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Notes on the Geography of China: The Grand Axis of Imperial Beijing

Forget for the moment that Beijing has 14,000,000 people, many of whom are working to make it the most prestigious city in the world.  Forget, too, that you can trace this city's history to and beyond Kublai Khan's Dadu, or Great Capital.  In between the contemporary and the archaeological there's a Beijing that, over the space of 491 years, was the capital of 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors.  Mao Zedong had no use for their imperial display--he was busy enough generating his own--and had no qualms demolishing their city.  Even before 1949, however, the imperial city had been looted, most recently by government officials claiming to take its treasures for safekeeping from the barbarous Japanese.  Now, like so many monuments around the world, the remnants of the Ming and Qing city--some decayed, some restored--suffer from crowds and crowd-control.  Still, we'll begin in the thick of it, with the Forbidden City, a supreme demonstration of architecture as political symbol. 

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Long before the rise of Beijing, the Chinese capital city had been understood by its builders as an instrument of persuasion, a form designed to make China's rulers seem invincible. To this end, the imperial palace was placed at the axis of the universe, where the emperor could both command his subjects and commune with the heavens.

Although the Chinese built many capital cities, Beijing is the best surviving example of this elaborate symbolism, put in its ultimate form after the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor, moved his capital here from Nanjing in the early 1400s. Kublai Khan's capital, on the same site, had been a walled rectangle; so was Yongle's, though it occupied approximately the southern two-thirds of the earlier city. Both rectangles were oriented to the cardinal points, but the Ming city had symmetrical pairs of gates on all sides except the propitious south, where it had three.

The Ming city is often called the Inner City (Neicheng), even though today it's the outermost of a set of three nested rectangles enclosing not only the Ming City but the smaller Imperial City (Huangcheng) and the still smaller and innermost Pole Star Forbidden City (Zijencheng). It's confusing, to say the least, but the name Inner City arose during the succeeding Qing Dynasty, when in the early 1600s the Chinese were evicted from the Ming city, which was to become the home of the Manchu, the invaders whose rulers assumed the name Qing ("pure"). The dispossessed Chinese moved outside the southern gates to a new walled area, a flatter rectangle than the Ming City and one compressed against it. This new city became the Chinese or Outer City (Waicheng), while the former Ming city became the Manchu or Inner City. Got it?

Running through all four rectangles--three nested and one adjoining on the south--was an axis along which the city's monumental structures were arrayed in balanced pairs. (Symmetry, it will become evident, was carried here to extreme and arguably compulsive lengths. It was all part of the effort to accentuate the cosmic centrality of the place.) Official visitors of high rank would follow that axis as they approached an emperor so august that he was never referred to either by personal name, temple name, or reign name. Instead, he was named only periphrastically as the Highest Yellow One, where yellow signified wealth and honor.

The southernmost gate on the axis, the Gate of Perpetual Certainty (Yongdingmen), fell victim to Mao, along with so much and so many, but the second gate, more than two kilometers to its north and at the point where the Outer and Inner cities meet, almost survives. It's the so-called Front (Qian) or True South (Shengyang) Gate. Anyone granted an imperial audience would have passed here; for important visitors, the path would have been sprinkled for three miles with golden sand.

The gate here, however, merely hints at the Ming and Qing structures, which were designed with outworks, in other words enceintes or barbicans that were semicircular protuberances with front and side gates and an enclosed gate-yard. Early in the 20th century, the congestion in these gate-yards was so great that the republican government commissioned a German architect named Rothkegal to fix things. About 1916 he removed most of the Front Gate's barbican, leaving its central gate a detached fragment, no longer connected to the wall. That bit, shown here, was new in Rothkegal's time, because the gate had been burned in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion. It had then been hastily rebuilt.

The tower now has one permanently open but non-functioning gate, namely the tunnel in the middle of the structure. Until 1900, the old side gates, now removed along with the barbican, used to close at night. This central gate, however, was always closed, except for the rare imperial processions, such as the emperor's annual visit to the Altar of Heaven, which is behind the camera and to the right or east. Perhaps the most authentic thing about this gate today is that the surrounding area is still intensely commercial. It has always been so, ever since the Chinese were evicted from the Ming city and the newcomer Manchus wanted to shop.

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Just north of the front gate is the so-called inner gate, also rebuilt after the Boxers. (The view here is toward the south, with the front gate visable through the tunnel.) Contemporaneous with this reconstruction, and just to the gate's north and east, the Diplomatic Quarter was established in 1901 for the exclusive use of foreign legations.

