You are allowed to enter the Forbidden City, via the Royal Ontario Museum - The Buffalo News
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You are allowed to enter the Forbidden City, via the Royal Ontario Museum

Say instead of the Forbidden City, it was called the Magnificent City, or some other superlative. I doubt I would be so intrigued to travel 100 miles north, on a marvelous summer afternoon, and spend three and a half hours sifting through Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum’s fascinating “Forbidden City: Inside The Court of China’s Emperors.”

But meld together a couple of mysterious, reclusive dynasties (Ming and Qing), build for them a complex fortified by 10-meter-high walls, surrounded by a 52-meter-wide moat, and keep out all but the king and his courtiers, and you’ve got some insight into why while it was home to China’s emperors, to their subjects it became known as the Forbidden City. And if you’re the museum, you’ve got a major draw on your hands, as evidenced by the throng about me examining the spoils of an empire.

Construction began in the early 1400s under Emperor Yongle, taking 14 years to complete. It served as the power seat for 24 Chinese emperors, from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Its 980 buildings, 8,700 rooms and 90 architectural complexes made it the planet’s largest palatial complex. Yet “the name Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng) only appeared in 1576,” writes Geremie R. Barme, author of the Forbidden City, “more than 150 years after Yongle’s death,” becoming so named apparently, because no one could enter or leave the palace complex without an emperor’s permission.

As there are contradictions through much of life, so there appears to have been within the Forbidden City’s walls, as the exhibit takes me to observe items found in numerous Forbidden City halls, palaces, and studios, all given superlative names, slightly out of character for a compound called the Forbidden City, home to rulers who presided over China with monarchical authority. The grandest was the Hall of Supreme Harmony where lavish ceremonial functions like the emperor’s birthday, weddings and celebrations for the spring festival and winter solstice took place. To enter, one passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

There was the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Palaces of Tranquil Longevity and Eternal Longevity. And for emperors who subscribed to Emperor Yongzheng’s admission that “Being ruler is tough,” there’s the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service.

Despite our inclination to bow to kings and queens, to glorify, if not deify the supposedly superior, the exhibit is alluring. And stepping inside the museum’s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall I’m greeted by an eerie, silent film. Set in predominantly gray, clouded skies, it’s a visually stunning panorama of the Forbidden City. A little foreboding perhaps, it sets the tone for what lies ahead.

I begin in an emperor’s Outer Court, an imperial throne is laid out. Comfort was not important here; majesty and power were. So the throne would have been set on high, rendering an intimidating aura to all in an emperor’s presence.

There is a painting of envoys presenting tribute to an emperor, a court painting showing the Forbidden City’s architecture and a scroll painting of an ice-skating game on a lake outside the Forbidden City, which was entertainment for royal families, and also a form of military training

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is where celebrations and formal functions took place, accompanied by Court Music. Bells were a major component of court orchestras, and a set ordered by Qianlong is here. When struck by a mallet,they produced 12 full pitches and four half pitches. At each end of the massive ensemble are more auspicious symbols in the form of dragons, meant to hover in the clouds, serving as a reminder that the emperor is the Son of Heaven.

Opposite the bells is a chime set carved out of jade stone, with chiming being customary for an emperor’s arrival and departure. As a musical backdrop to the Court Music instruments, I listen to Beating the Drum, music from a traditional Chinese orchestra played on authentic instruments.

Before taking the throne, Yongzheng was known as Prince Yinzhen. While prince he commissioned the Twelve Beauties, life-size paintings of beautiful women, to form a screen around a couch in his private study, and three beauties are here. It’s not known whether these were Yinzhen’s concubines, but there was no doubt about a woman’s place in the Qing dynasty, as a chart here makes clear, showing rankings from empress, to consorts, to concubines, to ladies in waiting.

The Imperial Household Department was the engine that kept the Forbidden City’s bureaucracy running. It managed all palace affairs, handled food and supplies for the imperial family, and even independently operated factories and trade companies as sources of revenue. At one time an estimated 70,000 eunuchs were under its employ, performing myriad tasks including cooking, gardening, guarding women’s apartments and carrying banners. For the analytically oriented, a chart breaks down the departments within the department.

Of course, every empire comes to an end. With a video as stark as the one I encountered entering the hall, the exhibit concludes telling the last emperor’s tale. Named Puyi, he was enthroned at age 3 by decree of Empress Dowager Cixi three days before her death, a woman who for five decades essentially ruled China behind the scenes. Four years later, with the empire crumbling, and a fledgling republic attempting to gain hold of governing, Puyi was forced to abdicate. But for the next 12 years, under an agreement with the new government, he was allowed to be a palace prisoner, and carries on, a shadow ruler over an empire that no longer exists, until Nov. 5, 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave the Forbidden City.

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