From Emperors to Xi Jinping: The Forbidden City, The Chinese Soul in a Palace
China has very few preserved monuments of the past. The Forbidden City is one of the exceptions. A monumental palace built in the heart of Beijing under the Ming dynasty. Today it embodies the pride of a nation that has become communist but honors its past.
The Forbidden City, seen from the northern entrance. It was the residence of emperors for 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Built-in about fifteen years under the Ming dynasty in the 15th century, the Forbidden City is one of the rare testimonies of the past preserved in China. This palace, the largest in the world in area (720 hectares), is also one of the most visited place. Deng Xiaoping wanted all Chinese to discover it at least once in their lives. Before being opened to the public in 1925, however, the “dragon’s lair” was a closed.
A city designed to embody the power of the emperor. He is the son of heaven, where the architecture and layout of buildings are never left to chance.
A Preserved Palace From Emperors to Communists:
“What surprises the Chinese is that the palace is still standing,” explains Cyrille Javary, sinologist, lecturer, and the author of several books on China and the Forbidden City. “The Forbidden City was built by Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. It was built between 1406 and 1420, who moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in order to better control the northern border, where the Mongols came from. On the site of the City was the palace of Kublai Khan, former Mongol emperor of the Yuan dynast. This old building was razed to make way for the new one.
However, the tradition was that when a dynasty took power over another, it put seals on the old palace and they built a new one for itself. As they were wooden palaces, they disappeared. Thus, one no longer finds anything of the palace of the previous dynasties. The Han or the Tang, at the time when Xi’an was the capital of China”.
But in 1644, a change of dynasty took place, and the tradition was not applied. China was conquered by the Manchus, cousins of the Mongols, who installed the Qing in power. “Like all the invaders of China, they had only one desire, to become Chinese. Therefore, they slipped happily into the palace of the Ming. They maintained and enlarged the Forbidden City, which is unprecedented in Chinese history because before, buildings were allowed to disappear”, says Cyrille Javary.
The Gate of Divine Might
Over time, the City was maintained and preserved even when the Empire was overthrown with the 1911 revolution. This revolution established the Republic until 1949. Subsequently, the nationalist leaders went into exile on the island of Taiwan. At the same time, the Communists take possession of the country. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from the balcony of the Forbidden City of ancient emperors. The curious symbol for the advent of a communist regime? “The Forbidden City has become a manifestation of national pride, of the country’s influence abroad. Moreover, modern China likes to take root in its past,” explains Cyrille Javary. “The Chinese government, Marxist, honors its ancestors. It is the principle of filial piety: the son honors his ancestors by doing better than them”.
“Today, all Chinese consider themselves to be the sons of the dragon. During the annual military parade on October 1, the head of state walks out through the Tian’anmen Gate, which was the southern forward defense of the Forbidden City. Henceforth, the Chinese call the Forbidden City the ‘old palace'”.
The contemporary seat of power is only a stone’s throw from the old one, the Zhongnanhai (literally, the “central and southern seas,” named after the lakes present there and which the Mongol invaders had taken for ). This place is sometimes called the “new Forbidden City.”
A closed palace, the embodiment of the emperor’s power.
The Throne Room in the Forbidden City.
At the time of the imperial dynasties, few Chinese had the honor of entering the Forbidden City. Moreover, you cannot see the City”, according to Cyrille Javaryy, “it is a fortified castle protected by ramparts 10 meters high”. Around these ramparts, moats filled with water encircle the City over 3,800 meters long and 52 meters wide. The military function of the building is reinforced by the corner towers (Jialolou). They are four in number, which serve as a defense for the City and the walls and the ditch. Forbidden City has only four gates pierced through the ramparts: to the south, the South Gate is the main one and overlooks Tian’anmen Square. To the north is the “Gate of Divine Prowess.” We find the “gate of western glory” on the west and the “gate of eastern glory” on the east.
Dragon’s Lair in the Forbidden City:
“In imperial times, until 1911, the few people who had the right to walk along the Forbidden City were forbidden to turn their heads towards the palace”, says Cyrille Javary. “soldiers watched over the ramparts armed with crossbows. We don’t set our eyes on the dragon’s lair.” But inside, the imperial court is also cut off from the world. At the most populated time, more than 8,000 people resided in the City. “it took people to administer the country and organize the life of the court”. The north was made up of the sovereign’s private apartments. While the south was the part intended to accommodate outside visitors and show off the emperor’s power.
The palace is huge to accommodate all these residents. “We sometimes hear or read that the Forbidden City has 10,000 rooms, but that’s not true”, Cyrille Javary, “there are 9,999.5 surface units, ‘dien’ in Chinese. This does not correspond to several rooms with an area. In Japan, we would count in number of tatami mats and in France in square meters. So why not 10,000? Because this number has a very special meaning in China. It designates what is not neither infinite nor measurable. The number of hairs on the head, the number of stars in the sky, of species on Earth etc. However, magnificent he was, the emperor could not reach this number”. But he was close.
Taoism, Confucianism, Geomancy | The Chinese Soul in a Palace
Additionally, The Forbidden City is the place where many Chinese spiritual principles apply: Taoism, imperial secular religion… In Chinese, the full name of the palace is “the Forbidden Purple City”, the earthly residence of the son of heaven, a replica on Earth of the constellation called the Crimson City, containing the only star that does not move, the North Star. “We could compare it to a cathedral of the imperial secular religion”, explains Cyrille Javary, “which applies Taoism, Confucianism, Fengshui. It must first be specified that there is no creator God in China, the word God does not exist in classical Chinese. The Taoists are interested in the invisible and the currents that sculpt the landscape, therefore in Fengshui, the art of geomancy. The Confucians are interested in them to the hierarchical organization of society and rituals”.
“As for the imperial secular religion, it is translated by the sky, an impersonal engine that makes the seasons turn, which delegates to his son, the emperor, the power to manage this on a daily basis. On December 23 at 3 a.m., after a week of fasting, the emperor went to the temple of heaven to ask his father heaven to bring back the creative influx of yang to make China green again and the harvests that would feed the people.
All These Truth can be Found in the Architecture:
The Forbidden City is oriented along the north-south axis. The palace is leaning on a hill to the north and the facades are to the south. When he had the palace built, Emperor Yongle asked his architects to look for their models in the Book of Rites, a collection of principles and traditions inherited from the Zhou dynasty, which reigned over China during the first millennium BC. -Christ. “Yongle believed that the Chinese had forgotten their principles and that this explained why the barbarians – the Mongols – had conquered the country”, decrypts Cyrille Javary. “Thus, the palace is a three-dimensional representation of the deepest principles of the Chinese soul.”
The throne room, which has no windows, has 72 pillars. “It is the product of 8 multiplied by 9: 9 being the number of the great yang and 8 the number of yin. On the edges of the roofs, we see funny characters, sons of the dragon, whose function is to protect the buildings magically. At the support of the terrace of the Yang palaces, there is also an enormous stone slab of 200 tons: it is a geomantic support with a role of protection. This slab was dragged over 35 km by 200 donkeys on a road that had been covered in frozen water in January”.
But apart from this slab and the foundations, the City is made of wood. Regularly renovated and maintained, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The visit is extremely popular with the Chinese: in 2016 and 2017, the City received 16 million annual visitors, i.e. more than 40,000 every day. It received more than 19 million in 2019.
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