Power can sparkle, and in Beijing it certainly does. Several thousand workers and artisans have during the past few years been laboring to restore The Forbidden City, the abode of Chinese emperors for centuries.
By Torbjørn Færøvik, writer and historian
The Forbidden City is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the work’s progress several UNESCO experts have shown their dismay. The Chinese are more willing to replace the old with the new to a greater degree from what we are used to. But Jin Hongui, vice director of the palace city, is convinced that the restorations will meet with approval of the experts’ critical eyes. “The whole world is watching what we are doing. We cannot afford to make mistakes.”
Center of the Middle Kingdom
The Chinese have from times of old referred to their country as The Middle Kingdom. The physical center of the kingdom was the emperor and the palace city from which he ruled. The Forbidden City was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) early in the 1400’s. The dynasty’s third emperor, Yongle, didn’t want to live in Nanjing as his predecessors, and he therefore decided to move the capital to Beijing.
A Vietnamese was elected to the position of chief architect for the project. Nguyen An was considered a genius and an organizer of high rank. Collaborating with fengshui experts he drafted the outer frame, or wall, which became 961 meters long, 753 meters wide and 10 meters high. The new palace city was situated fairly much at the same place as the previous one. All important buildings, such as the ceremonial halls, should face to the south, according to old imperial building codes.
One Million Workers
The work commenced in 1406. Delegates were sent out at the emperor’s orders to procure the building materials - oak, camphor and pine from the Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei Provinces, and the hard nanmu-tree from the Sichuan Province, nearly 2,000 kilometers from Beijing. The timber was first brought east along the big rivers. At the city of Yangzhou it was channeled into The Grand Canal and towed northward by use of horses that trudged along the sides of the canal. The distance from Yangzhou to Beijing was 1,450 kilometers. It could take up to four years to transport the wood from the forests to the palace.
Much of the marble was brought from Fangshan, fifty kilometers west of Beijing. Some of the larger pieces could weigh several tons and were transported to the building site towed on ice covered roads. Long after the palace was finished a decision was made to further enhance it with a piece of marble weighing 180 tons. Since the transport required strong ice, the transport route was outfitted with one well for each li (one li is approximately 500 meters) to be on the safe side. The demanding transport commenced one January day in 1602. Twenty thousand men were mobilized. After 28 days of hard labor the colossal piece of marble was dragged unharmed in to the castle. Ever since that time it has rested behind The Hall of Supreme Harmony, exquisitely carved and still as white as it was.
Approximately one million people contributed to this work. In addition to the skilled workers a great number of other workers were commandeered to the work site. The work they did was considered an obligatory contribution to the state. Chinese people throughout China labored on countless official worksites in this manner - year after year without pay. Convicts also contributed to this work. They were easily recognizable in the masses of people as they had to carry their heavy pillories around their necks.
Of course the final result was magnificent. The surrounding walls and exterior house walls were painted in scarlet while the ceilings shone in yellow. Scarlet was the color of happiness, yellow was the imperial color. Elegant contrasts were created by help of the white marble terraces, which surrounded the halls in various heights.
Beijing Decked Out for the Party
The inauguration took place on New Year’s Day in 1421. Beijing was decked out for the party and dignitaries streamed in from far and near. Hafiz-i-Abru, a Muslim, came from Herat in Afghanistan. Prior to the inauguration he had been strictly informed not to wear white clothes, because white was the color of sorrow. Just like the other guests he was escorted into the palace at midnight, past long rows of red, illuminated lanterns. The festivities commenced at sunrise. The emperor appeared at the gate and the guests fell to their knees and kowtowed. Afterwards he invited the guests to partake in an outstanding meal and continuous entertainment by acrobats and jugglers before the party came to an end.
The future looked bright. But when the party was over, the emperor’s favorite concubine died. It soon came to light that two other concubines had had an intimate relationship with one of the eunuchs. This was not unusual, but it infuriated the emperor who demanded an investigation. After lengthy interrogations 2,800 others, concubines and eunuchs alike, were drawn into the scandal and an undisclosed number of people were executed.
Three of the ceremonial halls were struck by lightning a few months later. They burst into flame in a matter of minutes and the emperor’s throne was reduced to ashes by the following day. Several smaller buildings suffered the same fate, and many lives were lost in the flames. A grief-stricken emperor withdrew to pray. A few days later he issued an imperial edict: “My heart is filled with fear. I don’t know what to do. It seems that we have not carried out the rituals well enough to honor Heaven and the Spirits. Perhaps we have violated the laws of our ancestors, or perhaps the government’s moral conduct has not been good enough? (…) I don’t know why I am so confused.”
