Friday, April 30, 2010

The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square and Hutong

Hiring the private guide for today's touring was absolutely the best way to go. The guide filled us in on so much history and many facts. Without the guide we would have just been looking at places without understanding their significance, except for the few facts listed in the guide books. Today was a bit expensive but still the best way to see the things we wanted to see. The private English-speaking guide was 400 RMB, 180 RMB for transportation and various admission tickets, 136 RMB for lunch, and 440 RMB for entry and touring of the Hutong area, plus 100 RMB tip to the guide. That totals about $190 USD, which is a tad expensive for one day for tourists in China. We could have done all this on our own and saved about one-half the cost, but wouldn't have gotten nearly as much from the experience.

Our guide's name was William. We left the hotel at 0800 and tried to hail a taxi on the nearest main street. That wasn't working out so well, so I suggested we take the subway. We wanted to scope out how the Beijing subway works anyway, and what better time to do this than when a local person could show us. It was a longer hike to the subway station than we had thought …..and the subway was far more crowded than one could imagine. Just like in Shanghai, all bags are screened upon entry to the subway. William bought our tickets to get to Tienanmen Square, and we packed into the first subway car like sardines. Made one interchange and packed like sardines into the second subway car. You could get claustrophobic in the Beijing subway because people are packed so tightly together. No way one could ride this subway wearing backpacks or having even the smallest luggage… least not during morning rush hour. I snapped this photo just as we were boarding. At least a dozen more people crammed their way into this car after I took the photo.

Tienanmen Square was exactly as I expected it to be. At the south end of the huge square is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao. There were several thousand people standing in line to enter the mausoleum. We did not even try because neither bags nor cameras are allowed inside, and I had both. In front of Mao's mausoleum was a tall monument to the Heroes of the People, which means everyone who died during the revolutionary movement between 1898 through 1949.

In front of the monument to the Heroes there were 2 very wide daylight-viewable video screens, separated by a large portrait of Sun Yat-Sen, the guy who led the revolution in 1911 that toppled the Qing Dynasty and ended emperors forever in China. Sun Yat-Sen is called "The Father of the Revolution" in China. A good source of information about this period of Chinese history is We were most impressed with the quality of this video screen on this bright sunny day. These 2 screens each were about 300 feet long.

On the west side of Tienanmen Square stands the enormous Hall of the People. On the second floor of this hall is a banquet hall that seats 5,000 people. A banquet of just such size was held in this room when Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972.

On the east side of the square is the National Museum. One could spend weeks in this museum. One day doesn't give you enough time to even walk briskly through the building and cover all the floors, much less take time to appreciate any of the exhibits.

On the north side of the square, across a wide busy street with underground walkway, stands The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is the first structure you pass through on your way into The Forbidden City. The gate is not what we would call a gate. It looks like a regular building except it has 3 arched openings going through the very thick main wall. The emperor was the only person allowed to walk through the center opening. Even kings from other countries were not allowed this privilege; they had to walk through one of the 2 outer entries on either side. (I usually have a very good sense of direction....that is why Bill wants me to navigate the boat most of the time and why he relies on me to get us around in strange new area and cities.....but I had utmost difficulty with north and south the entire time we were in Beijing. Everything seemed opposite of what it really was. On cloudy days with no sun visible I was repeatedly getting north wrong.) There is a large courtyard inside The Gate of Heavenly Peace before you reach the actual entrance to The Forbidden City. The entrance to The Forbidden City has rectangular openings which one walks through; again, the center opening was reserved strictly for the emperor.

The Forbidden City was built in 1420. It contains 9,999 rooms. Nine is the lucky number and was reserved strictly for the emperor. Having 9,999 rooms ensured good luck and fortune for the emperor. Almost immediately after construction of The Forbidden City was completed, it was destroyed by fire supposedly caused by lightning. The emperor ordered that the city be rebuilt. The Forbidden City covers more than 720,000 square meters. This is another place that can take days to see everything, so we had to choose which areas to explore on our one day here. (Note: I took over 130 photos inside The Forbidden City and it was difficult to decide which photos to post on this site. Will try to add more photos to our Picassa albums.)

The first wall is really not a wall of The Forbidden City, but it sure looks like it is. Outside this wall are several tall white marble land posts dating back more than 1,000 years. There are several entrances through the wall. The middle entrance was reserved strictly for the emperor. In this middle entranceway lies the first meridian established for measurements of longitude. (If you look closely at the ground in the photo on the right, you can see this meridian marking in the stone. This meridian is marked as one progresses through The Forbidden City, oftentimes with elaborate stone carvings.)

The Chinese established the prime meridian to lie precisely in the center of The Forbidden City in Beijing. This was at least 500 years before the British established the prime meridian in Greenwich, England that is used today. As the Chinese fleets sailed around the world, they measured longitudes east and west from Beijing. There have been books written explaining how the Chinese could ascertain longitudes correctly centuries before the Europeans mastered this process. The only people who would care about this are probably sailors. The Beijing prime meridian is marked by a stone walkway through the center of The Forbidden City and only the emperor was allowed to walk on it. Immediate death was the penalty for anyone else who dared to step onto the stones marking the meridian.

