During my first visit to Beijing, I struggled to climb the interminably-long and steep stairs at the Qianmen metro station. My heart was racing, not just from this strenuous climb, but also because I was about to enter Tiananmen Square – the seventh largest square in the world and perhaps, along with Times and Red Squares, one of the best known. It was here that Mao Zedong declared the creation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.
I entered square through the Qianmen Gate which was built in 1419 during the Ming Dynasty. It originally consisted of three separate parts: the Gate Tower, the Archery Tower, and a smaller tower that has since been removed to make way for the construction of a street. The Gate Tower and the Archery Tower are each four stories in height (about 140 feet).
Continuing ahead into an enormous open-space which is Tiananmen Square, I first encountered the Mausoleum where the preserved body of Mao is on perpetual display in a glass case. After passing through a series of security hoops, I joined an already long line awaiting the opportunity to pass by the chairman’s sarcophagus. I continued along a series of corridors until I finally entered the room that contained the glass coffin. In it lay a dark-haired Mao wearing a grey suit. The body was flanked by a military honor guard. Ushers moved visitors along quickly so my “viewing” lasted no more than a few seconds. Perhaps as a preview of “evolving” economic policy, the only exit from the room where Mao is on display is through the gift shop where everything from cigarette lighters to playing cards are available for purchase. Each item is emblazoned with Mao’s visage.
Further along the Square, on the left side, is the Great Hall of People where President Nixon “opened” relations between the U.S. and China in 1972. Even though there was again a long queue, I waited patiently and was finally able to see inside this great chamber where Nixon had addressed the people of China at a banquet hosted by the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai. Nixon dubbed his seven-day visit to China “the week that changed the world.”
As I worked my way through the ever-present throngs of people in Tiananmen Square one image repeatedly flashed through my consciousness. It was of the student-led pro-democracy protests that rocked the PRC in 1989. Who does not remember the young man who literally placed his body in front of a moving tank? That single action became the public face of the protests during which an unknown number of demonstrators lost their lives. Crossing the traffic lanes at the northern end of the square, I wondered, more than once, if I might be intersecting the very point where he had stood.
As I approached the northern end of Tiananmen Square I stood mesmerized before the Gate of Heavenly Peace which loomed up no more than a hundred meters in front of me. I had known about this symbol of China for so many years, and now I could hardly believe I was finally seeing it with my own eyes. My sense of anticipation was heightened all the more because just beyond this magnificent gate is the Forbidden City–one of top five palace buildings in the world. The others are Versailles Palace, Buckingham Palace, the White House, and the Kremlin. While all five have a certain degree of mystery about them, to my mind, none has quite the degree of mystique as does the Forbidden City.
What is the Forbidden City? It was the imperial palace and political heart of China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Completed in 1420, it also served as the state residence of the Emperors and their households for almost 500 years. Today, it is one of the most visited sites in the world attracting more than 15 million visitors each year; however, 100 years ago 99.9 percent of the world was forbidden to enter through its gates. In the past, virtually the entire population of China was excluded without special permission which was seldom, if ever, granted. This facet of its history only added to its appeal and to the mystery of the Forbidden City.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest palace complex in the world covering approximately 178 acres. How many rooms are there in various palaces and halls within the Forbidden City? One Chinese legend claims that the total is 9,999 ½ rooms. The legend suggests this usual number of rooms results from the belief that only the God of Heaven himself could be entitled to 10,000 rooms! So Emperor Chengzu, who built the Forbidden City and who declared himself to be the son of the God of Heaven, would be entitled to a half-a-room less. Historians point out, however, that ancient Chinese architecture defines a room as a square space among four pillars or walls; therefore, it would be impossible to have a “half” room. In reality, according to an official count taken in 1972, there are 8,728 rooms, including all those within the big and small palaces, the halls, the towers and the pavilions.
After being the home of 24 emperors, 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty, the Forbidden City ceased being the political center of China in the early 20th century with the abdication of the last Emperor of China in 1911. Today the Forbidden City is known as the Palace Museum. It features a definitive collection of nearly one million cultural relics, including paintings, calligraphy, jade, embroidery, lacquer wares, pottery, etc. In addition, UNESCO has listed it as having the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. Consisting of 980 buildings, the Forbidden City is easily the best-preserved ancient palace in the world.
I passed through the Meridian Gate which opens directly into the Forbidden City and there before me were its two courts: the outer and the inner. The outer court was where ceremonies were held and where affairs of state were decided. The palaces here are big and grand. Located further along through the Gate of Heavenly Purity lies the inner court. This was where the emperors lived with their families.
These two courts are set on a north-south axis line which defines the center of the main palaces–the Halls of Supreme Harmony, of Central Harmony, of Preserved Harmony–all in the outer court. Then centered along the same axis, inside the inner court, are the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and the Imperial Garden. All other buildings are situated symmetrically on either side of this central axis.
Surrounding the Forbidden City is 30 foot high rectangular wall that is 2.1 miles in length as well as a mote that measures up to 170 feet wide. There are four gates, one along each of the four walls that define the periphery of the Forbidden City.
This year marks the 600 anniversary of the completion of the Forbidden City. Shrouded in mystery and characterized by stultifying rituals, this palace complex was once the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule. Completely removed and shutoff from the people over whom they ruled, these emperors shared the hundreds of buildings within the Forbidden City with a retinue of eunuchs, servants, and concubines, until 1911. Soon thereafter the veil was finally lifted and the Forbidden City could be visited by any citizen of the PRC and before long by people from all over the world.