This is my fourth trip to China and oddly, I always seem to be here right around this time of the year. This time however, I got a day off and a few of the folks we work with here agreed to take me to The Forbidden City. It is of course the archetypal image I think many westerners carry around in our minds. The Tiananmen Gate, the vast walled compound and the iconic architecture. It doesn’t disappoint and maybe its actually a little better than imagined because it’s more real. This huge compound was the traditional home of the emperors who ruled China from the 1400s until modern times. Every building has a purpose and the scale was meant to awe. The reality of a 500 year old place is striking. The ground is covered with bricks-now rough and uneven with grass poking up and the buildings-one of which is the oldest wooden structure in China-show their age. A lot of the buildings are not open- they haven’t been maintained or restored but the ones that are tell the story of a system of organization under heaven with the Emperor as the single go-between. Every incense burner (the place has a lot of bronze sculpted turtles and dragons that burned cedar wood and incense to intentionally create a fragrant and mysterious ambiance) and every tree was placed with intention. Probably the highlight are the gardens with some trees still living that are over 500 years old. It doesn’t take much to put yourself in the place of a government functionary or even the rare peasant who came inside the gates and saw what was surely the working of the Gods in the center of the Universe.
The Forbidden City