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What do we forbid in America? Same as they do in China: emperors.
But in pre-Mao China, the rules were different, and the word “forbidden” meant something slightly different as well. In fact, it meant you needed the emperor’s permission.
The Forbidden City, built in the 1400s in downtown Beijing, housed 24 Chinese emperors over 500 years, although “housed” would strike any visitor as a feeble, utterly helpless verb in the face of these surroundings.
The emperor was bedecked, glamorized and sequestered by some 900 buildings and 9,000 rooms, not to mention a moat. Each archway framed the emperor in vivid red, purple or blue and always shimmering gold. The massive staircases and bas-relief-carved bridges adorned his feet better than the most expensive shoes.
Or rather, they prettified the feet of those who carried the emperor, and, of course, the concubines, as they pattered between the palaces of Heavenly Purity and Earthly Tranquility.
My tour group liked to hear about the concubines. We giggled and cracked little jokes that maybe seemed funnier to us because we were being naughty in a foreign county, while representing our native land.
Leslie, our guide, used this degeneration to his advantage. Any time he needed to get our attention, he would say “concubines” in his soft, understated voice and we’d lean in, hunching our thick American shoulders, and, entranced, listen to completely non-graphic accounts of numbers.
********Thousands*********: The number of concubines a typical emperor might choose from on his nightly menu.
*********One*********: The number of legitimate Chinese female emperors. It was of great interest to our group that Wu Zetian, who ruled well before the construction of the Forbidden City, was once a concubine herself.
We heard other bits of historical numerology, such as why there are varying, odd quantities of animals on the roofs of important halls. The most carved into any rooftop corner is nine – the emperor’s lucky number, although some might argue his luck continued up to around 20,000, his estimated sum of concubines during the Qing Dynasty.
Eight is the highest and most fortuitous number for us mortals, hence the Olympic opening ceremony set for Aug. 8, 2008.
Anyhow, even sans concubines, the Forbidden City is spectacular. Nothing can take away from its grandeur: not the Bamboo scaffolds crisscrossing the facades of many halls (at least in March, when we visited) as workers try to repair them in time for the Olympics and not the knowledge that the whole place has been listlessly renamed the Palace Museum, now that no one needs the emperor’s permission to visit.
So close to heaven
Twice a year, the emperor would make a pilgrimage from Earth to Heaven. This was easier than you might think, as both are located in Beijing.
A long bridge connects the two realms, with a special path along the middle where only the gods would walk. When the emperor reached the halfway point, he would stop briefly in a small but beautifully painted building to change his robes. Once properly dressed, he would continue toward heaven.
The Temple of Heaven, as the park is called, takes up 2,700,000 square meters, compared to the Forbidden City’s 720,000. The entire property is Olympic-ready, and the fresh paint has helped make heaven the unsullied, dazzling place I always expected.
Years ago, members of the public stayed behind as the emperor entered the park’s enormous halls and prayed for good harvests. These days, throngs of local and foreign tourists crowd the courtyards. On our tour, we, along with many others, tested the Echo Wall, where supposedly you can hear a friend’s whisper 193 meters away. (As one of China’s tourism websites reads, “Isn’t it interesting?”) We clapped our hands on three unique stones where, depending which stone you stand on, your clap echoes one, two or three times. We also stood at the center of the universe, a small circle of white jade surrounded mostly by Chinese teens with cameras.
We did not enter the prayer hall, which remains off-limits. We tourists climbed over each other looking into the roped-off doorways and windows.
I had seen so many gorgeous temples by this point in the trip – the third day – that the splendor had dulled a bit. Even if it hadn’t, I would have preferred the large quad just outside the temples to the finery inside.
Our guide had described the area as a kind of open-air senior center, where people spent their days after they retired. Upon seeing it, I understood why they would choose to come here, rather than huddle in their apartments with TV sets.
On a long, wrap-around porch, hundreds of men and women, many with gray hair, played mahjong, danced, kicked around feathered hackey sacks, belted out Chinese opera and played accordions, all for no particular audience other than each other. How courageous to be so close to heaven and embrace that proximity.