The Family and I visited the Forbidden City on a hot day of May last year. We’d not really anticipated how hot Beijing can get, and this day was a special scorcher. We passed the three main audience halls in the central courtyard and turned into the section called the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, looking for the famous nine-dragon screen in front of the quarters of the famous Qianlong emperor. The sun was almost directly overhead. We had run out of water to drink. After admiring the dragons, we started looking for one of the food stalls inside the palace grounds. As a result, we did not pay too much attention to this guardian lion in front of the Qianlong emperor’s palace.
I was drawn back to my photo of this Tongshi, as bronze guardian lions are called in Mandarin, by an interesting article which connects it with Platonic solids, the design of footballs, and certain chemicals called buckyballs or fullerenes. A football is made by stitching together panels which are either pentagons or hexagons. Regular solids of this kind are called buckyballs. In the picture of one hemisphere of a football you see 6 pentagons. Since a football is symmetric, the half that you can’t see will have another 6 pentagons. It seems that mathematicians can prove that there must be exactly 12 pentagons on any structure that looks like a buckyball: and that the standard issue football is one such. The football, these new molecules, and Platonic solids like the dodecahedron are all tied together by these 12 pentagons. From the article I learnt that the shape of the modern football was anticipated in the year 300 CE by a man names Pappus who lived in Alexandria. This figure was later discussed in a book published in 1509. The book was written by Luca Paccioli and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. In China such solids were first discussed much later, probably for the first time by Wending Mei in 1692.
The lion was made during the Qianlong emperor’s reign, so sometime between the years 1740 CE and 1800 CE. However, when you look carefully at the details, in the featured photo, of the ball held by the lion, you notice that it is not a buckyball. I can see only one pentagon. The article has photos of the bottom of the ball, and counts a few more, but nowhere like the 12 needed to make a buckyball. So it seems that the artist who made this deformed the shape of the ball quite significantly but could not dispense with pentagons. Still I like the fact that this shape brings together Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Qianlong emperor.
Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).
The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.
The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.
Hybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.
Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.
Emperors generally stored a large part of their wealth in the form of jewels. After visiting many museums in China I began to have the impression that in this country it was always in the form of jade. Chinese jade is delicately carved: the soft version is carved into intricate forms, but even the hard version is shaped and embossed. There is an enormous lore around jade: wearing it wards off evil spirits, it changes colour according to your mental state, and so on. It was a pleasant surprise to then see the jewels of the emperors on display in the Forbidden City. China also had a little of almost everything else: flaming red coral, silver, gold, and pearls. The wonderful piece above incorporates both gold and pearls. The only mineral that they did not seem to have were diamonds.
We walked into a part of the Forbidden City called the Qianlong Garden. A plaque at the entrance told us that this section was built for the use of the Qianlong Emperor after he abdicated. Not being terribly familiar with Chinese imperial history, I had to look this up after getting back to the hotel. It turns out that Qianlong Emperor abdicated in favour of his son after ruling for many years. This was a political move, a show of filial devotion, so that his rule did not exceed that of his grandfather. We read that in actual fact he continued to control the politics of the empire.
From our earlier visit to the Shanghai Museum we knew that the Qianlong Emperor’s time was one where the arts were encouraged and flourished. We entered this section of the palace fully hoping to see wonderful gardens and artifacts. We were not disappointed. Right at the entrance was a wonderful rockery, marred only by large signs asking people not to climb it. Further inside was a gallery lined with panels of beautifully carved deodar wood (see photo above).
Next to it was this gallery where the not-emperor-in-name would sit with ministers and generals. The channels on the floor (see the photo here) simulated a flowing river down which the company would sail cups of wine for each other. while composing drunken poems. One wonders what matters of state were decided during these parties.
From what I read, the Manchu Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) essentially constructed the modern Chinese nation by conquering a huge territory. He is also said to be responsible for genocide in some parts of his empire. He put the Dalai Lama in power in Tibet, subjugated Xinjiang, Uighurs, Kazhaks. Mongols and Gurkhas. He was unsuccessful in conquering Burma or Vietnam. In his later days, presumably when he spent his time partying, he became dependent on several extremely corrupt officials. This, and his earlier wars depleted the imperial treasury.
Maybe part of this depletion was also due to the fact that he was such a staunch patron of the arts. Museums are full of the creation of this time. The Qianlong Garden holds elegant marvels such as this deer. Apparently a large part of the jade on display in the Forbidden City was collected by him.
He commissioned a catalogue of all important works of Chinese literature. It is claimed that this compilation was a means of destroying or censoring work which objected to Manchu rule over China, or was otherwise critical of the Emperor. It is said that books which were published during the Ming dynasty have suffered especially major changes or destruction.
It is hard to do much research when you are travelling, so I cannot say whether all this information is one-sided. However, if all this were true, then the Qianlong Emperor would be an appropriate symbol of the interesting mixture which makes up China even today.
Once upon a time anyone who wandered into the Forbidden City was assumed to be an assassin, and would be captured and executed without trial. Those days are gone. Around a hundred thousand people visit it daily. In a month the government plans to restrict the number of visitors to eighty thousand a day. However, the palace complex is not yet very people friendly: the number of chairs rather limited. Facing the northern (Shenwumen) gate is a long line of chairs, all full of extremely tired people who have just walked through the imperial acreage on a scorching hot day. They present a cross section of Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo (literally: Chinese People’s Republic).
Somewhere between the Yuhua garden and the Shenwumen (northern) gate of the Forbidden City we saw several elephants kowtowing. This posture is impossible for elephants, since their forelegs bend the other way at the knees. So this statue (and its partners) show that the sculptors had not actually seen elephants. They had seen people kowtowing, and just transformed the human posture to an elephant’s. So you can learn how to kowtow from these statues.
Whenever I think I cannot be surprised any more by the Chinese habit of taking selfies all the time, in any situation whatever, something happens to jolt me out of this. Inside the forbidden city I saw this selfie being taken with a camera and a tripod. Come on guys: a selfie is a mobile phone thing. The auto function on cameras was meant to give you time to join a group photo. A selfie with a camera is really pushing the boundary.
We walked through the Forbidden City and came across some renovation going on. A whole wall was being plastered with the lovely red colour that this palace is famous for. The wall was built in fired brick and the worker applied coats of plaster swiftly and efficiently. The work was clearly of high quality, and when finished, would be hard to distinguish from the other walls we saw.
The Family and I had already discussed the question of authenticity before. How does China have so many well-preserved monuments, when India finds it hard to preserve the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal? Part of the answer is a different notion of authenticity. In China authenticity seems to be a fluid notion. The Forbidden City periodically falls into ruins and is rebuilt, but still said to be the same. Buddha’s statues in temples, even the temples themselves, are often rebuilt, but said to be a thousand years old. Some things are recreated from ancient descriptions and then said to be the same as the original.
One can think of degrees of change. Is the material used the same as before? Some castles in Germany have been reconstructed in this fashion after the war. Do we see them as authentic? The temples of Abu Simbel were moved when the Aswan high dam was constructed. Do they remain authentic? The prehistoric wall paintings of Lascaux have been recreated for tourists in Lascaux II, so that the originals remain undamaged. How authentic is the feel of walking through this cave? The Taj Mahal was recreated by Donald Trump in Atlantic City. How authentic is that?
One may say that authenticity resides in the social function of a monument. Then Abu Simbel cannot be authentic, since it has been recreated and the social system which gave it symbolic meaning has disappeared. The Forbidden City is certainly no longer forbidden. So is it just a disneyland? The Great Wall of China was rebuilt many times during its 2000 year history, but it has no function now except as an anchor for vendors of selfie sticks. Are the modern renovations then more inauthentic than the sections which are crumbling away into ruin?
One may say that historical authenticity resides in the material. Is Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, with its stone-by-authentic-stone reconstruction of the Ishtar gate, more authentically Babylon than the vandalized spot in the walls of Babylon from where it was taken? Does a tribal house transported from the rain forests of the Amazon into a museum in the frigid north of Europe retain its authenticity?
I have no answer. But I suspect that either the material or the function must remain. The Forbidden City feels like the Louvre: a museum within a disneyland. The Great Wall has a more authentic feel.
During the 800 years when the Forbidden City was at the center of the power structure of China, the emperor met his subjects seated on the Dragon throne inside the Hall of Great Harmony. These subjects were all high noblemen. But the stories which percolated out to the commoner must have been of this Dragon throne. From the crush of people trying to photographs the throne, you can guess that stories about this still form part of the background history of China among the Chinese.
The word Harmony (he in Mandarin) seemed to play a role in the politics of that time similar to what the word People (renmin in Mandarin) plays now.