The Forgotten Square and the Forbidden City
Two iconic sights in Beijing we couldn't miss, both historical and political, both with drama and intrigue, one often is forgotten and one used to be forbidden.
We were very fortunate. The day we chose to visit Tiananmen Square, it was open. Two people we have met tried to visit this iconic square recently on separate days, and it was closed.
Before we reached the Square, we needed to go through a security check. The queues were enormous; it took nearly an hour to get through. We dread to think what it would be like in peak season. The time quickly passed though as we were “chatting” to others in the queue, via google translate, mainly about sport with a light-hearted atmosphere…until an elderly couple tried to push through the crowd. People around us were shocked by their behaviour. Tim and I linked arms so they couldn’t get through. I did wonder why they wanted to jump the queue and asked, but, of course, they didn’t understand me. The elderly lady was yelling at people, but from their reaction, they were not happy with her. I wonder what was being said.
At last, passports shown, we were waved through and into the world’s largest public square. If it were not for the poignant historical event that happened here thirty years ago, we would have just walked through, but we still remember watching on TV the student-led demonstrations for greater democracy and liberalisation and that iconic photograph of the young man who defiantly stood in front of the tank. Interestingly, we heard that a young Chinese guide showing some tourists the Square knew nothing of the massacre that happened in 1989.
On the north side of the square was the memorial hall with a massive poster of Chairman Mao hanging down. He is still much revered here. We walked through the Meriden Gate into an enormous courtyard, over the Inner Golden Bridge to eventually find the ticket office, show our passports and pay our ¥40 (£4.44) each before walking through the Gate of Supreme Harmony. We had come to visit the Forbidden City, the largest palace complex in the world. There is a cap of 80,000 visitors per day which is often reached by noon in peak season.
Guarding the Gate of Supreme Harmony was a pair of lions protecting the City. The male has a paw over a globe representing the emperor’s power over the world. Here is where 24 emperors of China lived, spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties for more than 500 years. It covers 180 acres surrounded by a 52-metre wide moat and a 10 m high wall constructed from 12 million bricks. The Imperial families rarely left the safety of the Palace, perhaps only to enjoy summer days at the Summer Palace. They didn’t need to, with over 800 buildings and 8,700 rooms here!
It was quite crowded so I suggested we veered off to the left, enjoying wandering around an area where the empress dowagers resided. The Garden of Benevolent Tranquillity was first constructed in 1539 for the Emperor’s mother to have a place where she could worship the Buddha. Later in 1735, the Qianlong Emperor built the Palace of Longevity and Health specifically for his mother Empress Dowager Chongqing who lived there for 42 years. She was highly regarded, keeping the palace in harmony and enjoyed living with five generations of her family until her death aged 86, one of China’s longest-living queen mothers. There was a small exhibition of objects relating to her.
We wandered around the high-walled passages, popping into a few small museums, relaxing in the courtyards and imagining the various Emperors and their entourage living here. The Imperial Architecture is stunning with intricate interlocking roof brackets known as ‘dougong’ that have no glue or nails; what impressive artistry. I remember watching a TV programme demonstrating that these buildings are earthquake-proof due to the heavy roofs and brace system.
At the ends of some of the upturned eaves, we noticed a procession of mythical creatures protecting the imperial dragon and learnt that the more animals in the line, the more important the building; nine guardians is the maximum.
During the day, we kept coming across young ladies and sometimes men dressed in traditional costumes being photographed by professionals. Were they models or did they pay to have these photos done? I think it’s the former as some of the photographers were very demanding, yelling instructions on where the model should look etc.
Later, we joined the merry throng of other visitors at the Hall of Supreme Harmony. In front of it was a giant bronze turtle which symbolises longevity and stability. Can you see what is in its mouth? Inside the Hall were many statues, all rare masterpieces, a small selection of the thousands of sculptures from the Palace Museum collection.
Despite probably seeing less than half of the Forbidden City, we were starting to wane, so I suggested we went to the Imperial Garden for a relaxing stroll before leaving. I think every Tom, Dick and Harry had the same idea! We shuffled along mosaic walkways, rockeries and ponds and finally reached the Shunzhen Gate for our long walk back to the Hostel.
Even on our walk back we saw some intriguing sights: men fishing on the Forbidden City canal, and playing cards on the street. The highlight was passing the National Centre for the Performing Arts just as the sun was setting. What a fabulous building, a giant oval shell made from 18,000 titanium plates and over 1,000 sheets of ultra-white glass.
What a fabulous day seeing the beauty of old and new buildings in Beijing.