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article imagePhoto Essay: Beijing's Forbidden City Special

By Lonna Lisa Williams     Mar 4, 2014 in World
Beijing - For almost 500 years, the Forbidden City was the home of China's emperors and their households. A massive complex of grand halls, temples, courtyards, and gardens, this setting for China's impressive past will challenge the best walkers.
I had visited Beijing twice before I actually took a tour (with a group of Chinese). After a two-hour exploration of Tiananmen Square, my Chinese tour guide led our group into the Forbidden City. We walked up the white stone steps, under the gaze of Chairman Mao and a Chinese soldier, and entered the grand gate that only emperors and empresses used to pass through. As I stepped over wide slabs of smooth marble, my tour guide said,
"If this were the time of emperors, you would be killed for walking here."
Built in the early 15th Century, the Forbidden City was the home and government center for Ming and Qing emperors. This World Heritage Site draws millions of visitors, mostly Chinese. It is huge, with 980 buildings (mostly ancient wooden structures) enclosed in 7,800,000 square feet of area that is surrounded by castle-like walls with towers at their corners and occasional grand gates. All of this is surrounded by a moat complete with tree-lined walkways and boat docks.
The Forbidden City is about a mile of walking from end to end, with very few places to sit (a true challenge for most Americans). It has outer and inner courtyards, pavilions, bridges over a river, and grand halls with names like "The Hall of Supreme Harmony." The biggest halls are in the outer court, and the smaller halls, which were the living areas of the emperor and his family, are in the inner court. Everything is geometrically designed with symbolic meaning. In the inner court, the Palace of Heavenly Court is where the emperor lived. He symbolized the Yang and the Heavens. The empress lived in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and symbolized the Yin and the Earth. In between them is the Hall of Union where the Yin and Yang mixed to produce harmony.
There are many symbols in the Forbidden City. The buildings are often arranged together in sets of three, like the Qian triagram, representing Heaven. The glazed roof tiles are yellow, representing the emperor. The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building. A minor building might have three or five, but The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times. Its 10th statuette is called a "Hangshi" or "ranked tenth."
The Empress Dowager Cixi, who often retreated to the Summer Palace, named Puyi as the Last Emperor of China in the early 20th Century. Puyi was allowed to live in the Inner Court for several years even after the establishment of the Republic of China. The only film given official permission to be shot inside the Forbidden City tells the story of Puyi's life.
All of that space and history were difficult for me to take in as I wandered for three hours through the Forbidden City. In the Outer Court, I lost track of which hall was used for what and almost got crushed in a crowd that swept up to look inside of one. Hordes of people came for the Chinese New Year, and I saw no guards or crowd control as I made my way up steep stone steps with no hand rail. There was a barrier so that we could not enter inside the building, but people pushed just to get a glimpse into the dim, musty interior. I almost panicked as one man, who refused to get out of my way, grabbed me. There was no railing on the stone porch that dropped several feet down to the stone courtyard. I imagined the worst as I struggled to break free with only hurt pride and a bad photo to show for my experience.
I was glad when we passed the Inner Court and into the Imperial Gardens where fewer people gathered. I gazed up at a temple atop an opposite hill and realized that, today, harmony eluded the Forbidden City.
Tourists walk toward Tiananmen Gate  entrance to the Forbidden City
Tourists walk toward Tiananmen Gate, entrance to the Forbidden City
Crossing the stone bridge above the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City
Crossing the stone bridge above the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City
Back side of Tiananmen Gate  inside the Forbidden City
Back side of Tiananmen Gate, inside the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City s Outer Court
The Forbidden City's Outer Court
Approaching The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Outer Court
Approaching The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Outer Court
For this photo inside The Hall of Supreme Harmony  I almost got crushed in the crowd that pressed up...
For this photo inside The Hall of Supreme Harmony, I almost got crushed in the crowd that pressed up just for a glimpse
People linger at the front of one of the royal buildings in the Forbidden City
People linger at the front of one of the royal buildings in the Forbidden City
Pausing on a balcony before the Inner Court
Pausing on a balcony before the Inner Court
Overview of the Inner Court
Overview of the Inner Court
The right side of the Inner Court
The right side of the Inner Court
One of the many stone bridges in the courtyard
One of the many stone bridges in the courtyard
A little Chinese princess poses for my camera
A little Chinese princess poses for my camera
A Chinese boy waves a peace sign
A Chinese boy waves a peace sign
Details on a roof inside the Forbidden City
Details on a roof inside the Forbidden City
More roof details in the Forbidden City
More roof details in the Forbidden City
A close look at symbolic roof statues
A close look at symbolic roof statues
Inside the Hall of Preserved Harmony
Inside the Hall of Preserved Harmony
Inside another royal hall
Inside another royal hall
People packed into an alley by the back gift shop
People packed into an alley by the back gift shop
Treasures inside a gift shop
Treasures inside a gift shop
Lucky bamboo in the Imperial Garden that lies beyond the Inner Court
Lucky bamboo in the Imperial Garden that lies beyond the Inner Court
People rest inside an Imperial Garden gazebo
People rest inside an Imperial Garden gazebo
A fierce lion statue in the Imperial Garden
A fierce lion statue in the Imperial Garden
The back wall and moat of the Forbidden City
The back wall and moat of the Forbidden City
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