Many people grumbled and interpreted the fires as a sign that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. “Your Majesty has been absorbed with the work of building Beijing for more than twenty years,” wrote one public servant. “But ever since the project commenced the expenses have been enormous and the people in charge have not been able to fully meet their responsibilities. Workers have become separated from their families and have not been able to grow crops on their own soil. (…) ever since the building commenced, carpenters and brick-makers have chased people from their homes in your name, in that manner creating an army of homeless people. Many have to eat tree bark, grass and whatever else they can find.”
Many high officials were of the opinion that the emperor ought to move back to Nanjing to appease Heaven. But he didn’t want to do that and died three years later.
The Emperor’s Decrees
After a while the Jesuits fell into disgrace, but even so the 1700s became an era of greatness for the country. Commerce flourished, and travelers flocked in from many countries to do business. So did the British, who in 1793 sent a delegation to the emperor with a request of increased trade. But instead of being received in The Forbidden City, the British were led to the emperor’s summer seat in Chengde, 150 kilometers north of Beijing. The Manchu emperors thought The Forbidden City was too hot in summer. It was much better to enjoy life in the higher elevations to the north. The “summit meeting” in Chengde was unfortunately not a success. The emperor refused the requests of the British and sent them home with the famous words: “As the ruler of the world I only have one goal that is to maintain a perfect government and fulfill the state’s duties. (…) Consequently there’s nothing we lack, as your principal envoy has himself observed. We have never set much store on strange and ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.”
The Country’s Largest Treasure Chamber
In time The Forbidden City became the country’s largest treasury. Large and small palaces were filled to the brim with calligraphy and noble porcelain, with gold and silver and jade. But the dawn of the 1800’s brought China into a period of decline. Western powers led by the British became progressively more aggressive, and the imperial power became increasingly weakened.
The Imperial Eunuchs
Beijing was invaded by poor young men from the countryside during the dissolution of the Qing Dynasty. Some had one goal only: to become imperial eunuchs. “The surgeons” were located in a ramshackle building outside of the palace wall. They had carried on with their bloody trade with the emperor’s blessings for centuries. Any young man could have his noblest body parts removed for six silver coins. They were past the first obstacle when the operation had finished. But they weren’t all hired, and those who weren’t risked becoming beggars for life. In the worst scenarios they would suffer an early and painful death.
The patient was placed in a slanted bed and asked if he would ever regret the forthcoming operation. If the answer was no, the surgeon could hone his knife. Three nurses bent over him and held him down. Spreading his legs and thighs, the noblest body parts were doused with warm, anesthetizing “pepper water”, and he was given a cup of relaxing herb tea to relax.
The convalescence period was over in two to three months’ time. In the hopes that he would be hired by the emperor, he was examined by experienced eunuchs in The Forbidden City. There should be no “remains”, and to prove his new condition he brought his cut off sexual organs with him in a jar filled with formaldehyde. They were called pao, “costly”. So costly were they that they had to be kept for the rest of his life, even into death. Whenever a eunuch was to advance in the imperial hierarchy he had to be able to show his pao, otherwise he had no chances. And when he finally died they would follow him into his grave in the hopes that the gods would believe that he was “a whole person”.
The Last Emperor
Both Guangxu and Cixi died in 1908, and Puyi, a two-year-old boy was quickly placed on the throne. The boy cried and carried on during the ceremony. “Calm down, it will soon be over”, whispered his father in despair. Frightened dignitaries looked at one another and feared that the dynasty’s days soon were counted. Surely enough, three years later the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and China became a republic.
Every day he was carried to his education classes, and there was one color that enveloped him more than any other: “Whenever I think of my childhood my head fills with a yellow mist. The glazed ceiling tiles were yellow, my sedan-chair were yellow, the cushions were yellow; the linings in my clothes and headwear were yellow, the dishes and bowls from which I ate and drank were yellow; the binding of my books, the curtains in my apartments, the bridle of my horses – everything surrounding me was yellow. Using this so-called “brilliant yellow” was a privilege reserved for the Imperial family.”
Just like other children Puyi was allowed to play, but the preparations for this were extensive: “When I went out in the imperial gardens to play, a procession had to be organized. In front went a eunuch from the Administrative Bureau who functioned was that of a motor horn – he sounded a ‘shoo-shoo” continually, as a warning to anyone who might be in the vicinity. Twenty to thirty paces behind him walked the chief eunuchs, advancing crabwise on either side of the path. Ten paces behind them advanced the main procession (…). If I was being carried in a chair there would be two young eunuchs beside me, to my right and the left, to attend to my needs at all times. If I was walking they would be supporting me.”
“Your Majesty, Your Majesty!”
Puyi turned thirteen years of age in 1919. His advisors thought it was high time that he learnt English and Reginald Fleming Johnston (picture below), a highly educated Scotsman, was called to the Imperial Palace. Johnston had an M.A. in literature from Oxford University, and spoke Mandarin fluently.
