The Forbidden City, site of THE LAST EMPEROR movie, has an intriguing past.
China Beijing Forbidden City
Not for the eyes of small children.
The Forbidden City was a favorite on my recent visit to China. Located on the edge of Tiananmen Square, it starts with stairs—China is fascinated with stairs—no handicap accommodation in evidence—and gates which used to lock out the world and lock in the royal family.
Just before the trip, I’d rented the DVD, THE LAST EMPEROR, actually filmed in the Forbidden City. When I visited the locale, I was delighted to recognize many things: the archway where Pu-yi was stopped by the guards when he tried to flee to his dying mother’s bedside; the huge ceremonial courtyards; the broad marble stairways into the palace itself, one for the emperor, the other for commoners. Don’t use the wrong one on pain of death! You would be considered presumptuous, perhaps aspiring to the throne yourself.
CEREMONIAL PLAZAS AND HALLS
The compound includes the Hall of Perfect Harmony, the ceremonial room for receiving citizens, reading messages, appointing officials, etc. and the resting place for the emperor as he journeyed to the Hall of Supreme Harmony across the plaza.
We learned that construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 and became the home and ruling palace of 24 emperors and their families during the Qing and Ming Dynasties until 1911.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was where birthdays were celebrated and new emperors were installed. It’s the largest wooden structure in China.
Note that both buildings have “harmony” in their name. The Chinese, particularly their emperors, seemed intent on harmony. Perceived rivals for the throne were wiped out, even if the rival happened to be a son or brother. The practice did promote harmony to the max.
I sense that it will take a major attitude adjustment for current leaders to accept the idea of being voted out of office and peacefully passing the power to a successor. No fair killing your successor. No fair your successor killing you. Not historically the Chinese method of succession.
THE LIVING AREA
After walking through these areas, all being forcibly renovated by university students and other workers in preparation for the Olympics, we at last entered the cozier, almost-homey actual living quarters. Tucked away were many small gardens (small only by comparison to the huge ceremonial plazas) and it seemed a pleasant enough place to spend one’s life, that is, until we realized that is what they did—spent their lives bound by these high walls.
The original layout included 9,999 rooms in the living area because 9 is the lucky, auspicious number in northern China. (It’s 8 in the south.) Scott, our Beijing guide, explained it’s all laid out with due respect paid to yin and yang, feng shui, and the whole Chinese mythology which has served them well for thousands of years. Scott’s a believer but says his wife doesn’t practice it.
Most of those 9,999 rooms were occupied by concubines who were guarded by eunuchs. How often would they receive the attention of the emperor? Go figure! With their bound feet and usually untrained minds, unable to participate in normal day-to-day work, sports, pastimes, even reading and writing, many resorted to smoking opium. Suicide was also an option.
THE CHICANERY OF CI-XI
Scott has read a fascinating book entitled, “THE LAST EUNUCH,” written by the head eunuch who served before Pu-yi was deposed. Unfortunately, it is still not available in English, but Scott says there is some interest from Hollywood. I hope it’s coming soon, one way or the other.
The head eunuch wrote that Ci Xi (pronounced Soo-shee by Scott and Shee-soo by our local guide in Shanghai a few days later. Take your pick.) Anyway, this crafty gal was of peasant birth but somehow amassed enough money to buy a costly gift for the head eunuch. He put her in good graces with the emperor.
It seems that every evening after dinner, the eunuch would present the Emperor Xianfeng with a tray of tiles bearing the names of concubines. Ci Xi’s tile was always prominently displayed. Of course, if the emperor asked advice, the eunuch would say, in his humble opinion, Ci Xi was a good choice for the evening’s entertainment.
The chosen concubine was totally disrobed in her quarters, wrapped in a blanket, and carried to the emperor’s chambers. Wow! What a trip! This was to ensure that no weapon could be smuggled in to kill the emperor (more of that harmony stuff, no doubt.)
When the emperor was satisfied, the concubine was carried back to her quarters. No chance of the old boy being strangled in his sleep!
The result of all this intrigue was that Ci-Xi was the only one to bear a son to the emperor; upon his death, she became the Empress Dowager, standing behind a curtain hanging behind the throne of her five-year-old son, Tongzhi, telling him what to say.
Just goes to show that no matter the circumstances, with a little luck and lot of bribery you can rise to the top!
Next: The Great Wall