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September 02, 2005

Friday: The Forbidden City

Beijing is encircled by a set of ring roads of different diameters; currently there are four of these, with new ones added as the population grows. The city, by the way, is huge: 13M people, growing to about 20M if you count transients who are visiting but don't officially live here. It seems to consist of interminable districts of high rises connected by expressways, grown organically into a hive. Rush hour is horrible: I spent two hours in a cab yesterday, and in the end simply aborted and went back to the hotel rather than continuing to my destination. But enough about that. The very center of all the ring roads around the city is Tiananmen Square, which is also the cultural heart. Originally, the square was part of the Forbidden City and was covered by a number of outbuildings; Chairman Mao cleared the enormous square, and it is now capable of holding a million people. The picture to the right shows our group in the square, backed by the good Chairman. Aggressive street vendors hawk tchochkes, postcards, and the most coveted item: cheap watches that show a mechanical Chairman Mao gesticulating furiously in time to the second hand. The vendors are quite aggressive, tugging on your sleeve and demanding attention. Often, we'd leave the bus into a cheering crowd of them, which led our group-mate Nicki to say she felt like a Beatle, and wanted to grab a sharpie and start signing all the junk for them.

Across the street from the square is the entrace to the Forbidden City itself. This was the imperial seat during much of the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the 1400s to 1911. Commoners are forbidden from entering the city except under the order of the emperor; hence, "forbidden." So essentially, the forbidden city is a giant palace, containing 9,999.5 rooms. Yes, that's 9,999.5 rooms. One half room short of 10,000. As it turns out, 10k is the number of rooms in the palace of heaven, and as the emperor is only the *son* of heaven, he's not allowed to have that many rooms in his earthly palace. So he built 9,999, plus a little half-room just to make sure he had more than any upstart neighboring potentates. Furthermore, during that time period, 9 was considered the luckiest number, denoting longevity. As an aside, courtesy of our tour guide Robert, the luckiest number today is 8, rather than 9, denoting wealth. Times have changed. Car license plates are sold with the car, and those containing an "8" may sell for as much as twice the price of those without. Those with multiple 8's: far more. Likewise, phone numbers containing 8's are desirable, so for instance our Tianlun Dynasty hotel's number is 6513-8888, denoting the vast wealth extracted from tourists on a daily basis. If you're wondering, 4 is currently the most unlucky number, and most of the odd numbers are to be avoided if possible. 6 is a good egg, denoting good fortune. As a further aside, I'll point out that all the correct facts in this section of the blog are due to Robert, whereas all the incorrect ones are simply made up by me. You be the judge. Okay, end of parenthetical comment on numbers and provenance of information. So, 9,999.5 rooms. The forbidden city is a long line containing a sequence of courtyards, each of which contains a major sub-palace at each end, right across the line, and various other buildings along the sides. The buildings are all in similar style, and all have properly Chinese names, like the "Hall of Supreme Harmony," the "Hall of Union and Peace," or the "Hall of Ambiguously Positive Adjectives." The picture to the right shows one of the courtyards, and one of the sub-palaces. The bricks in the emperor's receiving courtyard were laid in traditional paranoid imperial style. The courtyard was paved fifteen times, alternating between horizontal and vertical, resulting in bricks about a meter deep, in case an assassin took it into his or her head to tunnel in. You can see the original bricks side-by-side with bricks replaced a couple of years ago, and the original ones are in almost as good a condition.

Theroofs of these halls are decorated with the kings of various kingdoms along the tops of the eaves, showing the emperor's dominance over all the kingdoms of the world: the Dragon on the right as the king of the animals, then the phoenix, heavenly horse, sea horse, and others following. In case you're wondering, the sea horse is king of the seas. So don't mess with him. Incidentally, he's available deep-fried on a stick, a couple of blocks from the hotel. There's a monkey in there somewhere, but we're not sure what he's king of. Monkeys, maybe. An enterprising craftsman somewhere along the way realized that it was possible to combine the task of nailing down the top of the eaves with the task of invoking the kings of the spirit kingdoms to protect the emperor, so the figures are also nails.

The forbidden city is fascinating. It's enormous, and entirely ceremonial -- unliveable. And its scope is beyond any palace anywhere.

We're off to Guangzhou Saturday, and will have more to report from there.


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