The word ‘forbidden’ came to mind three times to me on our last day in China.
The first time was when we entered one of the world’s largest squares, Tianamen, which translates as ‘gate of heavenly peace’. The events which happened in and around this square in 1989 were not directly mentioned but their evidence exists in the security presence and the fire extinguishers which are there in case anyone commits self-immolation.
The buildings surrounding the square – the national museum on the east, the great hall of the people on the west, the monument to the people’s heroes in the centre of the square, the CPR founder’s mausoleum, the portrait of Mao on the gate itself and the heroic statues of the people’s struggle – all bore witness to China’s ambiguous history, continually re-written and reassessed.
The second ‘forbidden’ was the city itself: a huge palace complex with almost a thousand separate pavilions, temples, shrines and pagodas. It was forbidden because one could only enter or leave it under the emperor’s orders. For five hundred years this was the political and ritual centre of the Chinese empire and the heart of the Dragon throne.
We entered via the gate of divine might and crossed through courtyards and more gates and visited more pavilions until we were quite exhausted.
I loved the names given to the various buildings: the gate of supreme harmony, the palace of heavenly purity, the hall of mental cultivation and last but not least the palace of tranquil longevity.
The palace complex is a square kilometer in area and dates back to the fifteenth century and the emperor Zhu Di. It also happens to be the largest assemblage of wooden buildings in the world.
The third ‘forbidden’ was my unsurprising association of this city with that of Puccini’s last opera ‘Turandot’ which was first performed in the palace in 1998, directed by Zhang Yimou. (There is a sensational video of it on YouTube).
The vastness of the spaces and the setting sun reflected in the imperial yellow of the roof tiles created a last and lasting impression of this all too puzzling but ever fascinating country.
There are more Chinese than English speakers in the world today. The Chinese economy was very strong in the eighteenth century before a hundred years of shameful colonial invasions and the more recent political turmoil.
China is once more the political and economic power it once was, and more. Changing and growing so fast it has the most extraordinary contrasts, summed up perhaps in that image of a blind musician set against the forbidden city’s sunset reflected in the moat surrounding it and the vista of new transport links and gleamingly tall buildings in the background.
Finally we should thank our brilliant guide, known to us under his western name of Allan, who enabled our group of thirty eight to fully enjoy and appreciate our unforgettable journey through the wonders of China: