Forbidden City,Tiananmen Square & Temple of Heaven

Panorama of Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's tomb is center across the square (photo from Wikipedia)
The Hall of Supreme Harmony inside Forbidden City
Staircase leading to Hall of Supreme Harmony
Rooftop detail Forbidden City - One animal in corner denotes level of importance of the building

Forbidden City,Tiananmen Square, City Planning, Temple of Heaven and Peking Duck

Entrance To Forbidden City

The Chinese rival the French for their long vistas and walkways.  I guess this is all part of the historical ceremonial pomp and circumstance when it comes to royalty.  Royal and civic ceremonies are common in many places in the world and it always interests me because it was woven with tradition but has elements of modern changes.  The importance of government is visible and in the city planning and architectural layout, as it is in most in most capitol cities, but in Beijing it is larger than life.  It is a city rich in royal tradition and civic pride.

Tiananmen Square is the third largest city square in the world and one really cannot capture the entirely in a photograph even with a panoramic view. At approximately 109 acres it is simply massive. It was not crowded the day we were there but I tried to imagine the crowds that would gather on parade days or other civic gatherings.  The square was named after the Tiananmen Gate to Forbidden City which sits directly north of the square.  The square is a place of historical, political and revolutionary significance in Chinese history.  This is where Chairman Mao read the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China.  His oversized photograph is still on Tiananmen Gate to this day and his mausoleum sits due south across the square. Mao Zedong died in 1976 and all these years later he is still incredibly popular with the Chinese. Beijing has a rich history of unrest and the square has born witness to many protests over time, but the one that occurred in 1989 stood out to me. It was incomprehensible to me that a million people were here at the height of the protest.  The thought of that famous picture of that young man standing in front of the approaching tanks was burned in my mind as I stood in the square. It sent shivers up my spine. After the initial protest, the Chinese Government arrested many protesters and supporters and in the years since has censured information. To this day it is forbidden to discuss or remember this protest as it was the bloodiest in Beijing history.  While I understand that the square was originally named after the Tiananmen Gate to Forbidden City and that its original use was intended to be a gathering spot for the Emperor to greet the people, I still could not shake the irony that the name Tiananmen means Heavenly Peace. 

Forbidden City

From the moment you step through the first gate into Forbidden City the symbolism of the architecture is unmistakable. I say the first gate because there seemed like hundreds to me.  Besides the north, south, east and west gates there are the gates to everything inside: gate to the garden, gate to the workers area, gate to the public gathering area, gate to the imperial soldiers area, and the  gate to the Imperial residence,  just to name a few.  These are not insignificant structures; these are huge and sometimes elaborately decorated entrances, many with surrounding walls. Each gate has a level of importance and this was signified by the number of animal ornaments on the rooftop.  The most important buildings have seven animals and this is reserved for the Emperor.   No other building in China has more animals than the Imperial Palace.  The doors to each gate are actually fairly plain and are decorated only with metal bumps. Good luck and good fortune are received when you rub the bumps on the doors. We did not want to be forgotten and as the saying goes, “When in Rome or in this case China….” we rubbed a lot of bumps.

Forbidden City is separated into courts, the outer court is for ceremonial purposes and the inner court was where the Emperor worked and lived with his family. As in most royal palaces there are lots of buildings for civic purposes; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony. All of these have specific and formal uses which are all rich in Chinese history and would take significant study to understand, let alone explain.  All the halls contained thrones but the most elaborate throne was in the Hall of Supreme Harmony as it was the setting for events like coronations and weddings.

The private inner court also had its share of buildings but they were smaller in scale:  the Palace of Heavenly Court, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the Hall of Union, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, and the Hall of Mental Cultivation are the most important structures. They were used for a variety of purposes and were used as Royal residences depending on what dynasty and the needs of the ruling royal family.  Each building is elevated on a platform and some have quite a few steps to reach the top.  Viewing the private areas is done by standing in the doorway and looking into to the interior.  We did not actually go into any of the buildings.  Depending on how many people are there at any given moment is the deciding factor in how good your view will be. This is the time when being tall has the best advantage.

 I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because the thought horrifies me but it is an important footnote to those in service to royal life in China. The only males allowed inside Forbidden City were the emperor and eunuchs. There were reportedly 20,000 eunuchs in service during the Ming Dynasty.  It was not uncommon for men to castrate themselves in order to have a better life for their families.

 The whole compound is quite elaborate and formal. Actually there is so much to see it is hard to take in all the significance and history. There is so much about life in this cloistered environment that was and still is secretive that it is a lifetime of study. There is lots of ceremony here, you can see it and feel it in the layout of the buildings and walkways.  For example: In ancient times the emperor used a building on the compound where he has to “take rest” before going to meetings with his staff.  Once he finished resting he would advance through the next gate. Imagine how long it could take just to get to the meeting.  The colors are also important to the honor of the city.  Yellow is power and red is luck. There is no mistaking the color significance, every rooftop on the palace buildings are topped with yellow tile and every wall is red, and this color combination is unique to Forbidden City.  The eaves of roofs are the decorative portions of the buildings with elaborate woodwork and paintings. They are well preserved and repaired annually.  Forbidden City was named a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is a source of enormous pride.  It has not been that many years since the palace opened to the public and it is still a privilege to enter.

