Photo by Joshua Webb

The Forbidden City

A painting of Mao Zedong looms over the entrance to the Forbidden City. It’s a reportedly twenty feet high and fifteen feet wide oil painting that Ge Xiaoguang has been replacing every year since 1977 — nearly a decade before I was even born. The painting is the first thing my eyes fall on when I view this majestic mega-structure. Some traditional Chinese families hang up the same picture of Mao Zedong on the walls of their homes. Behind the painting lies a brick wall in a blood red color. In China traditional Chinese wedding dresses are red, gifts are given in red packets, some Chinese people are given “favorable names” such as 红 (Red), the nation’s flag is red, a modern Chinese rap song is called “红纸币” (“Red Paper Bills”), and the list goes on and on (Fellows, 83). Red represents everything that’s good— which explains why the Forbidden City is drenched in red too.

At the forefront of my mind is the word forbidden in the Forbidden City. Why is it described as forbidden? The website for the Palace Museum explains “no ordinary mortal was allowed to approach” it in the ancient past. The consequence of disobedience, of entering the city uninvited, was indisputable: Trespassers ended up decapitated. Now any tourist may walk inside what was once forbidden and take pictures. Outside, some Chinese children enthusiastically approach foreigners, gesturing for requests to have their picture taken with them. Their parents smile from a short distance. These children are usually from poor rural areas where foreigners are never or seldomly seen. They often travel to Beijing by train — a cheap and convenient way to travel, at least when it’s not overcrowded. One approaches me, asks to take a picture together, and I oblige. Just think. When dynasties reigned “ordinary mortals” — including myself and this child posing for a photograph with me — were forbidden.

The word forbidden has another significance. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh — who was famously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King — applies a spiritual view to the forbidden city within in his book The Art of Power: “There is a forbidden city in us that we open only to the one we love the most. It is sacred.” In othere words, he explains, deep secrets and pains should be shared with a judiciously selected group of close friends allowed to enter our sacred space, for secrets unwisely shared can be forged into deadly weapons in the hands of an enemy. The main character in Empress Orchid, a novel by Anchee Min, no doubt embodies this principle. In this story based on Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), Orchid is a poor girl given the opportunity of a lifetime after the Emperor issues a decree inviting thousands of beautiful women to the Forbidden City. They vie for becoming his wife. The number of wives were limited to seven. And even they had ranks. “I was walking among thousands of girls selected from all over the country,” Orchid says. “After the first round of inspections the number dwindled to two hundred. I had been among the lucky ones and was now competing to become one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s seven wives” (Min, 22). This spiritual principle of the forbidden city within was necessary for her survival. Competition was fierce. Deadly. When the Forbidden City was opened to tourists in the twentieth century, some guards claimed ghosts roamed around at night. The restless spirits of these concubines and others viciously snuffed out. So locals say. The splendor of this place veils the darkness concealed inside.

The inside of the Forbidden City is spacious. As I walk around on this smoggy day I think about the deceased Chinese leaders that have also taken steps here. Here. Where the fate of China — a civilization humming with five thousand years of history — was decided. Where the reaction to imperialism differed from Japan’s reaction, which resulted in the adoption of Western technology and ways that accounted for its progress. China, though, went backwards. The story is so interesting it merits a brief mention. The British Empire sent Lord George Macartney to China in the late 1700s to open trade. The British had a way to accomplish this. They would wow the Emperor with their scientific knowledge and many gadgets. Henry Kissinger lists Macartney’s entourage in his book On China: it “included a surgeon, a physician, a mechanic, a metallurgist, a watchmaker, a mathematical instrument maker,” and just to add some pizzazz I guess, “’Five German Musicians’ who were to perform nightly.” His gifts included “artillery pieces, a chariot, diamond-studded wristwatches, British porcelain (copied, Qing officials noted approvingly, from the Chinese art form), and portraits of the King and Queen painted by Joshua Reynolds.” Kissinger goes on to note the most alien gift for Chinese officials must have been the hot-air balloon. However, the Emperor wasn’t present in the Forbidden City during his visit. Only a letter awaited him. Kissinger says it stated matter-of-factly to the English monarch: “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things.” The British trinkets failed to impress. And the arrogance of 中国 (the Middle Kingdom) — a country thought to be the center of the world in Chinese thought— became apparent from the Forbidden City. Since then China has been trying to rectify this past decision. Hence Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution that almost resulted in the destruction of the Forbidden City itself or Deng Xiaoping’s policies that created the fastest growing economy in the history of the world.

Works Cited

Fallows, Deborah. Dreaming in Chinese. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2010. Print.

Kissinger, Henry. On China. New York: The Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

Min, Anchee. Empress Orchid. New York: First Mariner Books, 2005. Print.

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