Ghosts of the Forbidden City
Trip Start Nov 29, 2008
16Trip End Jan 03, 2009
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I have just passed through the collection of halls and buildings that make up the Forbidden City. Beyond the entrance bearing Mau's portrait, they are lined in a north-south axis, and bear poetic names: the Gate of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Perfect Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, the Palace of Celestial Purity.
The buildings are grand, to be sure. On the corners of the upturned eaves, dragons and mythical beasts are poised to fend off evil. The gold leaf on the paintings and studded doors is real gold. The scrolled roofs are topped with yellow ceramic tiles, the royal Imperial colour. Yet the terracotta colored buildings are mostly empty, gated at the entrances where the public gathers to take photos of their dim interiors.
The city is filled with people taking photos. The Forbidden City is no longer forbidden-tourists have replaced the countless numbers of concubines, eunuchs, workmen and servants who once lived here to serve their emperor, known as the Son of Heaven. In imperial times, nobody but the emperor used the center gates; now thousands pass through.
There's an interesting story about the Forbidden City. Shortly after it was founded by the Yongle Emperor in 1420, he invited ambassadors from 60 countries to come and dwell here for several months.China's foreign guests were still in the city when the emperor found his favorite concubine had an affair with a eunuch.
This kind of behavior wouldn't have been surprising. As emperors before and after him, the Yongle Emperor had thousands of concubines--so many that he couldn't possibly attend to them all. It would be natural for them to develop relationships with the only men available to them.
Of course the emperor didn't see it that way. Known for his paranoia and cruelty, he expected complete loyalty, and woe to those who succumbed to temptation! In a jealous rampage, he had almost 3,000 concubines and eunuchs killed, then covered up the carnage with secrecy while his unsuspecting guests remained. Yet the night after the massacre, only 100 days after the opening of the Forbidden City, lightning struck three of the palaces and burned them to the ground--one might think retribution from the dead. The emperor died a few years later, partly from depression, filled with remorse at the atrocities he had committed.
So many ghosts and many intriguing stories remain within these walls-enough to rival any medieval castle in Europe. In the Imperial Garden, I imagine the women summoned here to be chosen for the emperor's concubine collection, arranged like dolls among the flowers, hoping to catch the his eye. I imagine them looking at the same cypress trees standing here today, and feel sorry for them and the life of loneliness and fear they would lead.
Among the trees the tourists flow, smiling and chatting, exploring all the nooks and crannies of the courtyard, pausing to stop at the rock formations that look like mini mountains. The sign says, "Perilous hills. No climbing please." So polite and civilized! And we are free to walk out of the northern gate and explore the parks beyond, unlike many of those who lived within these walls.
Some things really do change for the better.