Monday, July 9, 2007

Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square

These are my last reports from the China trip back in May. I thought I'd better finish the series before my summer vacation travels start...

To give you a little background to ancient and imperial China, I suggest you read up on history:

The hotel concierge pointed out some of the main attractions and sites in Beijing on a small fold-out map, and the Beijing Travel Guide helped me get acquainted with the capital of China online before I started exploring the city physically.

In the city center of Beijing you find Tiananmen Square which is not very imperial, but nonetheless located right next to the Imperial Palace grounds (called the Forbidden City) so you can’t miss it and it’s a good starting point for a sightseeing tour. Tiananmen Square is apparently big enough to fit half a million people and as such the biggest central square in the world. During the Ming and Qing eras, there were red walls around the site which also had buildings. The walls were pulled down in the 1911 revolution (see photo below with revolution sculpture).

1911 revolution

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, commonly known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, or the Mao Mausoleum

The square is used mainly for big, momentous occasions. This is where Mao Zedong announced the new “People’s Republic of China” in 1949. This is also where a series of mass demonstrations for democratic rights and against the ruling of the Chinese Communist party were held in 1989 led by students, intellectuals, and labor activists, resulting in the Chinese army storming the demonstrations and many civilians being killed or injured (numbers vary from a few hundred up to thousands of people who died) – in Western media known as “the Massacre in Tiananmen Square”.

Tiananmen Square with the Monument of the People's Heroes to the right

In front of the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of Chinese Revolution: a count-down sign keeps track of number of days left to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

On the northern side of Tiananmen Square you see the entrance to the Forbidden City, with a big portrait of Mao Zedong on the facade of the Tiananmen Gate. This “Gate of Heavenly Peace” is a 20th century creation but the gate sticking up directly behind it is a Ming Dynasty structure.

Tiananmen Gate

It was very interesting to walk around in the Forbidden City. The Imperial Palace, today a Palace Museum complex, was completed by Emperor Yongle (one of the Ming emperors) in 1420. A moat and a 10 m high wall surround all the palace buildings (apparently there are 9,999 of them but not all are open to the public). The area was forbidden to all but the imperial court and the only westerners allowed were Jesuit scholar-priests in the 17th and 18th centuries, plus ambassadors who tried to trade with China.

The Forbidden City is almost 1 km long and 750 m wide and divided into two parts. The southern section – the Outer Court, housing the throne halls of Supreme Harmony which was under repair when I was there, Central Harmony and Preserved Harmony – was where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation.

Hall of Central Harmony

First built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and originally called Hua Gai Dian (Hall of Overwhelming Glory), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhong He Dian) was destroyed and reconstructed several times over the centuries. The existing hall (seen on the photo above) was constructed in 1627, but received its current name in 1645 during the Qing Dynasty. This square building has a single pyramid-shaped roof, with a gold plated bronze covering. The floor is paved with high-quality square clay bricks, commonly known as “golden bricks”. A throne is placed in the center of the hall and a board hangs above the throne with an inscription by Emperor Qianlong, which according to a sign outside the hall says: “The Way of Heaven is profound and mysterious and the way of mankind is difficult. Only if we make a precise and unified plan and follow the doctrine of the mean, can we rule this country well.”

The emperor used to rest in the Hall of Central Harmony on his way to attend an important ceremony or hold court, and officials kowtowed to the emperor here. The day before the emperor held a sacrificial ceremony, he would read the prayer tablet aloud in this hall. The words “Zhong He” come from the Book of Rites, meaning “When we handle matters properly and harmoniously without leaning to either side, all things on earth will flourish.”

Hall of Preserved Harmony

Originally called Jin Sheng Dian (Hall of Scrupulous Behavior), also the Hall of Preserved Harmony (Bao He Dian) (seen on photos above) was first constructed in 1420 but destroyed by fire and reconstructed several times. It still retains its original beams and columns. During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor changed clothes in this hall before an important ceremony. In the Qing Dynasty, the emperor held banquets here for his princes, dukes and ministers of ethnic minorities on the lunar New Year’s Eve and the Lantern Festival. The words “Bao He” are from the Book of Changes and mean “Maintaining harmony between all things on earth to have a long period of peace and stability.”

Gate of Heavenly Purity

The emperor lived with his royal family in the northern section – the Inner Court – featuring the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of the Union, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and the Imperial Garden.

Hall of Heavenly Purity

The Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qian Qing Gong) was constructed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and rebuilt in 1798 during the Qing Dynasty. The emperor lived and handled political affairs in this palace. After an emperor passed away in the Qing Dynasty, his coffin was kept in the hall to prove that he had died peacefully. After the memorial ceremony, the coffin was moved to Guan De Dian (Hall for Observing Military Virtue) in Jingshan (Prospect Hill) Park (see separate blog post), north of Forbidden City. Finally, the funeral was held and the deceased emperor was buried in the imperial mausoleum.

Emperor Yongshen (1678-1735) secretly set up a succession system with an “Heir Apparent Box” placed behind a board in the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The name of the emperor’s successor, written down by the emperor himself, was kept in this box and after he passed away the secretly appointed crown prince would ascend the throne.

Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union

The words “Jiao Tai” mean “the union of heaven and earth” and hence the square Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiao Tai Dian) (see photos above) is situated between Qian Qing Gong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) and Kun Ning Gong (Palace of Earthly Tranquility) in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City. In the center of the hall is a throne, above which hangs a board inscribed with words by Emperor Kangxi, meaning “doing nothing.” Below this board there is a screen with an inscription by Emperor Qianlong. In the Qing Dynasty, an annual grand ceremony was held here on the empress’ birthday, the lunar New Year, the Winter Solstice and on the “Day for Opening up Treasures” in the first lunar month.

The Inner Court housed not only the residences of the emperor and his empress, consorts and concubines, but also administrative buildings.

The Inner Court has been the home of fourteen emperors of the Ming dynasty (from the third Ming emperor Zhu Di) and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty. The Qing Dynasty fell to republican revolutionaries in 1911 and the last emperor of China (the last Qing emperor Puyi) was forced to abdicate. He was finally driven from the Inner Court in 1924 during a coup launched by the warlord Feng Yuxiang.

Read more about the Forbidden City here>>

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