Forbidden Capital-ism? A visit to the Forbidden City

Meridien Gate of the Forbidden City Beijing with visitors

“Mao brought great happiness to the people of China,” tells us a young shopkeeper. “And the Buddha is also very benevolent.” We passed the antique shop on our way to visit the Forbidden City. The shop’s life-size stone figure of Mao side by side with an (only slightly shorter) Buddha statue had caught our attention.

Mao forbid! Capitalism in the Forbidden City!

Visitors streaming into the Forbidden City below a Mao portrait

Mao may still be ubiquitous, but Beijing does not feel communist. MacDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks are omnipresent. Most of the numerous Chinese tourists in the Forbidden City carried at least one digital camera, and often a digital video camera, too. To our surprise the two tier pricing system was discontinued. The Chinese now pay the same entrance fees as foreigners: 65 Yuan (about 6.50 Euro).

Yet we also found things that had not changed since our first visit 14 years ago. The maze of small alleyways, red brick walls and yellow roof tiles that make up the Forbidden City are still most fascinating.

For more than 400 years the Forbidden City was home to the Chinese emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. At times, up to 9,000 concubines, 20,000 eunuchs and 5,000 guards lived here on a space of nearly one square kilometre.

It all came to an end with the revolution in 1911 that overturned the emperor ? but only gradually so. The last emperor Pu-yi as well as some other members of the imperial household continued to live in the palace until the 1920s.

Tourists in the palaces

In spite of the tourist crowds, it is easy to imagine the secluded life of concubines who may have never moved beyond the walls of just one of the 12 self-contained Eastern and Western sub-palaces within the Forbidden City.

Except for a few favourites, their chances of actually meeting the emperor were slim. Usually they spend most of their days with needlework, music and visits to each other.

Visitors with audioguides in the Forbidden City

The more educated ones also practiced calligraphy, painted or read the Chinese classics. If one of them fell in disfavour with the emperor she would have to live alone in a far-away palace building for the rest of her life. Some of them were even murdered by envious eunuchs or beaten to death for minor offences.

Although we had spent a whole day sightseeing the Forbidden City, there were still buildings and lanes we had not explored when the palace gates closed at five o’clock. Luckily, the Forbidden City does not change as quickly as the city around it. We plan to come back.

NB: Our visit to the Forbidden City was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves

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