Beijing - Office of City Planning

Inside on the 3rd floor is a scale model of the city of Beijing in process of being constructed.  Standing in in the room you can see the 3d completed portions are slightly elevated above the floor.  The incomplete portions of the model are visible in a 2d photo on the floor. I finally had a full overview of the city and how expansive it really was. I could relate to the places I had seen in the city and how complicated it was to get across town. It was pretty cool and definitely worth the visit.  Forbidden City was immediately identifiable in the model due its unique yellow and red color scheme.

Lunch We went to a great Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, “Pure Lotus”.  What a great name.  This was probably my favorite meal my whole time in China.   We had a coconut milk broth soup with taro root (they taste like potato), vegetables with a black bean sauce and an eggplant dish with lemon sauce; the eggplant was cut to look like chrysanthemums with some kind of batter and probably deep fried. It was flavorful and beautiful at the same time.

Temple of Heaven

This was a really pretty area. The colors and construction of the decorative eaves are beautiful.  The temple used for the Prayer of Good Harvest sits in the center of the surrounding buildings. It is round with a blue tiled roof to emulate the universe and the surrounding areas are square to emulate the earth. When it was built, the earth was believed to be flat.  You cannot enter the buildings, but you can see inside by standing at the entrances and looking in with the multitudes of other people doing the same.  On the grounds where you worship outside, there is a small round stone in the center of the area. You stand on the stone which represents the center of the universe and you ask for good fortune from the universe.  On another part of the compound is an enclosed courtyard with small structure in the middle.  This is known as the Echo Wall. No echoes here …… too many people. 

It had been a long fully packed day of touring.  Our late evening and last official meeting was a delightful dinner with one of the managers from the Beijing office. He treated us to a meal of famous Peking Duck.   It was delicious and eaten in a manner that I am learning is very universal.  The process was quite familiar to me.  Thin rice flat bread is served so that you can fill it with roasted duck and whatever accompaniment you choose.  It was similar to filling a tortilla in Mexican cuisine and similar to filling naan with lentils in Indian cuisine. It was tender and delectable in every way.  It was a nice note to finish a historical visit and successful business trip.

The next morning we were up and ready to start our journey home. We had our last meal outside in the garden and commented that the smog was visibly settling on the city. We had been lucky to have relatively clean air but it was time to get out of Dodge as the sky was turning brown. 

I have spent lots of time thinking about my experiences in China and how my American perspective is so different.   I was remembering the incident when I asked my teammate why I could “not check in for my flights before getting to the airport?” and her response to me was “how will they know you are here?” I asked,” why do they care if I am here or not?” and she asked me “what happens if you are not on the plane?” and I said,” I miss the flight and rebook.”  And then she told me “the Chinese authorities would search for you in the airport and find you if you did not board a flight. “ I remember feeling shocked by her response. As an American I saw this as a complete affront to personal freedom and definitely felt big brother was watching.  I believe my Chinese friend saw it quite differently. She was so concerned that someone could get lost.  She viewed it as protection to have someone know where you were and where you were going.  It was a great learning experience to me, to come to an understanding that we were each a product of our environment. Neither of us was wrong or right, but each of us had very different concerns and viewpoints. It was and will always be a reminder to me to seek to understand the cultural differences we all hold so dearly.   I am not sure if I will ever get the chance to return to China but I do feel I was lucky to have the experience, and of having a Chinese teammate take me to some of the world’s most famous sites.  I am not someone who likes group tours so this was indeed a privilege to be guided around China and still have a sense of personal freedom.  

Entrance gates and staircases and Temple of Heaven
Roof detail of Temple of Heaven
Staircase to the Center of the Universe prayer area at the Temple of Heaven
Standing on the Stone in the center of the Universe (look at the guy with the pink shirt).
Office of City Planning - Scale model the unfinished sections are the blue photos of the floor. Forbidden City is in the center

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Latest comments

09.05 | 12:43

Nina, so enjoyed your description/s of place and experience/s. It almost felt like I was right next to you throughout your journey! Thank you for sharing!

24.03 | 20:01

Great article, Nina. Now I wish I had gone there when I was in Bath. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity to go there someday....

18.03 | 18:48

I've been to Bath twice myself. And have gone to Sally Lunn's twice, too. Took my English cousins to Bath. It was their first time there and they loved it.

10.03 | 20:13

As a kid, I spent my summers in New York state. As an adult, I have had many recurring dreams about going there. I have gone back and the memories rekindle.

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