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Still farther north along the central axis, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'anmen) leads from the Inner into the Imperial city. Tian'anmen Square was greatly enlarged by Mao for his own solidarity-building purposes. What's most interesting, perhaps, is the enduring power of this Communist icon for Chinese who are furiously getting and spending. Perhaps it's like Americans who quiver before the Lincoln Memorial but have little interest in Lincoln's politics. Tian'anmen Square in this sense is famous because it represents the power of China, not because it was built to accentuate the power of the Communist Party. Mao's famous portrait is neatly blocked by the flagpole.

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The next major gate is the Meridian Gate (Wumen), which leads into the Forbidden City, but it was under scaffolding when these pictures were taken in 2004, so we've stepped for a moment off the processional route we're following and jumped to the east side of the Forbidden City, where we can look at its moat--the "tube river" in Chinese. It's a good way to get a sense of the size of the Zijincheng,or Pole Star Forbidden Walled City. If you like numbers, the Forbidden City covers 240 acres and extends about three quarters of a mile north-south (961 meters) and half a mile east-west (753 meters). By some counts, it contains more than a thousand buildings, although the number has always been in flux, as buildings were built, burned, modified, or demolished.

Calling this place the Forbidden City wasn't just a matter of signifying a place that excluded the masses. The intention was to create an inner sanctum for the one person--the Son of Heaven--who alone had the right and responsibility to address Heaven. The Lord of Heaven was thought to reside in a celestial palace surrounding the North Star, and as the heavens rotated around that star, so the earthly world revolved around the Pole Star Forbidden Walled City. The Ming Qianlong Emperor explained all this in a letter to Britain's George III. He might have added that credit for building the Forbidden City belonged to Zhu Di, the third Ming emperor. Adopting the reign name of the Yongle Emperor, it was Zhu Di who moved the capital here from Nanjing.

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Officials working in the Forbidden City used to enter not along the great axis but by crossing the eastern side of the moat and using the East Flowery Gate (Dongwamen). It's closed now, but tourists are still brought across the same eastern bridge, then directed around the southeast corner of the Forbidden City (shown here, with its elaborately roofed corner tower) to approach the ticket office near the Meridian Gate.

The wall is made of rammed earth faced with three layers of oversized brick. Each brick weighs more than 50 pounds and was shipped by canal from distant Shandong.

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The Meridian Gate, seen from the Court of the Golden River, inside the Forbidden City.

The gate has five entrances, of which the flanking two are visible here. The number five is not accidental: it alludes to the Five Elements (earth, wood, iron, water, fire), as well as the Five Virtues, Five Classics, Five Colors, and Five Spheres. It does get compulsive.

The middle gate was closed to all except the emperor, the empress on her wedding day, and the passage each year of the three outstanding candidates taking the imperial entrance examination. It was last used in 1922, for the wedding of P'u Yi, the last and by then already deposed emperor.

Princes and officials used the two flanking gates except on the 5th, 15th, and 25th day of each month, when the emperor held court. On those days, civil ministers entered through the east gate, visible here in the distance; military ministers used the west gate, the closest one here and behind the scaffolding.

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The Golden Water River crosses the Forbidden City from northwest to southeast. Intended less as an amenity than as a source of water in case of fire, the river is crossed here by five bridges--one for each of the five entrances in the Meridian Gate. The middle bridge, as part of the Imperial Way, was reserved for the emperor's use and is wider than the others and paved differently.

Note that this courtyard occupies a bit less than a third of the Forbidden City's full width. It is framed east and west by low buildings. The ones on the east, shown here in the distance, included a great library (the Hall of Literary Glory, or Wenyuandian), a Confucian lecture hall (the Hall of Reverence for the Master, or Zhujingdian), and a secretariat. Behind the camera (and a similar framing line of buildings) were the Halls of Martial Grace (Wuyingdian). These were actually storehouses for the imperial treasure, and the name was probably intended only to balance the intellectual pursuits of the east side. Both these extensive flanking areas are closed to the public. So is more than half the Forbidden City. The closures extend outside the Meridian Gate to the great Imperial Ancestral Temple (Taimiao) flanking it on the southeast. It's a pity, but most visitors don't know or care, because even the areas that are open tend to be overwhelming.

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We're still in the same courtyard but looking northeasterly now toward the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen), through which the Imperial Way leads into a second great courtyard.

Astute youngsters, not yet old enough to kowtow, will enter this space and say they don't like it. But then, the builders weren't trying to make visitors feel at home; they wanted to make them feel insignificant.

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The Gate of Supreme Harmony from another angle.

