Archive for December, 2008

Spitting, Lines, and China

December 15, 2008

First, a few more pictures from the Forbidden City.

Dragons and the number nine were associated with the emperor, and this is one of three nine-dragon walls in China.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Wall

Or half of the wall, anyway.

On the half that’s outside this shot, one of the tiles is wooden. It’s thought that a worker broke the original tile when the wall was being assembled and the wooden replacement was secretly made to avoid punishment.  The tile probably blended in perfectly when it was new, but as it aged, it faded more rapidly than the ceramic tiles and is now noticeably different.

This is a stage for Chinese opera.

Beijing Forbidden City Opera Stage

And for another lousy-but-possibly-interesting picture, this is one of several throne rooms in the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Throne

The plaque above the throne says “just and honorable.”

Little figures like these are placed at the corners of palace roofs in both China and Korea.

Beijing Forbidden City Roof Figures

The more important the building, the more figures there are.


Some impressions of China.

When I wrote about my brief stay in Hong Kong, I said that among the Chinese cities I visited, Hong Kong was my favorite, because it didn’t suffer from some of the unpleasant aspects of mainland culture.

One of those unpleasant things is that people in China spit all over the place, including on the train and in buildings.  And it’s not just the rough, uneducated types; at the airport in Beijing, I saw a neatly-uniformed airport employee spit on the moving walkway.

Sometimes this casual disregard for cleanliness in public spaces was really bad.  In a modern shopping district in Guilin, a small child needed to pee, so his mother helped him with his pants and had him relieve himself on the sidewalk.  She could have at least had him do it by a tree or in the gutter, but nope, right on the sidewalk.

But as much as these things made me cringe, they’re not terrible, relatively speaking.  The worst problem on the mainland was that the vast majority of people had little concept of waiting one’s turn.  Most of the time it wasn’t noticeable, but it became infuriatingly apparent when I used the subway in Beijing and Shanghai.

I can say from experience that in Japan, Korea, and Thailand, people waiting for the metro form lines where markings on the platform say to, and when the train arrives, they let the disembarking passengers get off before they themselves board.  In China, I saw signs telling passengers to do this, but that’s not what happened.  Sometimes the people waiting on the platform did make lines (or were forced to by station attendants), but when the trains came, everyone would just crowd in front of the doors, and then they’d push their way on without letting anyone get off first.  There was no meanness in it, but the basic consideration for others embodied in waiting your turn was neither shown nor expected, and it made an utter mess of the already crowded subways.  The government had signs and posters everywhere laying out all sorts of etiquette, from “no spitting” and “wait in line,” to the practice of using one side of an escalator for standing and the other side walking, but while the escalator thing seemed to be catching on, the rest will probably be a long, uphill battle.

Speaking of government-sponsored ads (and to avoid ending on a negative note), it was four or five months before the Beijing Olympics when I was in China, and I saw a lot of billboards and TV spots not only hyping the Olympics, but also explaining them.  Most educated Chinese were thrilled to be hosting the Games, but evidently a lot of people (the “Zhou Six-Packs” of China, perhaps?) didn’t know much about the Olympics – I even saw a cartoon explaining footraces (why there are lanes, why runners start from a crouch, etc.) – so the government was doing its best to get people informed and excited.

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The Forbidden City

December 7, 2008

In my third and final day in Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City.  I had intended to see some other places too, but the palace isn’t called a city for nothing, and in the end I spent most of the day there.  This picture from Wikipedia, gives a feel for the size of the complex (nearly 180 acres).

Beijing Forbidden City Panorama

Some history.

The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th century and was the imperial palace for 14 emperors of the Ming dynasty and all 10 emperors of the Qing dynasty.  The last emperor abdicated in 1912, but continued living in the Inner Court until he was kicked out in 1924.  The Forbidden City was then renamed the Palace Museum (the website doesn’t display properly in Firefox, fyi).

The Forbidden City is directly north of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing Tiananmen

The symbolism of Mao’s portrait at the gate to the former seat of power in China doesn’t need any explanation.

Past Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) is a large courtyard for reviewing troops.  It still serves that purpose, and a couple hundred soldiers were being reviewed when I passed through.  I wasn’t sure if photos would be allowed, so I didn’t take any, deciding to play it safe and not risk losing my camera or memory card.

The gate at the west end of the courtyard leads to the former Imperial Shrine of State, now a park in honor of Sun Yat-sen.  The eastern gate leads to the former Imperial Ancestral Shrine, now the “Working People’s Cultural Hall.”

At the north end of the courtyard is the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Meridian Gate


A digression.

The English name, Meridian Gate, confused me for a while.  The name plate on the gate says 午門, in which the first character is the horse sign of the zodiac (just plain “horse” is written 馬) and the second character means gate.  A meridian, meanwhile, is a circle passing through the Earth’s poles, or a pathway of qi/chi in acupuncture, or, in some US dialects, a median strip in a road.

