20 May 2018.
For a start it’s huge! Within the walls there are 980 separate buildings with over 8700 rooms. The entire complex covers over 180 acres, which is the size of about 136 football fields. The enclosing rectangular wall is eight metres high and beyond that is a moat six metres wide and 52 metres deep. It is both forbidden and forbidding. For hundreds of years it was the closely guarded enclave of a very select few, catering to the whims and wishes of the most important person in the land.

Even the numbers of the select few are astonishing. At one point up to 70,000 eunuchs. Up to 3000 concubines. Hundreds of servants, 200 in the kitchens alone. All for the empress, the Dowager empress, and the only male living within the walls capable of procreating, the emperor, ruler of all China.

My exploration of the legendary Forbidden City is one of gradually unfolding awe.

We start the day early, grabbing some really good dumplings for breakfast that we eat as we make our way walking and then by local bus to Tiananmen Square, that most famous of vast public squares, all 109 acres of it.

The only thing I know about Tiananmen Square is a picture of a man standing in front of a tank that became the international symbol for the uprising of 1989, so the flower beds surprise me. I was expecting something much more austere.

After the death of Hu Yaobang, who was working within the government to move China towards a more democratic system, thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square on April 15 to mourn him. Over the next several weeks the number of people gathering in the square in support of reformation swelled to 1.2 million. It ended on June 4 with troops firing on the demonstrators. No official death toll has ever been released. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands.

Today Tiananmen Square is a benign place, but almost equally as crowded – with the thousands of domestic tourists who pour from countless tour buses, and a very few small groups of foreigners, like us on a three-week trip through China with Intrepid Travel.

Most of the tourists are Chinese who have come to see the iconic places of their capital. Tiananmen Square is of great cultural significant to the Chinese as the site of many important events in China’s history including the proclamation by Mao Zedong of the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

It is surrounded on two sides by large non-descript buildings, and at the south end by Mao’s equally non-descript mausoleum. It’s the north end that interests me. Here is the eponymous Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, hung with Mao’s portrait and guarded by living statues, one in blue, one in white. It is the entrance to the entrance to the Forbidden City: Tiananmen is the gate to the Imperial City within which the Forbidden City is located.

Passing through Tiananmen Gate I look back towards Mao’s Mausoleum.

Looking forward there is a broad royal street of grey flagstones, flanked by numerous buildings in the same traditional style, and broken about two-thirds of the way down by Duanmen Gate, similar to Tiananmen but smaller. Passing through the tunnel of Duanmen we eventually reach the massive and imposing U-shaped Meridian Gate.

This is the entrance to the Forbidden City. The moat ends on either side of these great towering walls. We pass through it and on the other side we cross the Golden Water River on a curved bridge of white marble

to see yet another gate. It is the Gate of Supreme Harmony guarded by two enormous lions.

and through it we can see ahead of us, beyond a vast open space used for royal ceremonial parades, the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Beyond the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony, and beyond that the Hall of Preserving Harmony. And all this is only the central axis and the outer palace. There are multiple buildings and expansive courtyards beyond, and off to both sides.

There are enormous brass water urns,

and grand statues of lions, peacocks, a deer side-by-side with a dragon, cranes, anatomically impossible elephants, and a dragon-headed turtle.

Each building has exquisite decorative details

and fits harmoniously with the whole, which is perhaps more than can be said for life inside the walls of the city during the 500 years it was the hub of a vast bureaucratic government, a ritual and ceremonial space, and the home of the emperor and his household.

The Forbidden City was constructed from 1406 to 1420 by more than a million of the minions of Emperor Yong Le. An unmatched example of traditional Chinese palatial architecture, it is the largest ancient palatial structure in the world. It was the home of twenty-four emperors, fourteen of the Ming Dynasty and ten of the Qing Dynasty. It ended in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi, the last emperor, and is now a vast museum frequented by as many people today as it was during the 500 years of its glory days.

Today, as a result of China’s burgeoning middle class, there are crowds of tourists who come by the busload to see the glories and ancient wonders of their homeland. Because it is so big there are areas that are quite empty.

Other areas, particularly the tunnels through the gates, become bottlenecks as thousands make their way from south to north.

Those who crowd the city today are free to come and go, unlike those who lived there during olden times. The emperor’s titles included Son of Heaven. Lord of Ten Thousand Years. Holy Highness. Heaven’s powers were granted him. In other words, he was a god. His words were deemed holy and were to be obeyed immediately. Yet he was not free. Life inside the walls of the Forbidden City was no picnic, not for anybody, and no one was free. All were bound by the impossible, and impossibly absurd, minutiae of tradition and internal politics.

Let’s start with the eunuchs. Here’s a pretty story. Apart from emissaries and officials of government who could enter the city on business, and then were no doubt escorted out again as soon as that business was concluded, the only man living within the walls of the city capable of bearing a child was the emperor. I guess he didn’t want any competition, and it certainly ensured the legitimacy of the emperor’s offspring.

There’s conflicting information about how the eunuchs became eunuchs. Mostly they were recruited as children though sometimes men in dire circumstances would offer up their manhood, so to speak, for a steady job. Some sources say all three of their um . . . jewels were cut off, some say only two. One account that gave illustrations of the surgical procedure where all three were removed explained how the wound was dressed and healed, though naturally there was some loss of bladder control leading to the expression “as smelly as a eunuch”. Ewwwww. This is probably more than you’ve ever wanted to know about eunuchs. You’re welcome.

Some of the eunuchs in the inner circle became very powerful since they knew all the details of the emperor’s life, and no doubt used that position to their advantage. Some became rich. Here’s one example of how:

In one of those grand palatial structures mentioned above the emperor would hold court every day sitting on one of several very elaborate thrones found throughout the complex.

Here those who had business with him, emissaries and administrators, the highest mandarins in the land, would present themselves. But first they had to kowtow, as in kneel down and literally bang their head on the floor. Nine times. The louder the noise they made banging their head, the greater the indication of their respect and obeisance to the emperor. (I’m shaking my head in incredulity about now.) Anyway under the floor in certain places there were inverted ceramic jars creating a hollow space. Banging your head on a hollow space makes way more noise than on a solid space. Certain eunuchs knew where the jars were. For a discreet fee he would tell you where.

This is the throne in the Hall of Heavenly Purity.

Mirrors were placed on either side to ward off evil.

I’m tickled by the names of the buildings; they seem so absurdly fanciful and optimistic: the Gate of Divine Might, the Hall of Military Eminence, the Hall of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Literary Glory, the Hall of Literary Profundity, the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, the Hall of Earthly tranquillity, the Palace of Eternal Spring, the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, the Temple of Food and the Spirit.

The inner court, the northern half of the Forbidden City, beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony, is a rabbit warren of halls and pavilions, symmetrically and systematically arranged behind walled courts, one inside the other like a jigsaw puzzle or maze, that one must find one’s way through very carefully. At the end there is a surprising, beautifully landscaped, formal garden.

It’s easy to become bewildered, overwhelmed by the many directions available to explore.

It’s a labyrinth of secrets and lies and red “prison” walls where all had a part to play and any deviation was severely punished. That was one way, I suppose, of preserving harmony. Run-away eunuchs, concubines, or servants were always captured, if they could ever even find their way out. It is here within these walls that the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, lived in lavish isolation.

Today the area houses the Clock Exhibition Hall,

the Treasure Exhibition Hall,

and the opportunity for tourists to clothe themselves or their children in the finery of ancient China and sit on a splendid golden throne.

The inner court housed the servants and the concubines. At one point there were as many as 3000 concubines. Physical beauty and perfection of both face and body was paramount. Once in the Forbidden City they were trained in correct behaviour and in some of the arts such as music and painting, and carefully vetted before being allowed to come into the presence of the emperor. Each one had to spend a night (or more?) sleeping with the head concubine to be sure she did not snore or emit any odours while sleeping. No farting in front of the emperor please! Finally, if a concubine was chosen for the night she would be bathed and perfumed, dressed in a single yellow robe, and carried, since she could barely walk on her bound feet, to the emperor’s bedchamber. One emperor was said to have five at a time, one had them lined up outside on cots, and one had so many in one night that he expired, literally, from too much of a good thing. The beautiful girls were chosen from all over the land when they were young. It didn’t matter where they were from, or what their social class. It only mattered that they were fuckable. Those who gave birth to male children became consorts, with the empress, the emperor’s wife, being at the top of the pecking order. She, of course, was chosen from an aristocratic family.

As for the emperor, he never had any privacy, and all his needs were attended to. His life was one of prescribed ritual from dressing, to meetings, to meals, to even the simple desire to go for a walk. From the last emperor Pu Yi’s biography:
In front went an eunuch whose function was roughly that of a motor horn; he walked twenty or thirty yards ahead of the party intoning the sound ‘… chir … chir …’ as a warning to anyone who might be waiting in the vicinity to go away at once. Next came two Chief Eunuchs advancing crabwise on either side of the path; ten paces behind them came the centre of the procession. If I was being carried in a chair there would be two junior eunuchs walking beside me to attend to my wants at any moment; if I was walking they would be supporting me. Next came an eunuch with a large silk canopy followed by a large group of eunuchs, some empty-handed, others holding all sorts of things: a seat in case I wanted to rest, changes of clothing, umbrellas and parasols. After these eunuchs of the Imperial Presence came eunuchs of the Imperial Tea Bureau with boxes of various kinds of cakes and delicacies … They were followed by eunuchs of the Imperial Dispensary … at the end of the procession came the eunuchs who carried commodes and chamberpots. If I was walking, a sedan-chair, open or covered according to the season, would bring up the rear. (Of course! Just in case the emperor decided he didn’t want to walk after all.) This motley procession of several dozen people would proceed in perfect silence and order.

Meals were equally ritualistic, requiring an enormous staff to be ready at a moment’s notice to serve over one hundred dishes to appease the royal stomach.

The inhabitants of the Forbidden City were bound by stultifying ritual and deadening royal behaviour codes. The Chief Eunuchs and the mandarins, the only people with access to the world outside the walls, were the ones with the real power and it was to their great advantage to keep the emperor in paranoid ignorance lest he stand up and roar them into poverty and oblivion. And so it was a prison, extravagant, lavish, and gilded, but a prison none-the-less.

We spent about three hours in the Forbidden City and barely scratched the surface. At times I felt rushed, but in the end was so full that even if I’d had more time I couldn’t take in another thing. I was full with the enormity of it all, and the beauty, and a kind of timeless wonder that such a place exists at all. It reminded me of Topkapi in Turkey, another imperial city within a city, and another example of the mind boggling excesses of kings and their courts.

Next post: Street food and acrobats

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.