Writing in the Atlantic, Lt Gen H.R. McMaster relates how President Xi Jinping gave President Donald Trump a history lesson while giving him a tour of the Forbidden City, the world’s largest palace. The tour took place in November 2017. It must have been tinged with irony. The last emperor to rule China was deposed in 1912, when China became a republic. In 1949, the Communist Party turned China into a People’s Republic, the antithesis of imperialism.
So why did Xi take Trump there? The Forbidden City symbolised the greatness that China once had. It seemed to express the yearning to regain that greatness and once again make China the centre of the world, as it was under the Ming and Qing dynasties. Indeed, for millennia, China had seen itself as the Middle Kingdom.
The Forbidden City was built over a 14-year period beginning in 1406, on the site of Kublai Khan’s palace. It was demolished and the rubble used to build a mountain from which to view the new palace.
The previous capital had been in Nanjing. However, civil unrest had broken out there and the emperor, Yongle, had barely survived a failed assassination attempt. In addition, the Mongols were threatening to break through the Great Wall. Yongle moved the capital to Beijing and decided to build his palace there.
It is said that a million workers including convicts built the hundreds of largely wooden structures that comprise the Imperial Palace. It would be the home of just one man, the emperor, who regarded himself as a son of Heaven. According to legend, it was designed to contain 9,999-and-a-half rooms to ensure that it would not offend the god of Heaven, whose palace had 10,000 rooms. In actuality, the number of rooms in the Forbidden City is under 9,000.
Other than the emperor and his retinue, no one else could enter the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Over five centuries, roughly contemporaneous with the Ottoman Empire, 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties lived there. Some ruled for as many as 61 years – Kang Xi — while one reigned for just 29 days – Tai Chang. Among the more notorious occupants of the Forbidden City was the Emperor Dowager, whose reign from behind the throne was contemporaneous with that of Queen Victoria.
In China’s imperial culture, polygamy was commonly practiced by the emperors. In addition to having multiple wives, they also had many concubines. Thousands of eunuchs attended to their personal needs and also carried out many duties while thousands of Mandarins, selected through a competitive exam, managed the vast bureaucracy of the state.
This was the time when the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper. Admiral Zheng He led a navy that made seven long-distance cruises along the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, with some going all the way to the Red Sea.
Spread over 180 acres, the Forbidden City is widely viewed as the world’s largest palace, three times larger than the Louvre in France and fifty times larger than the Buckingham Palace in England. There are a dozen palaces inside the Forbidden City and three major halls.
According to legend, it was designed to contain 9,999-and-a-half rooms to ensure that it would not offend the god of Heaven, whose palace had 10,000 rooms. In actuality, the number of rooms in the Forbidden City is under 9,000
The Outer Court was the seat of government, the Inner Court was the home of the imperial family. The central building is the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Outer Court. A moat runs all around the Forbidden City which is surrounded with walls that are 35 feet high. The palace was guarded by 34 battalions and was regarded as impregnable.
We had an opportunity to visit the Forbidden City in October 2000. Our flight from San Francisco arrived in the evening. We had booked a hotel located near the Forbidden City. After breakfast, we asked the concierge for directions. He said “Go left, then go right, then go left, and then make one final right. It will be right in front of you.”
We did as we were instructed, but we found ourselves confused at the second traffic light. There were no cell phones in those days and the map we were holding only had Chinese characters.
Suddenly we were surrounded by half a dozen students. They asked us if we were from the US. We said yes and asked for directions to the Forbidden City. They said “We will take you there but first let’s show you what we do.”
Soon we were walking up the steps to the second floor of a building which contained a large room with many paintings on the wall. The master sat in the back of the room, with no facial expressions. He could have passed for Confucius. After buying a couple of obligatory paintings, we were “released” and shown the way to the Forbidden City.
We walked to the entrance. It was surprisingly heavily guarded. We had stumbled into an office of the Communist Party of China. They pointed us toward the public entrance.
Finally, we entered the grand complex. The first thing that caught our eyes was a smart detachment of guards. They resembled the guards that one finds at similar palaces around the globe. I aimed my zoom lens at the head of the guard only to see him, up close, waving “No” to me. Of course, I had already taken a shot which, thankfully, I was allowed to keep.
A vast courtyard lay ahead of us. Our eyes began to scan the many buildings that were everywhere. Red and yellow were the dominant colors and wood the dominant material.
We began to explore the buildings. Most of them were large but empty. Perhaps the possessions were stored elsewhere. A few, we learned, had been taken to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek. We got to see them in 2018 when we visited Taipei.
Mythical creatures added nuance and subtlety to the architecture of the Forbidden City. Dragons were sculpted as finials on the sloping roofs which were adorned with tiles. Imperial lions, made of bronze with curly mane and a foot grasping a ball, stood guard at the entrance. On some of them, the bronze was gilded.
Of course, there was much more to see in Beijing. We toured the Palace of Heavenly Peace, the Army Museum, and Tiananmen Square. We also caught an amazing performance of The Eight Immortals at the Peking Opera. We went on a day trip to see the Great Wall and the Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. We had hired a local guide. He was studying for his MBA and was fluent in English. We flew to Xian to see the Terracotta Army. The collection of soldiers was awesome as was the grand mosque.
On our last day in Beijing, we toured the Summer Palace. The landscaping and the architecture were equally stunning. By now, the weather had begun to cool off. Snow flurries arrived as we were wrapping up our week-long sojourn in China.
On returning home, we discovered that a new Chinese movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had been released. We went to see it, not knowing what to expect. A good portion of the magical story was set in the Forbidden City. The empty palace that we had seen in Beijing was now populated with people. It had suddenly come to life, admittedly in a phantasmagoric manifestation.
Two decades and two years have passed by since we were in the hallowed grounds of the Forbidden Place. But it’s one of those places that has acquired a permanent place in our memory. It’s definitely worthy of a visit if you are headed toward the Middle Kingdom.