Monday, June 2, 2008

China Day 03: A Harmonious Gate

And what a view we have, now that we have negotiated the layers of courtyard! We have now entered the Forbidden City's public spaces. The front half of the Forbidden City (the South half) is given over to public buildings, throne room halls, plazas for reviewing the troops and the like. The back half will be the living quarters.

For a good satellite photo, click here; we are standing at position 11 on the map.

Oh, and how about that word, "Forbidden". The Forbidden City, being the dwelling of the Emperor (aka the Son of Heaven) is forbidden to commoners, of course. It is also forbidden to... shall we say, functional males, except for the Emperor himself. All non-neutered gentlemen had to be out of the place by sundown; only the womenfolk, the children and the eunuchs could remain.

Pause for facts (I'm a librarian; I have to work them in somewhere): The Forbidden City was built in the early 1400s, by the second Ming emperor. In 1644 it changed hands (along with the rest of China) and was taken over by the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty [pronounced Ching]. They held on to it, with occasional gaps in occupancy, until 1924 when the Last Emperor, Puyi, was forced out in the aftermath of a coup. By the way, if you really want to see what this place looks like, rent The Last Emperor, which was filmed there.

And in a sense, we are still not in. We are in another courtyard, completely surrounded by yellow-roofed, red buildings, and standing directly ahead of us is the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Pretend this is a panorama:
Between us and the Gate is the water feature: a curved mini-canal known as the "Golden Water", with five delicately carved marble bridges arcing across it. Looking at the satellite photo you can see the canal is in the shape of a recurved Mongol bow, with the axis of the palace as its "arrow". The bridges represent the five Confucian virtues, variously identified as benevolence, honesty/righteousness, knowledge/wisdom, loyalty/faithfulness, and propriety, including filial piety.

We were told that only the Emperor Himself was allowed to walk across the center bridge, so naturally I felt it necessary that we should cross on that particular bridge. Unfortunately, I appear to be unable to count; we ended up on the second bridge from the left. Just as good, I'm sure!
I just love the pairs of Chinese lions that flank many of the buildings and entryways in here. There are a big pair in front of the Gate, and although the one on the right is behind a barrier
(they are restoring the right (eastern) side of the palace) I got a good look at the left-hand lion:
There's a few things to notice about these lions. 1) They don't really look like lions. They look more like Pekingese. This is not a coincidence - since lions aren't native to China, early mythic Chinese lions were modeled after the local dogs, and then later Pekingese were bred to conform to that look. 2) They come in pairs. 3) The lion on the right as you look at the building is the male. He has a sphere under his paw. 4) The lion on the left is the female. Under her paw she has a cub!

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