At various parts of The Forbidden City this walkway has elaborate stone carvings. One such carving at the rear of the city is 1.7 meters thick and about 20 meters long and about 3.5 meters wide. This particular piece of stone was quarried 70 kilometers south of Beijing. It took 10,000 men and 1,000 horses a full year to transport the solid piece of stone to The Forbidden City.

In the city where the meridian line passed through there was a throne for the emperor inside each building. Each throne was situated precisely on the meridian line. Each building served a different purpose. One large building was used only for the emperor to change clothes before important ceremonies.

We had no sooner entered the main entrance before a bunch of soldiers and police started forcing people to move back and they erected a silk cord barricade to cordon off the middle of the entrance area. Soon limousines arrived and many people got out of the cars. They appeared to be officials of some kind, who knows from where. One man was wearing a gray-tan uniform with lots of gold trimming and looked like someone out of the French Foreign Legion. Everyone else was wearing a normal business suit. Our guide asked one of the policemen who these people were and learned they were foreign dignitaries or a foreign delegation. We never learned what countries they were from. They headed off through the center of The Forbidden City. We noticed the limos moving away and deduced that the dignitaries would be exiting elsewhere and figured the area would be reopened to the public as soon as they had moved on. We weren't on a schedule, so we just waited until they left before continuing our tour of the city. A little excitement to make our visit even more memorable.

I am very glad we did not make this trip 5 years ago. Much of The Forbidden City was refurbished prior to the Olympics being held in Beijing in summer 2008. It was really cool to see the refurbished sections compared to the areas that were last refurbished in 1760. Heck, even the parts last touched in 1760 still looked pretty darn good.

In several areas of the city there were triple level courtyards made from white marble. These had over a thousand dragon heads sticking out from the walls. When it rains, the water flows to the courtyards and pours from the mouths of the dragon heads. This is one place that would be neat to visit during a heavy rain.

Off to the right was another area of the city that requires a separate admittance ticket. On one wall were 9 dragons made from tubular tiles. The emperor who ordered these dragons built had declared that the work must be completed by a specific date or the craftsmen would be beheaded. The craftsmen realized they would not be able to finish on schedule, so they decided to make one of the dragons from heavily painted wood carvings. When the emperor inspected the wall, he was pleased with the results. The wall passed his inspection and he did not know that one of the dragons was made from painted wood instead of from tubular glazed tiles. The craftsmen kept their heads. The wooden carving is the third one from the left side.

Next were buildings of treasures. Various things made from gold and precious gems and pearls and jade. There were too many things for me to remember them all. After all, these were emperors and had wealth beyond our wildest imaginations. There are a few things that stand out in my memory. There were some huge pearls.....certainly the largest pearls I have ever seen. They were larger than grape tomatoes. Also, the emperors had 25 seals. Each very large seal was made from different precious metals and jades. These seals were used with ink to stamp official documents. There were 25 seals because of the special numbers. Certain odd numbers hold special significance to the Chinese. The Harmony Number Code is 1+3+5+7+9=25.

Another place of special interest was the Dowager Empress' theater. The empress loved Beijing theater so much that in 1766 she had a theater built inside The Forbidden City. This theater had trap doors to allow characters to rise up from the floor; and trap doors in the ceilings to allow actors to drop down or float down on supporting ropes. There were water wells used for special effects, and there were empty wells used for sound effects. In another nearby building we found a cut-away miniature replica of the theater that illustrated many of the special construction methods to allow the actors to do the special effects. It was very clever for the times.

Beyond the theater were some residential buildings; looked very similar to the emperor's formal buildings except at a lower level. One building was for concubines and behind it was a well covered by a stone. The Concubine Zhen, concubine of Emperor Guangxu, who supported the emperor's views on constitutional reform and modernization had lived in this building. The Empress Dowager Cixi (the Dragon Lady) ordered Concubine Zhen thrown down this well and drowned when the Allied Eight Powers attacked in 1900.

The last thing I will mention at The Forbidden City is the sundial. This is the first time either of us had seen a real sundial. It is made from white marble and had graduations on both sides. The gnomons are made of iron. The dial is mounted on a base that is positioned parallel with the equator. The dial is tilted with the gnomons pointing to the north and south poles, respectively. One uses front of the dial for telling time during the winter months and the reverse side of the dial for telling time during the summer months. Our photo was taken at 11:55 a.m., and you can tell that this sundial still reflects accurate time.

After The Forbidden City we grabbed a taxi and visited the Hutong. Frankly, we had never heard of Hutong until we started reading about things to see in Beijing. The word hutong literally means alley; but the Hutong actually came from the word meaning water, which sounds very similar to the word meaning alley. Guess you could expect mix-ups like that when a language is tonal and the same sound pronounced 1 of 4 different ways means 4 entirely different things. About 700 years ago Mongols moved into a particular area of Beijing. The emperors allowed them to dig water wells and to live around those wells; hence, the word hutong meaning water. These settlements of Mongols soon became known as Hutong villages and were located in what is central Beijing today. During relatively recent years as Beijing grew, most of the Hutong were torn down in the name of 'progress.' Today there is only one Hutong remaining and it is not too far from The Forbidden City.

