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A Family’s Adventure in Wonderland – The Forbidden City

(This is one of my earlier English essays.)

For a capital city laden with a long history, a trip to ancient palaces would be essential in a tourist’s knowledge on national heritage. Our itinerary thus included the Temple of Heaven, where the emperors worshipped the gods, and the Summer Palace, also known as Yi-he Yuan or the Garden of Health and Harmony, where the notorious “Allied Forces of the Eight Powers” left their destructive footmarks on the imperial constructions later used as a summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi. But the best is yet to come in the Forbidden City, the nucleus of the regimes in the Ming and Qing Dynasties built around 1406 through 1420.

Into the river of people, onto one of the seven white marble bridges, through the magnificent Heavenly Peace (Tian-An-Men) and Upright (Duan-Men) Gates, past the vendors and wickets, we now come up to the U-shaped Meridian Gate (Duan-Men), the formal entrance to the Forbidden City and thus the largest facilitated with three passageways, one in the middle reserved for the emperor, the western one for royal princes, and the eastern one for civil and military officials. Against two majestically red-painted and brass-nailed wooden doors at the eastern passage stand gatemen guarding nothing but tickets, 60 Yuan each. Through one more arch, we find ourselves in a courtyard at the Tai-He-Men, or the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the front gate of the outer court.

