Sunday, February 19, 2012

forbidden fruit

To the occidental eye, Beijing’s Forbidden City is a thing of beauty.  To the oriental eye, it is a place of harmony and order.  Set out in conformance with the principles of feng shui.

500 years ago, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty decided to restore Beijing as the imperial capital of China.  But he wanted that restoration to reflect the glory of an empire nearing the height of its strength.

The result was the Forbidden City -- where the ordinary Chinese would never enter.  A place that would reflect the very harmony and power that the emperor believed he brought to his empire.

Our visit was far too brief to do justice to this complex of administrative, political, religious, and residential buildings that formed the nucleus of Chinese power until the republican revolution of 1912.  The emperor ruled here in luxury with his wife, his concubines, and a troop of severely emasculated eunuchs who gave up all to serve the emperor.  And always the emperor feared he would be overthrown or poisoned.

Let me walk you through a bit of the complex.

The grounds cover almost 18 acres.  Over the years, the place has been modified, but the original complex was built in 15 years by over a million workers.  As Mel Brooks would say: “It’s good to be the king.”

The Forbidden City is divided into two parts: the outer court and the inner court.  The outer court was where public ceremonies were performed.  (“Public” in the sense that court officials were allowed to attend.)  The inner court was the emperor’s residence.

Access to the outer court is through the Gate of Supreme Harmony with its five gates.  One for the emperor only.

The gate opens up on a courtyard in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor was enthroned and married. 

One of the recurring motifs in all royal buildings is the presence of two lions -- guarding the emperor, but also symbolizing his strength.  They always come in pairs.  A male on the right (with an orb under his paw) and a female on the left (with a lion cub under her paw).

The courtyards contain a number of well-placed accessories to display the wealth of the emperor.  But some are merely practical.  Such as, these large brass cauldrons that were filled with water to fight the frequent fires that endangered the city’s wooden structures.  To keep the water from freezing, a fire burned under the cauldron.

Even the art is monumental.  One stone slab sculpture is the largest of its kind in the world.  It is so large that it was carved where it was quarried and then transported to the Forbidden City in the winter by digging short canals and sliding the stone along the ice.

But some art is far more human in scale.

No Chinese residence would be complete without a garden.  And the Forbidden City’s is imperial.  It meets all of the requirements of a well-planned Chinese garden.  Buildings.  Plants.  Water.  Stone. 

The last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924.  It was damaged by rioting following the Communist victory in 1959.  And it would have suffered additional damage  (if not destruction) during the Cultural Revolution if Zhiou Enlai had not ordered the army to close the city and protect it.

For all of its splendor and order, I found the Forbidden City to be rather sterile.  Rather like Chichen Itza.  Everything is scaled to make human activity inconsequential.

But I guess that is the point.  The individual is subordinated to the needs of the state.

A theme that was all-too-familiar on this trip.


Andean said...

The practice of feng shui, from what I read, was banned, reinstated, and seems to have continued through the years, in this fashion. Where does it stand now?
Thou it may 'look' quite simple in structure, form, placement...understanding of all the principles used, yinyang, qi, etc.-make it seem quite complex.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

It appears to me that you saw China from a political perspective and not an aesthetic one.  Sad, since the artistry of that country is thought to be the most exquisite in all the world.  The fabrics, the sculpture, the gardens, the ceramics - all distinct and unique and priceless.

Felipe Zapata said...

I'm surprised the Red Guards didn't destroy all this during the Cultural Revolution.  They sure destroyed about everything else lovely they could get their ignorant hands on.

Kim G said...

An architect friend, who once worked for a Chinese architect who would round off the numbers on bills sent to Chinese clients so as to avoid unfavorable number, coined the phrase, "Form follows Feng Shui.  I'm sure this applied to the Imperial City.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we'd like to have our own Imperial City, but have settled for a bungalow instead.

Steve Cotton said...

Apparently it was on their list. A lot of the old wall around Beijing came down as a symbol of feudalism.

Steve Cotton said...

I tend to see things more as an historian than anything else. But I did enjoy the artistic forms. More on that later. Unfortunately, our tour guides took us to only one museum -- and then only for an hour. As you know, I like spending time in museums. My comments reflect mostly what we were shown and what we were told.

Steve Cotton said...

Like most high context cultures, China is extremely form oriented. It is often beautiful. But it can appear very stilted, as well.

Steve Cotton said...

It is back in fashion. It is another idea tat the Red Guard would have gladly tossed out with the rest of Confucian thought.