In 1924 the warlord Feng Yuxiang advanced into Beijing. “The inevitable at last occurred. It was about nine o’clock on the morning of November 5.” Puyi was eating fruit with his young wife, Wang Rung, in the Palace of Accumulated Elegance “when all of a sudden a group of ministers from the Household Department came rushing in, led by the Marshal of the Court, Shao Ying. He held a document in his hand and panted: ‘Your Majesty, Your Majesty! Feng Yuxiang’s soldiers are here’.” The letter was short. Puyi was presented with a treaty wherein he would agree to move out of The Forbidden City with the rest of the court. There and then he had no choice. A few hours later he was chauffeured away in a black car.
A Lasting Memory
During the next few years The Forbidden City fell into more decay. Nobody assumed the responsibility of maintaining the old palaces. Between 1937 and 1945 the country was at war with Japan. When the Japanese finally were beaten, the Chinese went at each other. Many of the art treasures that were still in good condition were shipped across the ocean to Taiwan at the end of the 1940’s. Today they are resting in the magnificent Palace Museum in Taibei (Taiwan).
When the communists seized the power in 1949, a gradual restoration process of the imperial palaces began. In a capital that steadily loses its old buildings, The Forbidden City will shine as a lasting memorial of the past.
Zhongnanhai – The Leaders’ Forbidden City
To the west of The Forbidden City lies another forbidden city one seldom hears about. Nobody, except a small number of chosen people, is allowed in. It is called Zhongnanhai (Central and Southern Seas) and takes its name after the two lakes in the compound. It is in Zhongnanhai that the Chinese leaders live and work.
An Earthly Paradise
Zhongnanhai had long been a closed off area, and had served as an idyllic recreational area for previous emperors. It originally consisted of three lakes – the Southern, Middle and North Lake, but North Lake had been set apart from the others and made available to the public. It was, of course, decorated with numerous temples and pavilions and the entire magnificence was enclosed by high vermilion-red walls.
Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, lived in Zhongnanhai for more than twenty years. In his biography of Mao he described it as a well protected, tightly guarded compound. One could not look through the walls from any area. Armed soldiers stood guard by the gates, and only those who worked there, or especially invited guests, were allowed entry. The security measures were extensive even behind the walls as sentries were continuously controlling people’s permits.
The Red Guards Make Their Entry
Then the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. Mao saw enemies everywhere and engaged millions of Red Guards for his real and imagined enemies - one of them was the chairman’s closest neighbor, President Liu Shaoqi. The newspapers referred to him as “a strikebreaker, traitor and renegade”. Numerous Red Guards were let into Zhongnanhai with Mao’s knowledge and blessings, where they for weeks upon end stirred up trouble with Liu and other top leaders. One “battle session” relieved the other, and several people were tortured. Liu Shaoqi ended his life a sick man in a jail in the city of Kaifeng.
The enclosed living quarters of the chairman were called The Garden of Benevolence. Several of the buildings dated back to the 1700’s, one of which had housed several emperors’ library. The rare visitors that Mao admitted were usually received in The Hall of Longevity. Mao personally spent much of his time in his work room in The Pavilion of Fragrant Chrysanthemum, which actually consisted of several buildings and a beautiful courtyard lined with old cypresses and pine trees.
In 1969 Mao concluded that the Soviet Union represented a military threat to China and that the Chinese risked being exposed to a nuclear attack by the Soviets. “Store grains everywhere, and make the tunnels deeper!” he ordered. So it was. Millions of people in Beijing and other cities were mobilized to dig underground tunnels to function as emergency shelters and escape routes in case the worst would happen. In Zhongnanhai it was especially important to be ready. Large crews were set to work excavating what was to become the Military Chief Commando Headquarters in times of war. From there underground highways were built to other key installations and the West Mountains outside of the city. These roads were wide enough that four trucks could drive side by side.
The feared Soviet nuclear attack never came. Instead a smiling Richard Nixon showed up in Zhongnanhai in 1972. The American president wanted reconciliation with China and Mao welcomed him with open arms. During the next few years Mao’s health gradually declined, and on September 9, 1976 he passed away in his combined bedroom-office, 83 years of age.
Closed to the Public
Mao became the object of even greater tribute after his death. His Library of Chrysanthemum Fragrance work room was converted into a museum and chosen Chinese were given admission to Zhongnanhai to view the holy place. They found a somewhat dilapidated house, and Mao’s tattered shoes, bath robe and other items left behind were used to display what a simple and proletarian life he had led. The display shut down in 1985 and Zhongnanhai has been closed to the public ever since. The closed city stills remains the residential area and headquarters for the country’s foremost leaders. Its main gate is on the wide Chang’an Avenue. People are not allowed to stop in front of it, nor are they allowed to photograph it.
Translated from Norwegian by Anne Faerovik, firstname.lastname@example.org