On my last day in Beijing, I met my guide at my hotel at 8:30 a.m. and we took the subway to Tian’anmen East. Our first stop of the day was Tian’anmen Square (point A on map below), followed by a tour of the the Forbidden City (point B), Beihai Park (point C), the Nine Dragon Screen (point D), and finally a visit to the Hutongs (point E).
Tain’anmen Square is a 109 acre public square that was initially built in 1651, seven years after the Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming Dynasty. When the Yongle Emperor built the Imperial Palace, the first of the complex’s five gates — known at the time as the Great Ming Gate, later as the Great Qing Gate, and finally as the Gate of China — stood at what is now the middle of the square. This gate was purely ceremonial since it had three arches but no defensive wall. It was demolished in the 1950s so that Tian’anmen Square could be enlarged; Mao’s Mausoleum was built near the former spot of the gate in 1976.
In the center of the square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes that was built in the early 1950s to commemorate those who died during the revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. The granite and marble obelisk is 125 feet tall and on the base are bas relieves commemorating eight uprisings from 1839 (the destruction of opium that lead to the First Opium War) to 1949 (the Chinese Civil War).
Mao’s Mausoleum is south of this monument, the National Museum of China is on the east, and the Great Hall of the People is to the west. The Great Hall of the People is the meeting place where the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, meets for two weeks each year to rubber stamp decisions made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Forbidden City (or Imperial Palace)
From 1406 to 1420, over 1 million workers toiled to build the Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum by the Chinese. The Imperial Palace contains nearly 1,000 buildings on 178 acres of land, and from 1420 to 1911, it was home to 24 emperors – 14 from the Ming Dynasty and 10 from the Qing Dynasty. For over five centuries, the Imperial Palace was off-limits to regular Chinese citizens, hence the moniker Forbidden City. UNESCO designated the Imperial Palace as a World Heritage site in 1987.
The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 20 foot deep and 170 feet wide moat. Inside the moat, the palace is enclosed by a 26 foot tall city wall. The main entry is from the south, first through the Tian’anmen Gate (and beneath a picture of Mao, obviously a late addition) into the Imperial Palace. The Tian’anmen Gate is located just north of Tian’anmen Square, and it was initially the second of five major gates on the South to North Axis for the Imperial City. In front of the gate are two large stone columns decorated with dragons and phoenix and with an animal on top.
The Meridian Gate, the largest gate in the complex, leads into the Forbidden City. The center arch in this gate was used only by the emperor and, once in her lifetime, by the empress on her wedding day.
After passing through the Meridian gate, there is a large yard through which a small river flows; it is spanned by several bridges. At the north end of the square is the Gate of Supreme Harmony that was originally built in 1420. The gate burnt down in 1888 and it was rebuilt in 1889. In front of this gate are a pair of large bronze lions that were cast during the Ming Dynasty.
Through this gate is the palace’s Outer Courtyard, the ceremonial center of imperial power. From south to north are three large halls: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
At 100 feet tall atop a three-tier marble base, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest building in the Forbidden City. Emperors were enthroned and married in this building. Originally built in 1406, it was destroyed by fire several times and was last rebuilt at the every end of the seventeenth century. On the terrace around the hall, huge copper and irons vats were installed during the late fifteenth century to hold water to fight fires. In the winter months, these cauldrons would be covered with quilts and a small charcoal fire could be lit beneath them to keep the water from freezing.
I found the Large Stone Carving to be one of the most impressive features of the Outer Court. This single piece of marble is 55 feet long, 10 feet wide, and nearly 6 feet thick. It was quarried about 45 miles west of Beijing in the early 1400s and 20,000 laborers pulled this 200 ton behemoth to the Imperial Palace in four weeks. Since they moved this piece in the winter, they iced down roads so it was easier to drag. The initial design on the marble was hewn away in 1761, and the current design of nine dragons in the clouds was carved.
The Hall of Central Harmony is the smallest building in the Outer Court. It was used by the emperor to prepare and rest before ceremonies. The Hall of Preserving Harmony was built in 1420 but, like many other buildings, often rebuilt after fires. This building was used for many different purposes by different emperors — as a dressing area during the Ming Dynasty, as a banquet area during the early Qing Dynasty, as a palace for two emperors, and as the imperial examination room.
The Gate of Heavenly Purity separates the Outer Court from the Inner Court that was home to the emperor, his family, his consorts, and his concubines. The Ming emperors from Yongle on and the first two Qing emperors lived in the Hall of Heavenly Purity, a palace with none large rooms and twenty-seven beds. The Inner Court is a labyrinth with so many palaces, halls, offices, courtyards, and passageways that I could imagine getting lost and taking hours to find my way out.
After wandering through the smaller palaces of the Inner Court, we ultimately ended up in the Imperial Garden that was used exclusively by the imperial family. As you can see in the pictures above, there are lots of brick and marble in the Outer and Inner Courts but no greenery. The Pavilion of 10,000 Spring Seasons is one of the more interesting structures in the garden with its intricate carved overhangs, a round top, a square cross-shaped bottom, and verandas on four sides.
The Imperial Garden is on the northern boundary of the Forbidden City, and we left this complex through the last gate, the Gate of Divine Might. Once we were outside, there was a great view of the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City as well as of a tower in the northwest corner.
One of the intriguing features of the Imperial buildings and gates, not just those in the Forbidden City but throughout China, are the small figures at the corners on the roofs. Roof animals date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD); these figures were used to cover the heads of the nails that fixed the ceramic tiles to the roof.
The first character is a man riding a phoenix (that truly looks like a chicken), who is followed by up to nine animals, and then the Imperial dragon to signify the power of the state. Typically an odd number of animals are used with the number signifying the importance and purpose of the building or courtyard inside a gate. The roof animals are dragon; phoenix; lion; heavenly horse; auspicious seahorse; a mythical animal that combines lion, horse, and wild beast; wind- and storm-summoning fish; courageous goat-bull; and evil-dispelling bull. Gold-colored tiles are found only on imperial buildings
What a difference a year makes. The moon was full on Wednesday and in November this means Loy Krathong. Last year at this time, much of Bangkok and Central Thailand was flooded, so the Loy Krathong holiday was pretty subdued.
This year, it seemed that nearly every Bangkokian headed to the Chao Phraya to make their offering to the river spirits. The roads to the river were jammed with traffic, and people at the river stood in long queues to take a river taxi ride from Sathorn Pier to Wat Arun for 80 to 100 baht ($2.50 to $3.00). The piers were crowded and entrepreneurial young men would lower people’s krathongs into the river via nets on long poles for 20 baht.
Fireworks from all parts of the city filled the sky from 8 p.m. until well past midnight. I even saw a dozen or so sky lanterns floating over the city; these large lanterns are typically associated with the Yi Peng festival celebrated in Chiang Mai on the same night as Loy Krathong.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.