Sun, 21 May 2000

Forbidden City now gives up its secrets readily

BEIJING (JP): It's called the Forbidden City, but any visitor is welcome. In fact, the more people who come to this place, the happier the "owner" is.

The Forbidden City, or the Imperial Palace, was home to emperors of the Ming and Ching (Qing) dynasties from 1420 to 1911. Now it is open as the Palace Museum and has become a must- see tourist destination in the country.

The glory of the past is felt even before one enters the 720,000-square-meter rectangular "city". The high, sturdy wall shows how small mere mortals are in comparison. It is called the Meridian Gate and it was erected on the central axis of the city of Beijing. It is the largest gate of the palace and has five openings, with the central opening used by the emperor.

Historians say it took 14 years and hundreds of thousands of artisans to construct the palace.

The palace was called the Forbidden City because it was off- limits to commoners. It was strictly for the emperor, his family and courtiers, leading to the inevitable question about how big was the imperial family.

"It is said that the emperor had 3,000 concubines," our tour guide said.

She might have been exaggerating, but the emperor did have many concubines, evidenced by their abundant rooms.

The palace consists of the Outer and Inner courts. There are three main halls in the Outer court: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Inner court has three main halls: the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. A garden is located in the northern part of the palace.

The Ching dynasty seceded power to the republican government following the 1911 revolution. In 1925 the government turned the palace into a museum.

The imperial era has long gone, but it left invaluable heritage not found anywhere else in the world. Besides the Forbidden City, there are at least two important legacies of the Great Wall and the terracotta army in Xian.

Great Wall

China is most often identified with its Great Wall, which is understandable considering the brilliance of the construction. The 6,400-kilometer-long wall is the longest structure ever built.

It was built from stone and brick entirely by hand. No one is sure when exactly the construction began, but it is estimated the project started as early as 300 BC, under the Qin dynasty, and continued from time to time until AD 1600 under the Ming dynasty.

The wall was built to keep out invaders. The width varies from 4.6 meters to 12.2 meters at the base and from 3.7 meters to 10.7 meters at the top. Its height ranges from six meters to 15 meters.

Many parts of the wall have collapsed and today there are five sections designated as tourist sites. One of them is the Jungyu pass, located on a hill a one-hour drive from Beijing.

"You are not a real man if you don't climb up," reads an old inscription on a tablet.

The section of the wall is not very long -- it may be less than 200 meters -- but it is quite steep and not every visitor is fit enough to climb up to the watchtower.

First emperor

A more recent discovery was the terracotta army in Xian, the capital of Shanxi province, which is a two-hour flight from Beijing.

In the spring of 1974 some farmers found broken terracotta figures and ancient bronze weapons when they were digging a well 1.5 kilometers long in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China (259-210 BC).

No history book mentions it, but the find led to the discovery of another piece of human history.

Within two years, three burial pits were found. They covered a total of 20,000 square meters with more than 7,300 life-size terracotta warriors and horses, and hundreds of chariots.

"It should be listed as the eighth wonder of the world," said our guide firmly.

Qin Shihuang, as was the custom in his day, was superstitious and wanted his body to be treated like a living entity after his death. He built a giant mausoleum for himself that looked like a hill. Historians believe that originally it soared 115 meters above ground, and today it is still 70 meters high. The terracotta army was built to guard his mausoleum. Although many of the terracotta figures look alike, they are not exactly the same.

Many of the warriors are in battle formation. There are standing and kneeling archers, charioteers and cavalry members. Their ranks are discernible by their outfits. Other warriors face each other in the formation of a guard of honor.

The excavation remains under way.

"It is estimated that the whole project will take about 100 years," said Huang Yong, an official of the local foreign affairs ministry. The work is carefully done by hand brushing and mostly takes place at night in order not to disturb visitors.