December 21, 2007

A violent past and a eunuch culture

Wow, I've had this post in draft for over a month! I can't believe how difficult it has been to squeeze in some blogging time lately. I also realized that since my trip to Beijing, I've gone on another trip (Dumaguete, which I'll be posting about later) and I'm getting ready for yet another next week, which will all add to my growing backlog of posts! Hayayay! So I have to work double time on updates. Thank you for being patient with me! :)

Tiananmen Square

The hotel we were staying in was centrally-located at Wangfujing Rd., walking distance to the two most prominent sites in the heart of Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In fact, at the break of dawn every morning B & T would run a full lap around those famous red walls and log their miles into their iPod nanos. Man, I really admire their determination. I, on the other hand, was on pure vacation mode, wanting to get as much sleep as I could before tackling this big and wondrous city each day.

When we arrived at Tiananmen Square early one morning, there were already lots of people there. Most were tourists who wore buttons or bright colored caps that distinguished them from other groups. Tour guides were everywhere speaking in various foreign languages to visitors from around the world. The square was immaculate despite the crowd and the grass surrounding the Monument to the People's Heroes bore neatly mowed stripes. The weather was pleasant and there was not a cloud in the sky; only more of those dancing kites I'd seen at the Temple of Heaven. It was the picture of peace. I found it difficult to imagine that it had seen so much violence and bloodshed when several hundred (some say even thousands) people were killed when the military crushed a nationwide democratic protest that had been staged there for seven weeks, earning it the notorious nickname the Tiananmen Square Massacre and condemnation from around the world.

guard at heroes monument

The Great Hall of the People lies along the west side of the square and is the site of Congress meetings. Adjacent to that, on the southern side, is the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall where Chairman Mao's body lies in a crystal coffin. To the east is China's National Museum which houses both historical and revolutionary relics from China's long history. Today, on the museum's facade is a large digital countdown proclaiming 279 days, 9 hours, 28 minutes and 47 seconds to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

forbidden city entrance

At the north side, we crossed through an underground walkway and emerged at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City. At this point my stomach started to turn, as it usually does when I'm about to experience something big or life-changing.

Here are a few facts about the Forbidden City: construction began in 1406 and lasted about fifteen years; it lies right in the center of ancient Beijing and is the world's largest surviving palace complex, covering an area of 720,000 square meters or 74 hectares; there are about 980 buildings and 9,999 rooms within those red walls; it was home to 24 emperors during the Ming & Qing dynasties; the walls are made with white lime and glutinous rice cemented together with glutinous rice and egg whites; red being the symbolic color of imperial power is dominant throughout. It served as residence of the Imperial family and their household staff and as offices of the ministers.

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forbidden city 3

This universe within a universe is a massive complex of courtyards, bridges and halls guarded by watch towers on every corner, and with the Imperial throne at it's center. In the old days, eunuchs dominated the population in the hundreds of thousands followed by the Emperor's numerous concubines dressed in swishing silk and tottering on shoes mounted on eight inch platforms. The sexually-impotent eunuchs played an important role in ensuring the purity of the concubines; they played a dual role of guardian and pimp when each night the Emperor would choose which of the women would be paying him a visit in his bed chamber. It is also believed that eunuchs posed no threat to the Emperor as they would never covet his political power for he could never sire a son to pass it on to.

forbidden city 4

Suffice it to say I was awe-struck as we strolled through the grounds, and even more so as we passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the main entrance to the central courtyard and found ourselves before the the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest of all halls. Roofs are adorned with glazed yellow tiles and dragon guardians; the imperial bridges are paved with single-piece marble slabs carved with intricate designs; and doors are lined with nine rows of nine nails, nine being the imperial lucky number. Much of what I remember about the Forbidden City are scene flashes from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor where the Imperial Palace looked extra-massive around the diminutive emperor Pu Yi. But it was even more massive than I could have ever imagined.

