MATHEWS KABAMBA, Beijing, China
ON A frigid morning in the Chinese capital, Beijing, I joined hundreds of people across a footbridge leading to the entrance of the Forbidden City, formally known as Palace Museum.
I was part of a group of 22 Zambian journalists attending a media seminar in China.
And part of our training was to learn about China’s culture and history, and what better place to begin than ancient China’s seat of political power – the Forbidden City.
Our tour guide was a bubbly Chinese lady called Gao Jie, who preferred to be called by her pen name, Roberta.
All the tour guides I came across have adopted English names, obviously because many foreigners find Chinese names difficult to pronounce.
The Forbidden City is named so because in ancient China, it was where the emperor lived and no commoner was allowed inside, save for the people who worked there.
Among the many workers were eunuchs, emasculated men, who served the emperor. Obviously the idea of having eunuchs was to avoid any adulteration of the blood lineage.
This was during the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1368 and 1911. The last emperor to have lived here was Puyi and he was driven out in 1924.
The Forbidden City is a large palace which was constructed between 1407 and 1420, and it is documented that close to one million labourers worked round the clock to complete this masterpiece.
The Forbidden City sits on 172,000 square metres of land and boasts of being the world’s largest palace.
It has more than 90 palace quarters and courtyards, with 980 buildings and over 9,000 rooms that are symmetrically distributed from north to south.
Apart from its rich history, the Forbidden City is also an architectural marvel, with elaborate paintings and sculptures embedded in its masonry.
About 10 years ago, to prepare for the Beijing Olympics, 18kg of gold was used to redecorate the gates to the palace and restore its beauty.
Now somewhat frozen in time, the Forbidden City is one of Beijing’s top tourist destinations with over 80,000 visitors – mostly the Chinese people themselves – walking through its gates every day.
Last year, about 16 million people visited the Forbidden City, making it the world’s most visited museum.
Located right in the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City stands north of the Tiananmen Square, which bears China’s contemporary political history.
And then there is the People’s Hall, where the Communist Party of China meets.
On the other side of the Square is a massive mausoleum of Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Chairman Mao may be long dead, but he is still a looming figure in China, and among these symbolisms of statehood, he has a special place.
He peers down on the multitudes of people in the square from a large portrait at the entrance of the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City has four gates: the Meridian Gate, the Gate of Devine Might, the West Glorious Gate and the East Glorious.
“This gate was only for the emperor and the empress. The concubines of the emperor were not allowed to use this gate,” explained Roberta as we pressed through one of the gates, shoulder to shoulder along with many other visitors.
“In ancient China, the emperor had many wives but only one first lady called the empress. The other wives were only allowed to use the back gate,” said Roberta.
Legend has it that the Meridian Gate was also the place where the emperor issued imperial proclamations and ceremonial practices at the beginning of a new season.
At the Meridian Gate, there are five concaved doors decorated with studs painted in gold.
The studs are thought to possess magical powers for good luck, and many of the visitors could be seen touching them.
I could not resist touching them myself.
Like many places in China, the colour red is prominent at the Forbidden City, as the Chinese people believe it chases away bad spirits.
The Forbidden City has three courts – there is the Outer, Inner and the far Eastern Route.
After passing through the Meridian gate, we walked into the Outer Court, which comprises three halls – the Hall of Supreme, Complete and Preserving Harmony.
It was in the Hall of Complete Harmony that the emperor entertained his in-laws and relatives of his concubines on special occasions.
The Outer Court is complete with two side halls – the Hall of Literacy and the Hall of Martial Valour.
Like most ancient buildings in China, there are many figurines depicting animals such as lions and dragons within the palace grounds, and forming roof ridges of the halls.
The Outer Court, which is somewhere in the middle, has no trees, and there is an explanation to it.
One day, centuries ago, a man is said to have entered the Forbidden City with a plan to kill the emperor.
He hid behind one of the trees that stood within the court, but was seen and killed by the soldiers before he could execute his mission.
From then on, no trees were allowed to grow in the court.
After the Outer Court, there is the Inner Court which was the residential area for the emperor and his family.
The supreme ruler also handled office work from the Inner Court.
“This is the emperor’s living area – it is [was] the most secret place to Chinese people,” Roberta said, pointing at the Hall of Heavenly Purity.
The emperor lived a secretive life such that the Hall of Heavenly Purity had 27 identical bedrooms, when he went to sleep, no one knew in which chamber he was sleeping.
In the west wing of the Inner Court is the Palace of Tranquil Longevity which was the dwelling of the empress, it was also used as a bridal chamber during the Qing Dynasty.
Walking on the paved ground of the city, one gets the sense of what life might have been like within these high walls, and within the many quarters in the palace grounds.
The Forbidden City bears the tell-tale signs of debauchery and lavish lifestyles of some of the men that occupied it.
For instance, one of the rulers is reputed to have had a harem of 40 concubines.
On a night he wanted to sleep with one of his concubines, there was a board of ministers in charge of picking one for him.
But the Forbidden City also reveals the ingenuity of the Chinese people from ancient times to date.
And as I walked out of the Forbidden City at the other end, I could not help but appreciate China’s civilisation and evolution that has transformed Beijing from a forbidden city into a vast modern city that is open to the outside world.