“Why would they block off the middle of the stairway? Doesn’t that seem, like, not conducive to effectively moving the 50 gazillion Chinese people here?” I ask my pretty-much-Chinese friend, Tony, while approaching the Forbidden City’s first majestically ornate stairset. “It obviously decreases walkflow and disallows–”
“You see how there aren’t even any stairs in the middle of the stairset, just artwork engraved into the cement?” Tony elucidates, pointing to a dragon design where flattened gum is supposed to be stuck. “That center section of the stairs was only for the Emperor.”
“His little emperor slippers must have had Vibram soles,” I whisper, “because that slippery dragon does not look like the best path to ascend in the Medieval rain.”
“He didn’t walk, idiot. …And Medieval? Dear god… He was carried. The Emperor’s section of stairs was just narrow enough that his slaves could hold him, elevated in his mobile throne, from the regular stairs while he floatingly ascended the Emperor stairs…without ever actually having to move his legs.”
As I picture a Greek goddess perched atop a floating hammock, lovingly fanned with palm leaves by slaves adorned in nothing but olive leaves—blatantly confusing my totalitarian references—my mind begins to wonder. “Forbidden” as the name may imply, Beijing’s Forbidden City aka Palace Museum aka The Only Place to Go After a Run-in with Police Across the Street is gapingly easy to access. In fact, cheap tickets are sold at various locations, hawkers sell neon glow bracelets at the unobstructed gates, and published guidebooks from around the world suggest this spectacle to travelers for its ease of entry and free tourist
traps maps. Visiting it on my 3rd day in China, I find myself already questioning both the authenticity of their bold claims (“Forbidden”) as well as their ability to provide appropriate English names to monumental historical sites (“Forbidden”). If this city is truly forbidden, why all the flashing neon lights, 20RMB tickets, and color-coded maps? If I were Emperor of a Chinese dynasty, with all of the country’s labor, money, and space at my disposal, I may consider building a similar structure, though maintain the “Forbidden” characteristic implicit in Forbidden City.
The place is huge. Built for some king/god/Mao/ruling figure in the 1700/1800/1400s(?), the Forbidden City was an all-encompassing place of living, recreation, ruling, and, primarily,—judging by the countless thrones—sitting. The Emperor stayed here. All. The. Time. For his own safety, the dude couldn’t leave the place. Luckily, with heretics, ‘hores, and hors’deovurs in ample supply, I think he was doing just fine.
Heck, he had a moat built around his living quarters just so he could access his palace (yes, from within the palace) by boat. How baller is that?
The Forbidden City stretches for hundreds of hectacres (or [insert Chinese accent] hecric-areas, as a nearby Chinese tour guide is overhead saying in English). While the corridors and halls are largely repetitive in architecture, the names that represented their purposes differed. There was the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a Hall of Mental Cultivation, and the Gate of Divine Might among countless others.
Overall, the Forbidden City was an excellent escape from the crazy Chinese police of Tian’anmen Square, and introduced me to the running comedic commentary that would highlight virtually every segment of my visit to America’s “if you dig a hole straight down” neighbor.