Enter the 5 Fingered Dragon: Inside the Forbidden City

One day, during our brief trip to Beijing, Susie and Simon were resting at our lovely neighborhood hotel.  The crazy windstorms that typified our visit continued, guaranteeing blue skies and no smog – a rare day indeed.  Even with weather this beautiful, Susie graciously stayed to watch Simon, leaving Joel free to do a quick visit to the Forbidden City.  The only place (in theory) where you can see dragons painted or carved with five claws…for only the Emperor’s dragons can have hands like humans.

Here there be imperial dragons.
Here there be imperial dragons.

So off I went to the one of the largest palace complexes in the world.  Here is where you learn traditional Chinese architecture, or at least the way you build for emperors.  Build wide, not up.  Important people live furthest from the front.  Perfect left-right symmetry along a perfect north-south axis, with the most powerful getting the most sunshine.  Golden yellow bricks that only emperors can use.  Lots of imported cedar wood.  Little carvings of water spirits along the rooftop eaves to ward off fire.

Water spirits carved from wood, painted with flammable paint, live on your wooden roof keep fire away.
Every wooden roof corner has water spirits, carved from wood and painted with flammable paint, to help keep fire away.  Goooooood strategy.

 

FCsouthview
The back gate of the Forbidden City, as viewed from atop Jingshan Park’s tallest hill. Remember, this is the LESS impressive entrance – the other gate simply won’t fit into my camera lens.

In brief, it’s 180 acres of palace buildings nestled inside an imposing 26 ft. high wall, surrounded by a moat 170 feet wide.  Its construction was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor (one of my favorite characters in the history class that I teach here).   Needing a palace as large as his insecurity issues, this guy was super concerned about imperial power and his right to rule.  Maybe that’s crazy, or maybe it’s a side effect of his murdering the rightful king (and his kid nephew, BTW) by burning him alive in his palace.  Some people are just way too serious about stuff.

 

One of the many thrones in the Imperial Palace.  It's good to be king.
One of the many thrones in the Imperial Palace. It’s good to be king.

To sum up, the emperors of China lived here starting almost a century before Chris Columbus tried to find a discount spice store.  Despite the walls and moat, the Forbidden City has been captured a few times.  Twice by rebels, once by the Manchus (who started a new dynasty), and once by Europeans who were just trying to defend their right to sell narcotics to the Chinese public.  Finally, in 1912, the last emperor Puyi, a young man educated by Western tutors who rode a bicycle around the palace, abdicated his throne to the new (and similarly doomed) Republic of China.  The rest, as they say, is history.

In a last-ditch effort to modernize China, the last emperors had telephones installed.
In a last-ditch effort to modernize China, the last emperor had telephones installed.  I’ll be honest, this was NOT an artifact I expected to see.

 

There is a LOT of history here. Too much to fit in a camera lens, too much for a blogpost.  So I took pics of details instead.

Giant brass kettles were always kept full of water in case of fire.
Giant brass kettles were always kept full of water in case of fire.
There is an enormous and beautiful garden in the City.  This rock garden has a secret tunnel and dual waterfalls.
There is an enormous and beautiful garden in the City. This rock garden has a secret tunnel and dual waterfalls.

 

Not every dragon gets to look ferocious...
This guy looks a little goofy.  I guess not every dragon gets to look ferocious…

 

Incidentally, I also saw Jingshan Park, the former Imperial gardens.  Absolutely beautiful views of the city.  And history here, too.  In 1644, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty knew that the hordes approaching the capital had his number.  So he personally killed some of his children with his sword and ran uphill behind the palace to hang himself from a tree in this park.  But other than the family-murder-suicide thing, it really is a lovely place.  Really.

The view from the back door to the royal gardens (now Jinshang Park).
The view from the back door to the royal gardens (now Jinshang Park).
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s