The people who live in the remaining Hutong are a very close-knit group. They tend to remain in the Hutong area all their lives if possible. So your childhood friend most likely will remain your lifelong friend. But the Hutong community is slowed being diluted for economic reasons. Because the Hutong is so centrally located in a city of estimated 30 million population, it is an attractive place for the wealthy people to live. The homes are tiny and streets are not much more than alleyways, but it is still such a geographically desirable location that the wealthy are crowding out the traditional inhabitants. Today there is a mix of younger wealthy residents and the older families who refuse to move out regardless of the money offered.

Our local Hutong guide was a girl named Eleven. Yeah, pronounced just like the number. Eleven loaded us into bicycle rickshaws and gave us a tour through her neighborhood. She talked very fast and had a great sense of humor. Eleven explained how the end cross-sections of exposed beams over doorways indicated the status of the family living inside. In The Forbidden City there were always 12 exposed beam ends over doorways. Only the emperors were allowed to have 12 beams. The number of beams decreased as the occupants' status decreased. In the Hutong the highest ranking person could have 4 beams. The lowest ranking person would have no beams. Eleven said she was a no beam girl.

The doorways with the higher number of beams would also have the highest threshold. In The Forbidden City the thresholds were well more than a foot high. One would have to raise the foot very high to step over the threshold, causing the knee to bend about 90 degrees. This was symbolic of kneeling to the occupant of the household. One would never step on a threshold; one always steps over a threshold. The threshold of a 4-beam house in the Hutong would be less than a foot high, but still high enough to cause the knee to distinctly bend. A 3-beam house would have a lower threshold and a no-beam house might have no threshold at all or one only a few inches high. The height of the threshold also serves another purpose – to hold good luck inside the home. Luck might pour out of a house like water. A threshold would hold the water (luck) inside the house. The higher the threshold, the more water (luck) that would be held inside the house. So, even most no-beam houses have at least some height threshold.

Doors in the Hutong also have a few more distinctive characteristics. All 4-beam houses, 3-beam houses and most 2-beam houses also have door pillows. Door pillows are made from marble or carved stone. There are always 2 door pillows, 1 on either side of the door, placed on the outside of the threshold. Door pillows were normally about 18-inches tall. The shape of the door pillows indicated the occupation of the house occupant. Books are basically square, so square door pillows would mean the occupant was a scholar or an official dealing with paperwork. Round shaped door pillows indicated military.

Inside the exterior door there would be a screen or wall. One would enter the actual house by going to the right or left of the wall or screen. The reasoning for the placement of this screen or wall was to keep out evil spirits. The old Chinese believed that evil spirits could only go straight. So if an evil spirit came straight through the exterior doorway, the spirit still would not be able to enter the house because it could not negotiate the turns required to get around the screen or blocking wall.

While in the Hutong we were treated to a visit to a family's home. It turned out that our host is a well-known martial arts expert. He is older now and no longer performs Kung Fu, but he is a sought-after teacher. He had a most impressive display of ancient swords and various evil looking weapons on long poles. These weapons are no longer used in teaching Kung Fu. Today only a sword is used in the advanced Kung Fu classes. His eldest son was the number one Kung Fu expert in all of China a few years ago and is now living in Houston, Texas. The son teaches Kung Fu at a place on South Rice Avenue in Houston. What an incredibly small world!!! That was about 3 miles from where we lived in Houston before moving onto the boat. We will try to remember to look up his son when we next visit Houston.

Next we climbed 72 very steep high steps to the top of a drum tower. There were only a few drum towers built in Beijing during the times of the emperors. There were bells inside The Forbidden City that were rung at 05:00 each morning to awaken the peasants and let them know it was time to start working. Then, at 19:00 each evening the drums were beaten high inside the drum towers to let the people know it was the end of the workday and for them to go home. The general populace had no way of knowing what time it was. But inside the drum tower and also inside The Forbidden City there were water clocks. The water clock was invented by the Chinese in 80 B.C. (The Europeans did not develop an accurate method of keeping time until about 1700 years later.) There was a water clock replica in the top of the drum tower.

The drum ceremony is performed several times each day for the tourists. The ceremony lasts only about 5 minutes each time. I am glad I huffed and puffed all the way up those steep steps to see this ceremony. Those guys really know how to beat those drums. Today, all the drums used are copies; but there is one very dilapidated drum in the top of the tower that is 700 years old. The views of the city from the top of the drum tower were also worth the climb.

William wanted to take us to see a performance of Chinese acrobatics and to eat a traditional Beijing dinner, but we declined. This was enough sight-seeing for one day. We grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and William retrieved his bicycle to pedal an hour back home. We got the hotel desk clerk to call for pizza for us. No more walking today for us, not even to go down the street for a decent dinner.

Will add photos once we get outside the Great Firewall of China.

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