Friday, September 13, 2013

Palace or Prison

I have visited this particular location three times so far, once in the summer, once in the winter and the last visit was the beginning of spring. The Forbidden City (Gugong), also known as the Imperial Palace is a must visit place when one comes to Beijing and every tour would very likely include this into their itinerary and rightly so, because this place bears the history of the various emperors that have ruled China for hundred of years, 600 to be exact.
Forbidden City, The Outer Court during winter where the crowd is much lesser and the skies are clearer.
This is the center of Beijing literally speaking because all major roads, in particular the famous `ring’ roads of Beijing are built around this one location. The nearest and innermost is the 2nd ring road and then 3rd, the 4th, the 5th and finally the 6th. Hence, it is common for someone who is familiar with Beijing to ask direction based on the ring roads of which one particular place is located.
 Forbidden City during winter which is probably the only season where one could capture a picture of her without the maddening crowd of tourist. This picture almost speaks of the tranquility that must have gone through this structure during winter hundred of years ago where the general public was forbidden to enter, hence the name - Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was the home of 24 Ming and Qing Emperors with a history of almost 600 years (1401-1911), covering a land of over 178 acres, surrounded with 52 feet wide and 30 feet high walls, stretching over 2,428 meters. There are over 800 buildings within the Forbidden City with a total of 8,707 rooms in total.

She was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and due to the wear and tear, a direct result of the huge amount of daily visitors, is currently undergoing a refurbishment project aimed to be completed by 2020.
 A pair of large bronze lions found guarding the entrance of the Hall

Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty moved the then capital from Nanking to Beijing and oversaw the construction of this magnificent masterpiece, the same spot used by the great Kublai Khan 150 years before him as the winter palace. As the largest palace in the world, the Forbidden City stretches 960 meters from north to south and 750 meters from east to west, with a circumference of 3,430 meters. There are four main gates, the Meridian (Wumen) Gate at the south, the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shwumen) at the north, the East Flowery Gate at the east and the West Flowery Gate at the west. All visitors today will enter through the Meridian Gate which is the largest and the main gate and will exit through the north’s Gate of Divine Prowess.

 The Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south is the largest of the gates, with five entrance. The center entrance which is also the largest is used solely by the Emperor himself.

Entering through the Meridian Gate, you will be greeted by the Golden Water River with five marble bridges, simply known as the Bridges over the Golden Stream.
 Reflections of the five marble bridges that span across the River of Golden Water once you entered through the Meridian Gate

The entire Forbidden City is divided into two main sections, the Outer Court and the Inner Court. The Outer Court is where the Emperor handles court affairs and ceremonies and consists of three main halls, namely the Taihedian, (Hall of Supreme Harmony), Zhonghedian (Hall of Middle Harmony) and the Baohedian (Hall of Preserving Harmony).
 Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) where the Dragon Throne is located
The Dragon Throne located in Taiheidian, where the Emperor governed his kingdom and consult his officials on the daily affairs of his subjects

Of these three, the biggest and the most significant is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) which is also the largest surviving wooden structure in China. This is where the throne of the Emperor is located. During the Ming Dynasty, this was where the emperor governed his country, discussing daily affairs. The emperors during the Qing Dynasty, on the other hand, used it more for ceremonial purposes such as coronation and wedding ceremonies.
The longest Dragon Pavement in front of Taihedian consisting of carvings on two pieces of stone. The largest is the piece on the north side of Baohedian made from one single piece of stone, making it the largest of such structure in China. The bottom design of the carvings are images of mountains and sea and as the pavement goes up towards the hall, the carvings depicts clouds and an ascending heaven. As the emperor ascends to his throne, it is likened to a dragon ascending to the heavens.
The steps leading up to all the halls, both on the south and north sides are beautifully crafted with a ceremonial centrepiece ramp, also known as the Dragon Pavements with delicate stone carvings. The largest carving from one single piece of stone is the one on the north side of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, measuring 54.4 feet long, 10.1 feet wide and 5.6 feet thick, weighing 200 tonnes, making it the single largest such carving in China.
 Ancient ornaments found on the massive red doors found at the Forbidden City. Just imagine what stories they would tell if they could only speak.

Beyond the Outer Court is the Inner Court and this is the home of the Emperor, the Empress and of course, all his concubines. It was said that during the Qing Dynasty, the emperor could have as many as 120 concubines at his beck and call. To ensure that the emperor (with yang energy) has all it takes to produce a male successor, it was believed that having sexual intimacy as frequently as possible with his concubines (with yin energy) without achieving orgasm was encouraged, to ensure better success rate with his monthly union with the empress. Easier said than done, I am sure.

There are three main halls here, namely the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and finally the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity.

 Away from the main halls and palaces, there are many little lanes and doorways such as those captured above that are also interesting subjects for photography. Besides, can you imagine the types of gossips and conspiracy that could have been whispered along these lanes hundreds of years ago within this huge palace, which to many were nothing more but a massive fortress and prison with no way out.

Of these three, the Palace of Heavenly Purity is of the most significance, being the living quarters of the Emperor as well as his `modern working office’ so to speak. Hanging above his working desk and throne is a tablet with the inscription “Justice and Honour”. It is said that before an Emperor dies, he will write the name of his successor in red ink and placed it into a sealed box that will be hidden behind this tablet, only to be opened upon his death.
 The Emperor's `working desk' at the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Behind these halls, is the Imperial Garden where the Emperor and his family took leisurely walk to escape the hustle and bustle of governing his vast kingdom.

There is definitely much to see in the Forbidden City. Although all the buildings do look rather similar and alike, understanding their purposes and usage would definitely help you to appreciate them more.

I had to privilege to capture them during different seasons in the year and I must say that the best season that I enjoyed the most was in winter. There were far lesser tourist to start with but seeing the palace covered with white snow in contrast to the colourful structures was something that I had dreamt the moment I set foot in Beijing. The down side of course, is that you would have to deal with the freezing cold and slippery steps. Hence, thick winter clothing and anti slip snow shoes would be of great help.
 The entire Forbidden City as seen from the top of Jingshan Park across the North Gate of the Forbidden City.

I WOULD NOT recommend visiting during summer due to the heat, the crowd and the constant and frequent smog that we experienced in Beijing, hence, rendering all pictures dull and gloomy. If, you are avid photographer like I am, come when it is cold and you will be rewarded with pictures that you would be truly happy with.

The Forbidden City awaits you.

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