Life within these walls was ruled by strict protocol and ceremony. Certain doorways and bridges were reserved solely for the Emperor's passage and no one but the Emperor was allowed to dress in purple. The boys were banished to the outside world upon reaching puberty and daughters upon marriage, leaving behind only castrated manservants, imprisoned virgin maids and concubines, and the priveleged imperial family. It was a secret world that revolved around the throne; operating on a system wrought by anguish, greed, corruption, bribery, intrigues, treachery... ironically within a labyrinth of halls with names so poetic as Hall of Earthly Peace, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Preserved Harmony, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, and Gate of Celestial Purity.

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We wrapped up our tour with a visit to the Imperial Garden where man-made structures maintain harmony with ancient trees, flower beds and large boulders. Below is a lumpy old cypress tree by the Pavillion of Lasting Sunshine.

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17 comments:

katrina said...

The Forbidden City fascinates me in so many ways. Power, beauty, tyranny, culture, suffering, luxury, excess, art...all are magnified in strange and glorious ways within those walls. I hope I can see it too, soon.

mtan said...

A veritable fire trap, but rebuilt time and time again. According to Beijing insiders, the new "Forbidden" city is right next to the imperial compound, where the Communist honchos live. You don't see it unless you walk a looooong block west of Tiananmen. And it definitely has high walls, lots of security, a facade that is so grey and quiet, makes you wonder what goes on inside those walls.

christine said...

Katrina, it really is so fascinating, what went on inside those walls! It was a whole other world in there. I now want to buy the book, The Secrets of the Forbidden City, and take a peak inside. :)

Hi Mila, how interesting about that "new Forbidden city"! I never heard about it. It sounds like something our of a movie. :)

bealtea said...

Hey, welcome back!!! I've missed reading your posts :-) Running the perimeter of the Forbidden City was something special... except for the last day when the smog got to me.

Do you know that c & i have started our own weekly photo exchange, similar in vein to your weekend snapshot :-) And now I want a fancy camera, just like yours!

Senor Enrique said...

Great shots! Perhaps, someday I'll also get a chance to photograph this city.

Merry Christmas!

joey said...

Such a fascinating history...all I remember is the scenes from "The Last Emperor", I can just imaging how impressive it must all be in reality!

Gorgeous pics as always nens!

christine said...

Hey Bambs! Colo told me about the photo project you started, how fun! :) How do you share it with each other? I'd love to see the pictures too! I hope you're enjoying your holidays, happy new year Bambi! :)

Thanks, Eric! Happy holidays to you and yours! :)

Thank you, Jo! I also kept remembering scenes from the Last Emperor as I walked through the Forbidden (sino si Bidden? hehe) City and now I wanna watch it again and see it with new eyes. :)

spanx said...

wow.

picture perfect postcard pictures!


redundant, but true!

xie xie!

christine said...

Ni hau and xie xie, Spanx! :) Happy new year to you and your family. :)

bealtea said...

Happy New Year, Nens! Hope you had a wonderful time in Xiamen. Can't wait to read your post on it.

Cols & I share our pictures via bealteapix.blogspot.com. Has she told you about our demerit system, about how I'm the demerit natzi? If so, don't believe a word she says! :-)

christine said...

Hey Bambs! Xiamen was actually nice and the whole trip was a lot of fun - tons of laugh trips! :)

I'm so glad you pointed out that blog to me, I'm enjoying the pictures!! You guys are too cute! :)

estan said...

the photos are beautiful like the Forbidden City with its rich history and own world.

christine said...

Thanks estan :). It's such a photogenic place.

tricia said...

i have such a fascination with asia and china specifically. thanks for your pictures and commentary...

christine said...

Hi Tricia! Thank you for stopping by. :) I share your fascination.

grumpyurbanslacker said...

hey gypsy,

i'm off to beijing during holy week and i'm learning so much from your posts! just a q, did you check out Mao's mausoleum? ok ba?

christine said...

Hi GUS! Sorry, no, we didn't go into the mausoleum so I can't help you there. We figured it'll be just like Uncle Ho's mausoleum in Hanoi (which we'd been to together) and decided it wasn't worth it. Let me know if you do check it out. Have a great time! :)