be the poorer areas of the city, and offer a taste of the life of a lot of residents of the city. They have an old world charm, although it is marred by being somewhat run down, and they offer the cheapest food in the city from street carts. Sadly though, a large percentage of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished in the rush to modernise. Some have protected status now, but I don’t know how much that means in China.

The entrance to a hutong courtyard

A normal house in the hutongs

Hutongs late at night. The blue line is because the camera is dying.

Other Things

The following day was spent walking the Great Wall, but I’ll reserve a separate post for that. I think it deserves it. Other assorted things that I saw/did, in no particular order were:

The Bell and Drum towers. These used to dominate the skyline of ancient Beijing, and were used for timekeeping and musical performances until 1924.

The Lama Temple. The most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

It's a bad photo because you aren't supposed to take shots of religious icons

The temple complex

Food. Amazing food. Most of the time in Beijing I ate from street stalls, eating assorted fried, boiled or grilled things on sticks. Breakfast was usually baozi, because I found a place round the corner from my hostel that sold them for the equivalent of about 2p. Baozi vary quite a lot but they are all steamed buns, and taste like fluffy, slightly undercooked, moist bread. They have some sort of savoury filling, although I can never work out what they are with any confidence. These ones were around 10cm in diameter, and delicious.

I also had to get some Peking duck while I was in Beijing (for those of you that don’t know, Peking is the old name for Beijing). It is chopped roast duck meat and skin, eaten wrapped in small rice pancakes with spring onions and hoisin sauce. And delicious. The restaurant I went to sold me half a duck for under five pounds. I went back to the same place the next day, and had chopped beef heart, with cucumber and huge amounts of chilli. It was delicious, especially as the heart was chopped irregularly, so some bits were chewy, and some were incredibly tender. Simple and delicious, but I had to have a couple of beers to counteract the chilli.

The beef heart

I don't remember exactly what this was. Looks tasty though

Bars. Obviously I saw quite a few of those. They’re incredibly cheap.

A random gate. Nothing particularly special, there are tons in Beijing. Cool though.

And then I got a train to Shanghai. 330kph.

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