A lasting legacy of ancient wisdom
The Forbidden City stands as a testimony to past glory that informs contemporary people about Chinese civilisation’s advanced thought and practices across six centuries. Wang Kaihao reports.
If the millennia during which China built and renovated palaces is viewed as an epic, the Forbidden City in Beijing is an awe-inspiring final chapter.
The previous pages of this story may have been marvellous, but they are at least partially, if not largely, lost to the rise and fall of many dynasties, leaving behind ruins that serve as archaeological puzzles that experts are still putting together.
But in the heart of Beijing stands a 720,000-square-metre palace complex made of wood and earthen bricks, the largest surviving specimen of its kind in the world.
And this compound, which served as the imperial palace from 1420 to 1911, where 24 emperors lived, is celebrating the 600th anniversary of its completion this year.
For this special moment, the Meridian Gate Galleries by the museum’s entrance have become a kind of lobby to receive visitors to the exhibition Everlasting Splendour: Six Centuries at the Forbidden City, on until Nov 15.
“There are so many things to talk about within 600 years,” says Zhao Peng, director of the museum’s architectural heritage department, who is also the exhibition’s main curator. “It’s better to focus on the ‘city’ — that is, the architecture — to see how this place formed and evolved … It’s the crystallised wisdom and talent of the ancient Chinese.”
Still, it is not easy to select just 450 items, including construction components and emperors’ relics, to unfurl a panoramic picture of such architectural splendour.
Eighteen landmark years during the six centuries of history have been chosen to highlight the exhibits in chronological order to show how the compound was born, grew up and matured.
In 1406, Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), proposed moving the national capital from Nanjing, capital of today’s Jiangsu province, to Beijing, where he once resided as a prince and could better safeguard the northern frontiers.
The complex was completed in 1420, after about 10 years of preparation and a massive three-year construction. The capital was officially relocated the next year.
“An amazing feature of the Forbidden City is that it rigidly follows certain formats no matter how times changed,” Zhao says.
“This reflects traditional Chinese thought that emphasises rituals and harmony between humans and the heavens.”
The Forbidden City was built following rules inherited throughout Chinese history.
As the exhibition shows, Kaogong Ji (Book of Diverse Crafts), a Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) publication about craftsmanship, included in the fundamental Chinese classic on the rituals of organisational theory, Rites of Zhou, spells out the basics for palace construction.
It regulates a symmetrical layout for capital cities, which should be centred by a palace with a north-south axis.
The historical areas of today’s Beijing, including the Forbidden City, echo that rule precisely.
“Finally, this ideal plan, which has been referred to for 2,000 years, reached its zenith when it was perfectly practised in Beijing,” Zhao says. Rites are represented through architectural details.
For example, only the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian), the palace’s highest-status building, where the most important ceremonies took place, could have 10 deified creatures as ornaments on the roof. The fewer the roof ornaments, the lower the building’s rank.
The Forbidden City in Beijing has two older cousins.
When Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming empire, the ambitious emperor initially located the imperial city in his hometown in what is today Fengyang county, Anhui province. But construction on the grand complex stopped abruptly for unknown reasons. He decided to instead build an imperial city in Nanjing.
Both imperial cities are in ruins but still offer some key findings, such as stone rails and tiles in the Meridian Gate Galleries, which indicate what the earliest architecture of the Forbidden City may have looked like.
A comprehensive renovation of key buildings in the Forbidden City in Beijing has been underway since 2002. Although it was originally planned to be finished for this milestone anniversary, architectural experts ultimately decided to slow down and ensure they were acting in a responsible manner and respecting the history.
Everlasting splendour, it seems, may refer not only to physical structures, but also to the desire of those working hard to maintain the legacy of their ancestors.
This supplement, prepared by China Daily, People’s Republic of China, did not involve the news or editorial departments of Hindustan Times.