Then I remembered that the horse sign also means noon.  In Japanese, “noon” is usually written with another character entirely, but am and pm are “before 午” and “after 午.”  And in astronomy, a meridian is a circle that not only passes through the Earth’s poles, but also passes through the observer’s zenith, and noon of course is when the sun is at it’s zenith.  Indeed, if I were better read, I’d have known that meridian used to be commonly used to mean zenith, especially in the figurative sense.  Checking a dictionary later made things clear cut:  The word meridian originally meant noon.

So now “午門 = Meridian Gate” makes sense, but why is it called that in the first place?  Fortunately, that’s easily explained.  In addition to being associated with noon, the horse sign of the zodiac is also associated with the southern direction, and this is the southern gate.


Beyond the Meridian Gate is another vast courtyard.  An artificial stream runs through it, probably for reasons of feng shui.  At the north end of the courtyard is the Gate of Supreme Harmony.  The emperors sure liked grandiose names, eh?

This is the northwest corner of the courtyard, with bridges and one of the small gates that flank the big one.

Beijing Forbidden City Bridge

In the old days, most people had to use the side gates; the big gate was for the emperor.

I think this lion is in front of the central gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Lion

To the right of the lion you can see a carved ramp of sorts.  This is a close view.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Path

Dragon paths like this climb the center of the stairs that lead to each of the major ceremonial halls and gates.  The emperor was carried over them in a litter.

Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony lies yet another vast courtyard.

Beijing Forbidden City Main Hall

The building at the end of the courtyard is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the symbolic center of the empire and the largest building in the Forbidden City.  It was used for grand ceremonies of state.  Unfortunately, it was being renovated when I was there, so visitors couldn’t enter or even peek inside.

Most of the other buildings were open, though, and I went in all that I could.

Some of the side halls were displaying palace artifacts.  This is a musical instrument.

Beijing Forbidden City Pipes

You’ll notice that it’s terribly dusty.  The other instruments on show were even worse.

Beijing Forbidden City Instruments

When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, thousands of crates filled with records and art from the Forbidden City were moved elsewhere for safekeeping.  Shortly after the end of World War II, much of the best of that treasure trove ended up in Taiwan and when the government of the Republic of China moved to Taiwan and mainland China became the People’s Republic, that artwork stayed on the island.  Now it forms the core collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

If the Palace Museum in Beijing (ie the Forbidden City) is treating its relics like this, maybe it’s for the best that Taiwan has the good stuff in a proper museum.  That said, other exhibits at the Forbidden City were treated with appropriate care – the clock collection is quite nice – but the state of this clutch of musical instruments was simply appalling.

At least the buildings themselves were being seen to.

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony and then the Hall of Preserving Harmony. These three halls share a stone platform that raises them to roof height compared to the rest of the City.

Beijing Forbidden City Roofs

All this “harmony” business in the names was the doing of the Qing dynasty, by the way.   The Qing emperors were Manchu, not Han Chinese, and they not only renamed many of the palace buildings, but also added Manchu translations to most of the name plates.

Beijing Forbidden City Sign

This plate is for the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which is the next building in line north of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, but which belongs to the Inner Court, not the Outer.

The Outer Court is the southern half of the Forbidden City.  It comprises the formal halls and large plazas where public ceremonies of state were held.  The Inner Court is the dense, northern half of the City, where the imperial family lived and where the emperor conducted most daily affairs.

The satellite view from Google Maps lays things out nicely.

You can zoom in quite a bit more.

Continuing north from the Palace of Heavenly Purity past two more halls leads to the small Imperial Garden.  This patch of greenery was very welcome after seeing nothing but stone through most of the Forbidden City, but even the garden is more stone than anything else.  I don’t have any good pictures of the inside of the garden, but this is the gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Garden Gate

The gate has a pair of guardian statues that are more charming than imposing.  A dragon is on the left.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon

And an elephant is on the right.

Beijing Forbidden City Elephant

Living quarters make up most of the rest of the Inner Court.  Several buildings in the northeast corner have been converted into museums (or sub-museums, I suppose) with exhibits of bronze, pottery, paintings and so on, plus the clocks I mentioned earlier.  Many of the northwest buildings retain their old furnishings and have information on the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi.  There was a certain amount of Communist slant in the presentations on the empress, but she did do a lot to earn her condemnation.  My favorite example of her extravagance is one of her more minor offenses:   She wore a new pair of silk socks every day, burning them after use.

Rounding out the rest of the Forbidden City, the southwest and southeast corners contain the Hall of Military Eminence and the Hall of Literary Glory, respectively.  Unfortunately, these sections were closed to the public.


That’s all for now.  A few more pictures from the Forbidden City and some final impressions of Beijing to come later.