I began to sweat on the packed bus ride. My eagerness magnified under the summer midday heat. Finally, the bus came to a stop amongst a tourist-populated area, and my friend and I trotted anxiously through the underground passage toward the palace that cultivated countless ancient tales¡ªthe Forbidden Kingdom.
The moment we arrived, the giant front gate of the Forbidden Kingdom immediately struck me. It towered aloft in robust solemnity and pure serenity. The red front gate is covered with nine columns and nine rows, a total of 81 doornails ¡ªround and gilded. These doornails originally were meant to secure wooden blocks that clamp the door, but later on became used to symbolize hierarchy. Tourists have already rubbed off the golden colors on the lower rows. A little boy beside us glued himself to the door and engrossed himself in rubbing doornails. For a while, we watched him erase away these hierarchical symbols and then joined him, trying to rub the doornails, leaping up as high as possible to reach for the higher rows where the gold paint was still shiny. Jumping and laughing, I reminded myself of Piglet.
The Forbidden Kingdom is divided by numerous gates into sections called "Gong", meaning palace. Each Gong serves different functions or is lived in by different groups of people in the palace. They are divided into west and east halves by the central axis. The main axis symbolizes the main role the Emperor takes, for he has the power to connect sky and earth. Continuing from the front gate, we arrived at the largest Gate of the Imperial Palace, the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The palace feels completely different than the pictures. It erected in the kingdom like a majestic horse, but was much more breathtaking. The sun-rays formed a golden coat that wrapped around the palace. The already spectacular Imperial Palace, an ancient symbol of national pride, power, and prestige, was now glowing. I closed my eyes to feel the kingdom¡¯s past glory. For a few seconds, I felt very ambitious.
Then we walked through the steps where the emperor and his officials walked to attend courts. I knew ancient China was a hierarchical society, but I didn't know it was that stratified. The stones are placed in columns of different widths. The emperor walked on the widest middle column, and his sons and other officials walked on noticeably smaller stones. Accidentally step on the wrong stone and one could easily be awarded capital punishment. I shivered a little as I see my feet standing across three different types of stones.
The austere hierarchy does not end here. As we followed the central axis of the palace, I came across the entrance of the Imperial Harem, literally meaning the Rear Palace in Chinese. All of the females, the Emperor's concubines, and even the Empress lived in the Harem. The Rear Palace had much smaller rooms. I imagined myself as a Princess in Ancient China, walking with class and drinking tea from delicate cups. Just kidding, that's a little too much. I would probably be juggling teacups. The Ancient Chinese life probably isn¡¯t for me.
While I was immersed in my own imagination, the sky suddenly began to grow dark. As I was thinking about the possibility of a thunderstorm, the rain shot down, dubbed with thunder. Water drops penetrated through the infamous Beijing haze. My friend and I rushed under the Empress's room to take shelter from the rain. While the summer thunderstorm arrived quickly, it also left quickly. After only ten or twenty minutes, the sun began to peek down from the clouds. The palace had an absolutely different feeling now. Just a few minutes ago, I was exclaiming over the unattainable spectacle, but now the rain gave me a feeling of absolute intimacy with each person that lived here, and every story that happened here. I took a deep breath. My mind wandered through all the history and fantasies.
I realized the Imperial Palace is not only a historical treasure trove, but also an inspiring personal narrative. Each person is here to find his or her own story. I can¡¯t tell you the plot to your story, but what I can tell you is, it's definitely worthwhile.
~ Shirley Fu '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler