forbidden city (november 21,2011)

This fall in Beijing has been wonderful!  The weather has been divine and we have be blessed with lots of visitors including my cousin, whom I hadn’t seen in 14 years, our neighbors from London and friends from Vancouver who filled us in on all the gossip!

The downside of visitors is all the eating and drinking we indulge in as we celebrate with them.  The upside is showing off this fabulous city and exploring and re-exploring some of our favorite spots.

Top of everyone’s must see list is the Forbidden City.  Luckily, I don’t mind going over and over as there is so much to see and one visit really can’t do it justice.  It was originally built between 1406 and 1420 as the palace for the emperor and the centre of Chinese government. It took more than a million workers to complete the construction in 15 years. There are more than 900 buildings and it covers an area of 720,000 square metres.

I get lost every single time!

It is called the Forbidden City because no one was allowed to enter or leave without permission from the Emperor.  Over 500 years, 24 emperors lived here with their empresses, concubines, children and eunuchs, before the last one was expelled in 1924. I imagine it was a bit like living on Wisteria Lane; there were a lot of goings on.

The Emperor had only one Empress. But it was extremely important that he have lots of male heirs (there was high infant mortality and he wanted to be able to pick the best of the lot!) As direct descendant of the King of Heaven the Emperor was obligated to ensure the succession.  So he had lots of concubines.

Being a concubine was a mixed experience.  On one hand, you got to live in a beautiful palace, had great clothes and were fed regularly.  Things most women couldn’t count on.  You could also help your family both by sneaking money out to them and improving their status and opportunities.  However, you never got to see them again.  Once a woman entered the Forbidden City she was never allowed out again.  You also had to compete with all the other concubines for the emperor’s attention (some emperors are rumoured to have had thousands, but the average seems to have been 50 – 75).

When the Emperor chose which lady with whom he wanted to spend the night, she was stripped naked, wrapped in a yellow silk blanket and carried to him by a eunuch. She was not allowed to bring other clothes as they could conceal a weapon.  If she were lucky, she would please him and be invited back.  If she were luckier, she would have a son and become a higher-ranking concubine.  If she were super lucky (and conniving!) her son would become the next Emperor. Women who did not please the emperor were sent to live in rooms that opened to the north, where the cold winter winds come from!

The emperor wanted to make sure that any children born to his empress or concubines were indeed his, so the only men that were allowed to see the women were Eunuchs.   Surprisingly, many men volunteered for this profession.  Once their characters had been vouched for, they were asked if this was REALLY what they wanted.  If they said yes, three men held them down. Their penis and testicles were loped off with a special knife and put in a jar, which they kept with them the rest of their lives.  Ironically, loosing your jar was considered the worst of luck.

While this certainly sounds unpleasant, it could be a good career move.  Eunuchs could have a tremendous influence on the emperor particularly if they were in cahoots with his mother and helped to bring him to the throne. As with the concubines, being part of the royal household could give your family great prestige and even wealth.

And eunuchs were allowed to die of old age.  Many concubines were not so fortunate. They were often buried with their Emperor, usually after committing suicide with a silk scarf, but were occasionally buried alive. He wanted them fresh when he got to heaven!

Lucky for me the only intrigue I face at the Forbidden City is fighting my way through the hoards to see into the rooms where the emperor and his household once lived. It helps being a head taller than everyone else!

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