Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imagining Imperial Life

I took my friend to the Forbidden City this afternoon and on the whole not much has changed.

There are still the crowds that hang around within the two gates before having to pay the 60RMB ($8.78) admission to go through the rest of the giant compound.

And individuals will approach you, asking if you want to have a private tour, but it's best to just wander on your own.

The previous times I've been there, I usually power through it without wandering much to the sides of the palace grounds. However, that's where there are a few gems if you take the time to look room by room.

Some house beautiful jade carvings from the Three States period, or even Qin Dynasty, colourful cloisonne vases, or clocks clearly influenced by the Europeans in the 17th century. There was a wooden head carved with the beautiful and graceful face of the Bodhisattva, and a chest of drawers in wood with an intricate carving made to hold calligraphy scrolls for the Emperor Qianlong who liked to write calligraphy.

These were only a fraction of the beautiful items that were used by emperors, concubines, officials and staff. What happened to the rest of them?

The areas in the Forbidden City that have the majority of visitors seem to have the most renovations in terms of fresh coats of paint that are at the point of gaudiness; how does a new paint job make a palace from the 1400s look old? Nevertheless, the further you wander from the main path, the more you see the original albeit worn down paint depicting various scenes on the outside hallway ceilings.

It's also annoying that most of the items like furniture and other interior decoration have been emptied out of the main rooms; as my friend remarked, it was like seeing the shell of the building and made it difficult to imagine what palace life was like.

The one or two rooms you could look inside were difficult to see into because the windows were smudged with finger prints and the items inside were covered in a thick layer of dust. Would it hurt to clean the windows regularly and dust off the artifacts?

However, the upkeep is better than what it used to be when I first came to Beijing in 1985, when things were pretty much left out in the open to be exposed to the natural elements.

While there seems to be more museum staff on hand, many of them are young people probably hired to boost employment numbers, but they seem to be more preoccupied with playing on their cellphones than telling people not to take flash pictures.

At 4:30pm, a major announcement was blared from the loudspeakers saying that the Forbidden City would close in 30 minutes. We were already towards the end of it, but we wandered in the various small rooms that probably housed concubines. One of them showed pictures of the life of Pu Yi, the last emperor, including his baby and wedding pictures. We wanted to linger a bit longer, but a woman shooed us out wanting to lock up this room even though there was still 15 minutes to closing.

Seems like the staff here are eager to get out of work at 5pm...

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