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Although often repaired, the Gate of Supreme Harmony is one of the few structures in the Forbidden City that date from Ming times; most others burned and were rebuilt by the Qing. The polychromed beams are painted in he xi style, the most intricate of the three styles used in the Forbidden City.

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We've passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony and are now in the immense courtyard before the double-eaved, hip-roofed Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). It's the largest wooden building in China, measuring 200 feet wide and 100 deep and high. Behind it are another two audience halls. Behind them is a gate leading to the Inner Court, where a similar trio of buildings once housed the Ming rulers.

The distinctive paving of the Imperial Way is clear here, although one can hardly imagine the shock that the old palace guards and eunuchs would feel if they could see today's throngs daring to walk upon it. The path leads to the triple tiers of a terrace, which extends north under the other two audience halls. In the center of the staircases ascending the terrace, the three white slabs of a spirit staircase can be seen. Nobody ever touched these slabs, not even the emperor, who was carried over them in a chair.

The hall has one of the many Forbidden City throne rooms. They all face south, a direction associated so strongly with good things that one of the emperor's titles was "the face that is turned toward the south." There's color symbolism, too, although you may have to use some imagination. The dark courtyard paving is theoretically black, the marble terrace is white, the walls of the hall are red, its roof is yellow, and the sky of course is blue.

The name Supreme Harmony refers to a concordance of heaven and earth and implies a devotion to good government. Like a football stadium, however, this space was used only rarely and then only for the most important occasions, such as those accompanying the winter solstice, the New Year, the emperor's birthday, and victory announcements.

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New Year, for example, saw the courtyard filled in the pre-dawn with honored guests shivering while awaiting the emperor. Their ranks--first through ninth--were clearly indicated. Guests of the first rank wore a ruby; of the second, red coral; of the third, a sapphire, and so on to the ninth, who had a silver button.

The emperor's entrance, from the rear and still in the dark, was heralded: "The Lord of Ten Thousand Years approaches!" The most senior of the multitude then climbed to the marble terrace. Twice they and the multitude below kowtowed or made obeisance nine times. Those at the back never caught more than a glimpse of yellow, if that, but even the princes and top officials, who were allowed to enter the hall to make personal obeisance, never looked at the emperor's face. With the light of dawn, the emperor retired and the multitude departed.

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A view east across the same immense space.

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Terraces like these (xumi zuo) were not just a way of making visitors look up; they were intended to represent Mt. Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. (The word xumi is the Chinese equivalent of Sumeru, "sublime Meru.") Their form is derived from the plinth on which statues of the Buddha sit: that plinth, too, is called xumi. Triple Sumeru terraces like this one are exceedingly rare, though they can also be found at the so-called Temple of Heaven and at the Yongle Emperor's tomb.

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All the balustrade posts have gargoyles in the shape of hornless dragons, or chi. Decorative, the gargoyles are also function spouts, carrying water away from the base of each terrace.

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Another view.

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The balustrade posts are decorated with symbols of the emperor and empress. Here, the masculine dragon.

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Here, the feminine phoenix.

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The massive blocks of the spirit or slab staircases--which are on both the front and back sides of the terrace--weigh as much as 250 tons. They were positioned in winter, when they could be dragged over ice made from water poured for the occasion. The design shows nine singled and doubled imperial dragons chasing flaming pearls through the cloud-filled sky. Similar stairs exist at the Ming Tombs.

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The flanking steps are carved, too, in this case with lions and horses.

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The massive roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is supported by Phoebe nanmu logs. Thousands were imported from Sichuan, mostly by floating them down the Yangtze and then up the Grand Canal to its terminus at Tongzhou, from where they were brought by a smaller canal or overland to the city's Great Timberyard. When? Well, the Forbidden City was finished in 1420, but it burned the next year. In 1442 it was rebuilt, only to burn again in 1557. It was rebuilt in 1562 but burned again 79 years later. A reconstruction in 1690 was delayed while a search went on for suitable timbers. In some cases, for example the so-called Temple of Heaven, the economy-minded Qing emperors substituted pines from Manchuria or even (gasp!) Oregon.

Notice that the walls are non-weight bearing "curtains." Notice, too that there are no chairs. There never were, except for the elaborate Dragon Throne. Only the emperor sat. The furnishings that were once here--mirrors, cabinets, tables--are gone.

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Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony but still on the north-south axis: the Hall of Complete Harmony (Zhonghedian). Although used occasionally for audiences and as a stopping place between the two other audience halls (namely Supreme Harmony (in the background) and Preserving Harmony (Baohedian), behind the camera and to the right) the Hall of Complete Harmony was used primarily during the spring agricultural rites, when the emperor left the Forbidden City and ventured to the Altar of Agriculture, west of the so-called Temple of Heaven. Before doing so, he stopped here to collect his tools, including a yellow plow, a golden basket for seed, a yellow whip, and a harrow.

