This is just the start of what could turn out to be a lengthy series of posts about our recent trip to China. It has taken a few weeks since our return to sift through the 1500 photographs, identify proper place names and choose a small enough selection not to bore our friends rigid. We started our visit in Beijing, travelled south through Xi’an to Chengdu and then east via the Three Gorges onto Shanghai – many cars, trains, planes, one boat and, of course, a rickshaw.
It would take a week to really do justice to the amazing architecture and layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing but we did enjoy our whizz around visit in bright, cold sunshine. Originally the Wumen was reserved for the Emperor’s sole use but even we were allowed entry now and through into the first of many awesome sights.
We were now in a vast paved courtyard cut across by the Golden Water Stream. The water wasn’t actually gold but still reflected the five marble bridges spanning it with their ornate marble balustrades.
This imposing bronze lion was one of a pair guarding the next gate, Taiheman (Gate of Supreme Harmony). He is positioned on the east side and his paw on a globe denotes that imperial power extended world wide.
If you have the seen the film The Last Emperor you will recognise this enormous space as the largest of the interior courtyards – it could accommodate the entire court of up to one hundred thousand people. As you see there were a lot fewer people the day we visited – almost entirely large parties of Chinese tourists.
As well as the sweeping vistas I was entranced by some of the close up details and particularly their symbolism.
Main entrance doors always had large studs arranged in rows, the number indicating ranks in the feudal hierarchy. The ones above were made of brass and then gold plated. The pattern of 9 X 9 implies a gate used only by the Emperor as the number nine represented the supremacy of the monarchy. Other titled people, princes and barons had fewer studs on their gates, and the lower ranks had studs made of iron.
The bronze crane above is featured often throughout the Forbidden City, and indeed all China, as cranes were venerated as the prince of all feathered creatures and had the legendary status embodying longevity and peace. There were hundreds of the huge water vats scattered close to the main buildings. As well as being decorative they also had a very practical purpose – filled with water against a fire emergency. In winter they were covered and wrapped around with quilts and, when necessary, heated from below with charcoal to prevent the water from freezing.
I loved these mythical little creatures adorning the ridges of every roof in the Forbidden City. Again there is intriguing symbolism and mythology involved. The largest one on the right is a son of the Dragon King who rules the seas therefore he could stir up the waves and change them to rains – yet another fire precaution. The size and number of the smaller ‘animals’ would be decided by the status of the owner or occupier of the building. The above ridge has only five creatures and is on one of the twelve halls in the side courtyard which were used to house the imperial concubines of different grades. The most important building has a series of eleven mythical animals.
Sadly and tiredly we left the Forbidden City and travelled the few kilometres to the Summer palace.
This beautiful, colourful, ornately decorated palace was first built in the Qing Dynasty in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong. It was rebuilt in 1886 and was the place where the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi handled court affairs, accepted laudations and received foreign diplomats when she stayed at the Summer palace.
Emperor Qianlong built this kilometre long covered walkway for his mother’s 60th birthday. It goes along the shore of Kunming Lake and was to allow the lady to enjoy the view even if it was raining or snowing. The inside of the roof was painted with delightful little scenes along its entire length.
Inside was where prayers were said for a good harvest.
To be continued.