As I walked across the Forbidden City’s entrance gate in Beijing I was overwhelmed with expectations. I had read a lot about it and seen many pictures, and yet I was lured in by curiosity.
The first thing I noticed was that although it’s a royal palace, it has nothing to do with the royal residences I had visited in Europe, where luxury is really the main parameter used to measure their power and influence.
The Forbidden City, in Chinese Gùgong (故宫), literally “Former Palace”, is China‘s biggest imperial residence. Declared World Heritage Site in 1987 and listed by the UNESCO as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world, the City was built between 1406 and 1420 and has hosted the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The complex consists of 980 buildings laid out on a surface of 720,000 square meters.
This walled city is considered one of the best examples of Chinese traditional architecture, as it faithfully reproduces the mystical concepts of the Feng Shui, Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese culture believed in a strong harmony between men, nature and the universe, and the Forbidden City was built following the descriptions of heavenly palaces in traditional fairy tales, with areas devoted to enjoy natural phenomena, such as listening to the rain or the wind, traits common to many gardens and pavilions throughout China.
Despite such celestial-like construction, life within its walls has always been shrouded in mystery, especially when it comes to the emperor’s private life, populated by countless concubines, young, beautiful and well-educated girls coming from all parts of China, whose sole duty was to please the monarch. The name of “Forbidden City” derives from the fact that nobody was allowed in or out, unless specifically stated by the emperor.
Within the walls of the Forbidden City Beijing, the emperor used to hold official meetings, receive foreign chiefs of states, read, write and host ceremonies. In a complex of buildings almost entirely inhabited by women struggling for power and competing for the emperor’s favors, very likely stories of jealousy, plots and vendettas thrived. There are rumors that even some nasty affairs such as murder happened behind those walls, and it seems that this was the reason why Mao Zedong refused to live there and decided to close it once the Qing dynasty came to an end.
Imperial city residence for almost five centuries and to 24 emperors, the Forbidden City was the house of some 9000 people, between servants, guards, eunuchs, concubines and the royal family. All buildings are made of painted wood and all materials were brought from all parts of China. To avert the risk of fire, huge cauldrons full of water were scattered all throughout the complex.
Although some features changed depending on the dynasty, both Ming and Qing emperors were allowed to have more than one wife and several concubines. Every night the emperor would choose which concubine was supposed to entertain him and the girl would go through hours of what can be considered the forerunner of modern beauty salons, in order to be at her best not to disappoint His Majesty. The number of times a concubine was called by the emperor would determine her social rank.
The last Emperor who lived in the Forbidden City was PuYi, and was put on the throne to rule the country at the age of three, nonetheless. According to the legend, at the ceremony to crown him as emperor, the child was too scared to stay calm. He was forced to abdicate in 1912, when turbulent times were starting for China, but was held in the palace until 1924. Puppet of the Japanese government, PuYi has always been strongly criticized for his weak policies towards Western powers, allowing them to reduce China to a semi-colony. Shanghai itself was divided in foreign concessions.
Dawdling about the Forbidden City, even though it’s not as it was during its golden ages, is inevitably captivating.
At every step, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of concubines that within those 10-meter high walls found a career boost and their golden prison at the same time.
Of course their mentality and priorities were different from mine or from Chinese girls today, but this is the only parameters of comparison I have and the only tools I can use to try to understand how they must have felt. It’s hard to believe they were actually happy to devote their life to please the emperor, having to compete with other hundreds of girls. They were not allowed to marry, unless chosen by the emperor himself as one of his wives, and I fail to believe that, although living the dream of many to be the emperor’s concubine, they didn’t dream of having their own family.
Today it’s not possible to visit every room of the Forbidden City, but walking around its wide corridors, through its countless red gates, visiting the most important halls and gardens, gives an idea of how life was within those walls, charming, luxurious and cruel.