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The last of the three audience halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian). It lies at the center of the Forbidden City and was the chief audience hall, not only for envoys and vassals but for the regular audiences held for officials on the 5th, 15th, and 25th of each lunar month. A Dutch ambassador in 1795 was served a banquet here with more than 50 courses, spoiled perhaps by the ambassador's noting that the servants gaped at his big nose and blue eyes.

The axis continues beyond this view to the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingmen), which leads to the Inner Court or Great Interior (Da Nei). This Inner Court is dominated by three palaces. Like the audience halls, they comprise a symmetrical pair of two large, rectangular structures separated by a smaller, square one. (They're so similar to the audience halls that a novice can hardly tell them apart.) Behind the palaces is the Imperial Rear Garden, which extends to the Forbidden City's north gate.

The flanking areas on the east and west sides of the Inner Court are occupied by a profusion of palaces on a more intimate scale than the grand public spaces we've seen so far. A few are open. A few appear in the next file.

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The Heavenly Purity Gate (Qianqingmen), leading to the Inner Court. The wall was added in the 20th century, when the leaders of republican China wanted to confine the deposed emperor to his private quarters and deny him access to the great audience halls. (No, your eyes aren't deceiving you: it is indeed a Starbucks. Offending Chinese pride, the store was asked to leave in 2007. Ambitious to open more stores in China, the company made no fuss and left.)

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One of the many and certainly not the most spectacular of the Forbidden City's throne rooms.

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We've passed the three palaces and rear garden to pass through to the north gate, the Gate of Martial Spirit (Shenwumen). This gate, on the unpropitious north side of the city, was rarely used until the very end of the imperial period. The dowager empress Cixi, however, used it to flee the city on the approach of foreign troops in 1900, and after her death in 1908 it became the working entrance of the Forbidden City.

The sign is modern and reads "Museum of the Old Palace" (Gugong bowuyuan). It's a handy reminder that the Forbidden City was left blank on tourist maps until about 1900 and was not opened to the public until 1925. The Ming Tombs and the Temple of Heaven were similarly off-limits during the imperial period. It's interesting because tourists--Chinese and foreign--have visited Beijing for a long time, but the high points of 18th and 19th century tours scarcely register for today's tourists, who see things that tourists of the past never saw.

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Here is the moat again, in a view looking west from just north of that gate. A lot of material was excavated in the course of digging it and some artificial lakes west of the Forbidden City. Where did it go?

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Here's the answer, or at least part of it: Prospect Hill (Jingshan). That's the Qing name, introduced after Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, spoiled the existing name, Longevity Mountain (Wansuishan), by choosing the site to hang himself. On its top is the Pavilion of Eternal Spring, still on the same great axis. A bronze Buddha in the pavilion disappeared in 1900, when French troops occupied the hill.

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There are lots of ways up; here's one.

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From the summit, the view south shows the line of halls and gates stretching back along the axis of the Forbidden City, as well as the more humanly scaled palaces in the flanking areas.

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We've continued almost a mile north and are in the Drum Tower. In front of us is the Bell Tower, rebuilt in 1745. Once, there were two more gates ahead of us, one leaving the Imperial City and the last leaving the Inner City. Notice two very different Beijings, an older city of courtyard houses (siheyuan) and a new one of highrises.

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A straight shot up the stairs of the Drum Tower.

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The drums themselves were destroyed by foreign troops during the Boxer Rebellion. These are replacements: a master drum and several slaves.

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An old, vandalized master is still on display, dusty but emotive proof that ruins can be more evocative than shiny replacements.

Recommended reading on the architecture of the Forbidden City: Ru Jinghua and Peng Hualiang, Ancient Chinese Architecture: Palace Architecture, Springer-Verlag, 1998; and Yu Zhuoyun, Palaces of the Forbidden City, Viking, 1982. For Chinese architecture more generally, see Nancy Steinhart, ed., Chinese Architecture, Yale, 2002; and Liang Ssu-ch'eng, A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, MIT Press, 1984. For broader descriptions of the city, see L.C. Arlington's and William Lewisohn's still useful In Search of Old Peking, 1935 (reprinted by Oxford, 1987); Frank Dorn's The Forbidden City, Scribner's, 1970; and Susan Naquin's highly specialized Peking: Temples and City Life: 1400-1900, University of California Press, 2000.


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