Is it wrong that much of my historical knowledge base comes from the Mel Brooks movie History of The World Part 1? I mean isn’t that where everyone learned about the French Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition? And who could forget Madeline Kahn singing her way through the testing for eunuchs.
I reference the movie often in my mind when I visit a museum, read anything about history or as in the case of this weekend, visit The Forbidden City in Beijing.
The Forbidden City is located in central Beijing. It was the Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Forbidden as in no commoners were allowed inside the walls and no one was allowed in without the Emperor’s permission.
Construction began in 1406 and took over 1 million workers 14 years to complete. The Emperor who oversaw the construction, must of thought very highly of himself as he demanded almost the impossible in every little detail.
We learned through our guide Crystal, that this Emperor, Zhu Di, believed he was the earthly counterpart to the Celestial Emperor and that he demanded the best of everything but never to out do the heavenly abode of the Celestial Emperor.
As an example, The heavenly palace is said to have 10,000 rooms, so Zhu Di had 9,999.5 rooms built within the walls of the Forbidden City. I couldn’t believe it as I was curious to the whereabouts of all these rooms. I tried not to roll my eyes when Crystal showed us what was considered a room.
She had us look up at the ceiling to see the designed squares. Each square represented a “room.” Really?
You might also recall from an early blog the symbolism of roof decorations. The number of statuettes or characters represents the status of a building. A minor building or a home outside the palace might have 3 to 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10 and was the only building in the country permitted to have that many.
The Emperor also owned the color yellow. All the roofs in the Forbidden City are made of yellow tiles. All other buildings and homes were forbidden to use Yellow, the color of the Emperor.
The design inspiration of The Forbidden City is heavily influenced by Feng Shui. Zhu Di wanted to include the five elements of metal, earth, fire, water and wood in the making of The Forbidden City. Metal and fire are present in the huge brass caldrons that are placed throughout the grounds to hold the water that the servants delivered. Fire was used under the caldrons to keep the water from freezing. Wood is used throughout in the buildings.
Earth was a little trickier to represent so The Emperor had a mountain built north of the city. It was built from the dirt pulled while forming the moats that surround the city.
Beijing is flat. There are no other “mountains” in the area but it was important to the Emperor and so it was built. According to Feng Shui it is favorable to have your residence to the south of a nearby hill.
One more example of the Emperor’s power. He demanded to be carried up the stairs of the different halls he had built. But he couldn’t be carried over the same stairs that the servants used so huge slabs of marble were brought in from the countryside.
The slabs were moved in during the winter so the servants could ice the “roads” at night and pull the slabs across the ice or roll them on stems of bamboo.
But a slab of marble wasn’t quite good enough so he had artists carve graphics into each slab. He was then carried over the beautifully carved slabs of marble while the servants walked on the stairs to each side.
We walked through the courtyards leading from one hall to another and ended up at the far end of the city where the residence quarters were located. A huge area where we learned only the Emperor’s family lived. The Emperor was married and had many concubines and perhaps hundreds of children.
The entrance to the living quarter and almost all buildings had two brass lions out front. Crystal explained to us that the female lion is always on the right side of the door as you exit. You can tell it’s a female as under her left paw is a young tiger, laying upside down in a playful position. The male lion is always on the left as you walk out of the door. The male has a ball under his paw symbolizing supremacy over the world.
Crystal joked that today it is said that “the male may be on the left but the female is always right.”
In the movie, History Of The World, Part 1 (there was no Part 2 by the way) Mel Brooks plays King Louis during The French Revolution. He walks around the palace grounds doing whatever he pleases. As he walks around and takes advantage of everyone and everything, he makes the statement “it’s good to be king.” I could only imagine Emperor Zhu Di walking the grounds of The Forbidden City joyfully saying “it’s good to be Emperor.”