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Day 99 – Built For Your Benefit (The Forbidden City)

June 10, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Thursday, June 10, 2010

First off, you probably know that the Forbidden City got its name because it was the home of the emperor and commoners were not allowed inside. What you might not know is that emperors resided in the compound until the early 1900’s. The place has an ancient feel, but you also get the sense that its caretakers have no qualms slapping on a new coat of paint or replacing old artifacts with replicas. For a region with as long a history as China, a hundred years ago is like yesterday. For example, under the eaves of one of the big gates, the government had installed two gigantic big screen televisions that displayed images and video about the site on a loop complete with loud music and commentary. Just like Tiananmen Square, the curators didn’t just let the monument speak for itself, they made sure you understood its importance with as much flashing lights and sound as possible.

The ancient city at the center of its modern successor is a kilometer long and about 500 meters wide, which means there’s a lot of walking. The place was constructed in order to put visitors in awe of the emperor. Advisors, consorts, governors, and dignitaries that visited the palace would be greeted by huge stone laden open spaces and grand pavilions. This is no subtle expression of power; it’s in your face, look-how-big-my-palace-is over the top.

There were even giant copper or brass urns that the emperors filled with burning incense or wood to create smoke in order to give the courtyards a mysterious, mystical feel. It’s the old school equivalent of installing a ton of fog machines in your house. These guys made sure you stood in awe.

All this majesty is pretty and all, but these days, the vast expanses means a visit involves a lot of walking. Also, after a while, the various halls and pavilions start to look the same. What kept me engaged were all the fanciful names of each of the structures. Here are some of my favorites, only one of which is fake:

Hall of Norms of Government

Hall of Character Cultivation

Hall of Joyful Longevity

Hall of Mental Cultivation

Pavilion of Prolonging Splendor

The Palace of Abstinence

Lodge of the Proper Places and Cultivations of Things

Did you pick out the made up one? Take your time. I’ll wait. Hah, I lied. They’re all real. Pretty wild, huh?

I opted for an audio tour, which meant I got to hang an electronic map thing around my neck and walk around with one headphone in my ear. The lady speaking in my ear was a godsend. Without her I’d have had no context for what I was seeing. Without context it really is just a bunch of buildings that all look same.

Walking out the north end of the Forbidden City and hiking up the hill in Jiangshan Park for an overview of the city, I realized that visiting the Forbidden City was like visiting an old school version of Beijing. In the same way that Beijing seems to be a huge exercise in impressing visitors, the Forbidden City served the same function for the ancient rulers. Everything was on a grand scale, a bit over the top. Its creators worked hard to provide evidence that you, an outsider, should be impressed. There was also an evident fondness for wide open spaces. You had to go out of your way to find intimate spaces—in the Forbidden City, that meant going to the smaller palaces on the east side where the empress and the concubines lived. It’s not a place where you fee intimacy or warmth. It’s a place you go to be impressed.

In the evening, I joined Max for a meal of spicy crawfish and fixin’s on Ghost Street at a more local place than I’d been the night before. While eating inside, the cops came by and systematically shutdown all the outdoor seating on a street famous for its curbside seats. Go figure.

Afterwards we lounged out in the Houhai area of town. We skipped the places crowded with Chinese and Western tourists and hung out in a place called Club 31, a place run by some Uyghur (pronounced: WEE-gers) , a Chinese ethnic minority. A band played Spanish music while we drank. A sign said that they were the first Uyghur flamenco band. I believe them. Even if they weren’t the first, they were good, Spanish vocals included.

I think really that’s what Beijing is all about. Like L.A., it can feel like a concrete jungle sprawl, lacking in small spaces to relax and meet people. In the end, you have to seek out the oases in the urban desert, probably with the help of a local. You have to cut the city down to size.

It really is still more Tracy Flick than I’d prefer, but I am adapting. A few more Uyghur bands and I might actually start to really like the place.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery for numerous bonus pictures including some of signs that prove Mervyn didn’t just make up those pavilion names, one of Mervyn decked out with the audio guide, pictures of a Chinese guy and a White guy dressed up in silly clothes, and a picture of Obama as Mao.

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