Lying at the heart of the city, the Forbidden City – or, more accurately, the Imperial Palace – is Beijing’s finest monument. To do it justice, you should plan to spend at least a whole day here; you could wander the complex for a week and keep discovering new aspects, especially now that many of the halls are doubling as museums of dynastic artefacts. The central halls, with their wealth of imperial pomp, may be the most magnificent buildings, but for many visitors it’s the side rooms, with their displays of the more intimate accoutrements of court life, that bring home the realities of life for the inhabitants in this, the most gilded of cages.
The Forbidden City is encased by a moat and, within the turreted walls, employs a wonderful symmetry and geomantic structure to achieve a balance between yin and yang; positive and negative energy. The City’s spine is composed of eleven south-facing Halls or Gates, all colossal, exquisite and ornate. Branching off from this central vertebrae are more than eight hundred buildings that share the exclusive combination of Imperial colours: red walls and yellow roof tiles. Elsewhere, jade green, gold and azure blue decorate the woodwork, archways and balconies. The doors to the central halls are heavy, red, thick and studded with gold. All in all, the intricacy of the city’s design is quite astonishing.
The Imperial Palace is increasingly being devoted to museum space – so much so that it arguably constitutes the best museum in China. The numerous buildings spreading out from the Forbidden City’s central axis house a variety of fascinating permanent and temporary exhibitions of Chinese and international historical artefacts and treasures (check what’s on at www.dpm.org.cn); you’ll find a map showing their location on the back of your entrance ticket.
In buildings surrounding the Hall of Supremacy (¥10). Gold, silver, pearl and jade items demonstrating the wealth, majesty and luxury of imperial life.
(¥10). This hall, always a favourite, displays the result of one Qing emperor’s passion for liberally ornamented Baroque timepieces, most of which are English and French, though the rhino-sized water clock by the entrance is Chinese. There’s even one with a mechanical scribe who can write eight characters. Some clocks are wound to demonstrate their workings at 11am and 2pm.
Hall of Literary Brilliance (free). A wonderful, air-cooled selection of fine pots, statues and porcelain treasures; keep an eye out for the Ming and Qing vases.
Hall of Martial Valour (free). Pieces demonstrating the art, skill and beauty of artists and literary aesthetics.
Palace of Accumulated Purity (free). A selection of intricate jade objects from the Imperial Court.
Palace of Great Brilliance (free). Precious religious, decorative, dress and sacrificial items.
Hall for Viewing Opera (free). Fascinating display of all the finery of the Chinese opera.
The emperors rarely left the Foribidden City – perhaps with good reason. Their lives, right up to the fall of the Manchu in the twentieth century, were governed by an extraordinarily developed taste for luxury and excess. It is estimated that a single meal for a Qing emperor could have fed several thousand of his impoverished peasants, a scale obviously appreciated by the last influential occupant, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who herself would commonly order preparation of 108 dishes at a single sitting. Sex, too, provided startling statistics, with the number of Ming-dynasty concubines approaching ten thousand. At night, the emperor chose a girl from his harem by picking out a tablet bearing her name from a pile on a silver tray. She would be delivered to the emperor’s bedchamber naked but for a yellow cloth wrapped around her, and carried on the back of a servant, since she could barely walk with her bound feet.
The only other men allowed into the palace were eunuchs, to ensure the authenticity of the emperor’s offspring. In daily contact with the royals, they often rose to considerable power, but this was bought at the expense of their dreadfully low standing outside the confines of the court. Confucianism held that disfiguration of the body impaired the soul, and eunuchs were buried apart from their ancestors in special graveyards outside the city. In the hope that they would still be buried “whole”, they kept and carried around their testicles in bags hung on their belts. They were usually recruited from the poorest families – attracted by the rare chance of amassing wealth other than by birth. Eunuchry was finally banned in 1924 and the remaining 1500 eunuchs were expelled from the palace. An observer described them “carrying their belongings in sacks and crying piteously in high-pitched voices”.