It may be called the Forbidden City, but
the most historic part of Beijing is no more off-limits to curious
visitors than the Great Wall in nearby Badaling or the nascent
Olympic venues that promise to attract hordes of sports fans when
the Summer Games begin here in 2008.
These days, the
Forbidden City -- actually an oversize, 800-building palace complex
-- is forbidden only to the incurious without tickets of admission,
which are benign-looking bills with the 20-yuan price of entry
printed on the front and decidedly capitalistic advertisements for
Nestle chocolate on the back.
eunuchs-to-be once made the supreme sacrifice in order to gain
power and position, prospective buyers of candy bars are now
invited to wander the grounds of the imperial redoubt for the
equivalent of about $2.50.
Open city that it
is these days, the complex is officially called the Imperial
Museum. Within its moated walls are ceremonial palaces, imperial
accoutrements, the emperor's gardens, royal quarters and soaring
entranceways with evocative names such as the Gate of Supreme
Harmony, the Gate of Heavenly Purity and the Gate of Divine
In all, the
Forbidden City -- home to 24 Chinese emperors over 491 years, from
1420 until the expulsion of Emperor Puyi in 1911, as depicted in
the film "The Last Emperor" -- measures 3,150 feet long by 2,460
Were it a hotel,
it would boast 9,999-and-a-half rooms, although some "rooms" are
hardly four-walled enclosures.
Heaven on earth
According to tour
guides, the half-room was a gesture to the "Heavenly Emperor"
above, who had a 10,000-room residence in Paradise that could not
and should not be exceeded by a mere earthly dwelling.
opened to the public in 1925, is
in the first year of a 20-year renovation. The first stage of the
revamp will be completed in 2008, in time for the
Most of the
structures on display were erected after the 18th century, as the
palace was stormed and razed in 1664.
The 20th century
was not kind to the city, either. The Japanese looted the place
during World War II. Then, Chaing Kai-shek's nationalist Kuomintang
forces made off with a museum's worth of relics when they escaped
to Taiwan after the communist revolution in 1949.
But what remains
is still a sight to see. Most visitors start at Tiananmen Square,
scene of the country's 1989 democracy demonstrations, which were
violently suppressed by the communist hierarchy.
pass through the Tiananmen Gate, a massive structure instantly
recognizable for its huge portrait of Chairman Mao, flanked on the
left by the slogan "Long Live the People's Republic of China" and
on the right by "Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the
The main entrance
is the Meridian Gate, whose walls are 42.5 feet high. This gate,
reserved for the emperor, was the spot where he periodically would
review his troops.
Next is the Gate
of Supreme Harmony, the tallest gate in the Forbidden City. It was
here, in a massive courtyard that could hold up to 100,000 people,
that early Ming Dynasty emperors met with officials and military
officers in the morning and later where Qing Dynasty emperors held
banquets, conducted ceremonies and received foreign
approach the first of three major halls, the Hall of Supreme
Harmony, where members of the court would kow-tow, or touch the
floor with their foreheads, nine times before the emperor, who
would sit on the ornate Dragon Throne in the center of the
The Hall of
Supreme Harmony, which is 115 feet high and 197 feet wide, is the
largest and best-preserved wooden hall in China. Each of the 24
pillars supporting the hall was made from one piece of wood, about
59 feet high.
behind this enclosure lies the Hall of Middle Harmony, a rehearsal
hall of sorts, where the emperor would go over his speeches before
delivering them. Two Qing Dynasty sedan chairs are on display
The last of the
three great halls, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was constructed
without pillar supports and is where the highest level of palace
examinations were given. Three smaller halls follow, before
visitors reach the Imperial Garden, a private retreat for the
imperial family that was completed during the Ming Dynasty in
Laid out over
39,000 square feet, the Imperial Garden is characterized by 20
structures, each designed to coordinate with the trees, rockeries,
flower beds and sculptures that surround them.
garden is also home to modern visitor amenities such as rest rooms,
snack bars and souvenir shops that are strategically placed before
tourists exit the Forbidden City through the Gate of Divine
For more on the
Forbidden City, Beijing and China, call the China National Tourist
Office's bureaus in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at
(800) 670-2228. Or, visit the CNTO Web site at www.cnto.org.
To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].
For more details on this article, see "In Beijing, roll up your sleeves and order the