A small creek, fenced with white stone carved balustrades, wanders through a courtyard from west to east. Of all the five stone bridges over the creek, the largest is in the middle designed with dragon-embossed balustrades and connected to an “Imperial Jade Path” on the ground. Obviously, it was reserved only for the emperor back in ancient times. The other two closest to it were built for “hundreds of civil and military functionaries.” The farthest one at each side is far less crowded. Without hesitation, I turn to the last bridge on my right side and step on the glossy stones that served probably for even lower rungs on the imperial hierarchical ladder.At the front corners, as I have observed on the bridge, are two one-roof-layer gates adjacent to the corridor-styled houses at both sides of the courtyard. In between rises a wooden architecture upon a high base entirely made of carved white marble. Erected upon a marble foundation at each side below the architecture is a bronze lion, around which many tourists are taking photographs. Curiosity leads me to the lion.Never in my life have I seen a lion statue as magnificent, not even in the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace as I remember. A 5.6 feet man could barely touch its paws if he jumped over the railings and stretched his arm as high as possible. The lion treads on a ball with one right paw and places the other paws firmly on a square footing engraved with heavenly clouds in various sizes and patterns. It gives a fierce stare with its pupil-absent eyes, its brow furrowed, mouth opened wide into a menacing grin, and triangular ears poking straight up from its thick mane shaped into whirls of clouds. Its whiskers are transfigured into two pieces of what looks like a reversed flame connecting to a carven collar, at the center of which incised a lion-shaped lock hanging what is supposed to be a bell. All these features give the statue an aura of almighty power.My attention now is diverted to the construction behind the lions. There are two flights of marble stairs that lead parallel up to the minor passageways a few feet away at the far end of the landing, open for people to walk “in” and “out” respectively. In between lies a stone panel on a slant, exquisitely carved into dragons dancing amidst heavenly clouds. At each side of the panel is a flight of stairs directed to two leaves of a magnificent brass-nailed wooden door roughly four persons high and three persons wide. Up the stairs and onto the landing I find myself in a corridor nine bays (distance between two pillars) long and four bays wide. A blond baby girl wobbles to hug one of the pillars and then to touch the giant door, which has been locked up to prevent further damage by tourists. As I watch her, I notice a wooden black board hung up on the pillar with a short profile of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. What amuses me, though, is not the Gate’s historical background, but a string of small capital words down below that read:MADE POSSIBLE BY THE AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY, followed by its logo.How would the Emperor react had His Majesty lived long enough to find this board and see so many “foreign devils” and “common civilians” trespassing the architectural glamour exclusive to His Majesty’s land? With a smile, I proceed to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.A courtyard even larger than the previous one rolls into view as we have walked through the “In” passageway. My focus immediately falls parallel on a roof in the distance. Supported by twelve red-painted pillars at the front, the roof has two separated layers of yellow glazed tiles in a quadrilateral shape, with four lower points slightly raised at the front and two upper points directed at the sky, to form an inward curve at both perpendicular edges. It is a fashion I have so frequently seen during our trips to the regal resorts of the Ming and Qing dynasties, that my eyes quickly move downward. Now I am gazing at something for which grandeur has finally found its match.A white marble complex of stairs sprawls over the ground like a gigantic harmonium covered in ivory. Four layers overlap in a pyramidal fashion and extend stairs zigzagging in all three directions. Each of the landings is completed with identically carved balustrades to illuminate the Hall perched on the top. Under the crystal clear sky, yellow, red, and milky white are three colors in such an artistically measured order that, by the first glance at a distance, I would deduce a correct guess that this was principally served as the emperor’s high office. My feet then carry me up to the first landing of the marble complex at the west wing, where in the distance stands Hong-Yi-Ge or the Tower of Enhanced Righteousness served as the “silver vault of the imperial household department”. I was about to turn to the next flight of stairs when something catches my eye. Dragons, coiling around the railing posts of the upper landing, protrude their heads from underneath in a neat line that goes all the way to the intersection point, where another dragon, much larger and more detailed in patterns, sticks its head out to face the sky. A symbol of regality, those dragon heads would be more practicable than decorative on a rainy day when excess water flowed out through the small holes right in the center of the mouths.No sooner have we climbed up to the top landing than I am attracted to patches of gold glittering on the wooden structures of the hall. A closer observation reveals more dragons, silk balls, and heavenly clouds incised not into stone but gold-gilded metals in linear, rectangular, and diamond shapes attached seamlessly to the lower halves of the windows and doors. Instinctively I look up at the ceiling. What a wonder of colors do I see! Painted in various hues of blue, green, red, and yellow are dragons in their most versatile postures, pursuing and competing for silk balls. Pillar by pillar the paintings trail all over the ceiling and creep into the hall. With a struggle through the crowd we have managed to squeeze to the protective steel fences at one of the doors. By dim light I squint at a spacious room where, as expected, the throne sits in the center, surrounded by four golden pillars. Contrary to the exterior structure, the colors here are fading away due to lack of recent renovation. Dust has fallen thick on the floor, the carpet, and the throne. Regality long sank into oblivion. Everywhere I looked is as antique and lifeless as it could be for a city forbidden in the infinity of time.Renowned as it is for the palatial matrix of halls and palaces, the Forbidden City, later dubbed the title “Palace Museum”, is best characterized by a display of personal artifacts handed down through fire, upheaval, and any disaster that could have destroyed them for good. For the next few quiet hours we ramble through wings after wings, houses after houses, courts after courts, examining displays over glass counters and lingering at whatever captivates our interest.There are armors, uniforms, and Peking opera armamentarium made for special occasions. Porcelain painted with unrivaled colors and patterns. Handwritings of emperors and ministers inscribed in silk, wood, and paper. Brass and bronze shaped and burnished into coins, swords, mirrors, and containers of all sizes. Jade used as decors, tokens, trophies, seals, cups, bowls, and pillows. Clocks, telescopes, measures, drugs, and guns imported from Europe and Russia. Buddhist statues and sacred utensils molded out of gold. Trees, flowers, birds, lions, phoenix, and more Chinese symbolic animals chiseled from precious stones, coral reefs, or wood. Time has been well preserved in these handicrafts, through which the spirit of our ancestors roams free among us, the descendents.It is nearly 5 o’clock when we have finally covered the Gate and Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and Peace, the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, the Imperial Garden, the Gate of Divine Prowess, the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, the Nine Dragon Screen Wall, the Hall of the Norms of Government, The Well of Concubine Zhen, and many more gates and palaces whose names I can’t remember. The tourists have mostly gone by now. The last rays of the sun tarry upon the lofty red walls, along which we are walking towards the rear exit by Father’s sense of direction. Our footsteps are echoing in the long deserted alleyway that once echoed with footsteps of a maid or concubine hundreds of years ago. Suddenly a chill runs through my spine. What life would be like in this labyrinth of feudal families with no radio, no television, no computers, no World Wide Web, I wonder, or even no books for children, wives, and servants who fell from royal grace as did Concubine Zhen, who was pushed down to the well just because she wanted, along with her husband, to enforce something new in a world as flat as the Rocky Mountains.The sky turns light grey as the sun is sinking down over the horizon. A thin cloud of mist lingers high above the entire palace. The moat by our right side glimmers in the dusk. We turn back and take one last look at the Forbidden City, which by now has been cleared of all the tourists and bound to entertain new visitors tomorrow. Hubbub recedes. Silence falls. Night will soon be here drawing yet another circle with which to connect the past to the future.The sky has been covered in inky black when we carried our Peking-roast-duck-stuffed stomachs to Wang-Fu-Jing, or literally Wang Mansion’s Well, a pedestrian street as famous to China as the Avenue des Champs-Elysées to the world. For a long day in the ancient palace, everything that comes to my eyes now is shrouded in a modernization I would have otherwise taken for granted. Multi-storey buildings, like dancers tall and short, chubby and slim, young and old, are attired in glass, steel, and cement waiting for music to start. Lights blaze a wide array of colors above, down, and through hundreds of display windows alongside the street. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, Morgan de Toi, and Canon are just a few of the “foreign” names that befriend Chinese time-honored brands such as China First Photo Studio, Beijing Department Store, Quan-Ju-De Peking Roast Duck, as well as vendors of Candied Haws on Sticks. With three strings of sugarcoated haws in hands, we follow the crowds and head to what looks like an intermittent thread shiny in gold and silver at the distance.As we draw ourselves up closer, the thread sprang into a flow of cars speeding along the Chang-An Avenue (Avenue of Everlasting Peace), the 10-line axle that cuts across the city from west to east. With a gushing sound, cars shoot past one after another. Yellow headlights blend into a strand of gold plaited with the roadside post lamps that run all the way to the darkness on the horizon. An animated scene is thus created for every day and night here on this highway that dates back to the Ming Dynasty more than five hundred years ago.Will the street still be here for another five hundred years? I wonder as we are waiting for the right bus to carry us home. What will be substituted for these high-rises, cars, and lights? Boxes floating in mid air perhaps. I smiled at the thought. Will what we have for today be collected into a sort of museum? How would our fellow citizens by then – that is, if humans survived the global warming and shortage of natural resources – think of and feel about the antiques? I will never know, will I – neither will our children and grandchildren – in such a tiny fragment of time allotted to the mankind on Earth.Another set of headlights runs towards us. “Here comes our bus.” Father cried and broke off my train of thoughts. It then stops right in front of us. Without another word, we get aboard, and the vehicle drives its passengers away to the strand of gold that stretches beyond the dark horizon….


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