Don’t tell anybody, but I was kind of excited about visiting The Forbidden City.
Like millions of people, I was moved by the tragic life of Emperor Puyi, the last Emperor of China and subject of the imaginatively titled film, “The Last Emperor.”
I felt sorry for him.
As a toddler, to be snatched from your mother and whisked away to a strange city where a strange old women you’ve never seen before on her death bed tells you that you are the Son of Heaven and the ruler of China (and essentially everything else under heaven) and you don’t even know where the hell you are, much less who or what heaven is. Later, once you’ve figured out that you’re practically a God surrounded by mere humans, by your own penis-free thieving trustees, you’re told: oops, change of plans…you’re still the Son of Heaven but you’re only the ruler of the Forbidden City-the China within these walls. Then, a few years later, while you’re working on your tennis serve with your two wives and your blue-eyed barbarian teacher-whom you happen to love and respect, to be told by some upstart revolutionaries with guns leveled at you and yours: oops change of plans…you’re still the Son of Heaven but you have an hour to pack your shit cuz what was once yours and now ours. Then, while in exile and just dying to rule again, to be told by some imperialist Japanese who have been, unbeknownst to you, committing all kinds of war crimes : oops, change of plans: now you’re our puppet ruler…and, as a final insult, once the Japanese who had duped you have been nuked and humiliated, to be told by your former subjects who’ve been co-opted by yet another upstart revolutionary movement-this time some group calling themselves Communists: oops, change of plans…you’re a war criminal desperately in need of re-education. Confess your crimes and you may be forgiven.
Yeah, that movie was something else. I think one of its highest achievements (besides being shot on location in the actual Forbidden City) is that, however flawed the people were, it somehow managed not to paint Emperors nor Communists as evil.
Clearly not the American way…
Well, after watching communists play basketball on the hallowed ground where Emperor Puyi was once kowtowed to by the masses, I ventured within. That it’s a madhouse inside came as no surprise. It was a madhouse outside, too. I started getting that feeling that I always get when I go to a place that ought to be something special to see. That feeling of pending anticlimax, or even worse, disappointment. I couldn’t imagine that a place as crowded as the Forbidden City happened to be that day to be anything but a hassle. This feeling was punctuated by the lines before the ticket office….
Ticket in hand I went to yet another line; this one for a guided tour listening device, which I thought was pretty nifty and surprisingly sophisticated. I mean, the device detects when you’re nearing a certain area or structure and a voice starts to tell you about the particular area you’re in.
However, this turned out to be my first whiff of the communism I was propagandized against as a child growing up in the cold war. As I walked through the main gate, a rather soothing yet pedantic woman begins to tell the story of the Ming Dynasty and the history of the main gate…
It’s pretty straight forward…at first. Test book history, letter-perfect. Then, suddenly, you kind of feel it more than hear it- but you hear it too: communism. The voice starts whispering sweet commie nothings in my ear. I actually pulled the device off of my head at one point and looked at it, just to make sure I wasn’t going to leave the Forbidden City as red as the walls all around me, brainwashed by some awesome new Chinese technology.
I can’t remember her exact words…I wish I had written them down, because, as I had been warned by the staff, there were no repeat performances. if you return to an area you’ve already visited the recording would not repeat.
But, I’ll try to para-phrase:
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the ceremonial center of corrupt imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China…built by the people of China for an imperial system that relegated them to relative slavery…until the coming of our great father Mao. Set into the ceiling directly above the throne is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon, from the mouth of which issues a chandelier-like set of metal balls. The artisans who did this intricate work, sacrificing their gifts to serve the decadent imperialist were later executed just so the imperial design can remain unique. The original hall was built by the Ming Dynasty in 1406 and was destroyed seven times by fires…torched by the will of the people foreboding of the day when the People’s Republic would come to purge the land of the immoral imperialist filth of the Ming and Qing Dynasties…
Damn. Graceful propaganda is difficult to write. She was damn eloquent though, that voice in my head.
Anyway, this went on for the entire 2 hours I was there until everything that was going on around me began to make a kind of sordid sense. What I had noticed was the difference between the way the imperialistic past is treated in China and how it’s treated in Japan. Though both are regarded by modern Japanese and Chinese as less than benevolent, there’s a significant difference in the way the monuments and structures associated with these empires are treated and revered by the people.
Take Kyoto, for instance. Kyoto is treated like a virtually holy city. In the Forbidden City, there was a clear and absolute absence of reverence for the place and the people who used to reside there. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I saw someone spelling their name on the walls in urine. In fact, I think I smelled urine in a couple of tunnels. I mean, trash was strewn everywhere, people squatted and had lunch in areas I imagined were sacred back in the glory days. There’s a marble path straight down the middle of the Forbidden City that was used only by the emperor, and, to my surprise it was closed off to the public by a thin wire barrier. But you better believe parents sent their children over the wire to pose on the engraved marble path. It’s as if the new China is laughing at the foolishness of the Chinese in the pass, believing in a Son of Heaven and all that other nonsense.
I get the feeling this is the communist influence on the culture, that they have thrown all that heritage out in favor of the current movement. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. It just feels wrong…Like if I saw someone pissing on Thomas Jefferson’s face on Mt. Rushmore. Sure, he was a slave owner and a rapist and has compared black people to primates in his writings, but he was also one of the chief architects responsible for the formation of the country that I have recently come to love.
There are many things no matter how many books I read about China or how many time I visit China I will probably never understand.
Then, just when I was about to give up on the Forbidden City, write it off as a disappointment, I found myself upon a terrace with this view:
I still don’t get them, of course. But at least I didn’t walk away feeling let down at all. The only other time I’ve felt so awe-struck by a vista is at the Grand Canyon, only this was Man-Made…ok, ok, slave made.
But, hell, so were the pyramids in Egypt, and The White House for that matter.
…to be continued