When I went to the Forbidden City, it was in the muggy summer of 2006. Beijing was preparing for the Olympics, building stadiums and luxury hotels, and the dust of construction hung in the air, gritty and suffocating. I entered the City through the North Gate, the Gate of Divine Might, passed through the Gate of Obedience and Purity, and then entered the Imperial Gardens, what was once the private respite of the Emperor and his family. After walking the huge grounds, nearly getting lost in the maze of smaller halls and courtyards, and never finding the Hall of Literary Glory, I ended my tour by wandering the large courtyard just inside the Gate of Supreme Harmony and weeping.
It had been a long day. I had climbed the Great Wall, was coated in a dingy layer of Beijing's pollution, and, despite my best efforts against Orientalism, the saddest parts of the movie The Last Emperor kept running through my mind. I thought of the scene of the Emperor's coronation, of the former splendor and mystery of this place, and of the sign near the Hill of Accumulated Beauty in the Forbidden City that read "A single act of carelessness leads to the eternal loss of beauty."
The private quarters for the Emperor, his family, and his concubines was once a beautiful, separate world, where the Emperor's never-quite-private life came the closest to being intimate. And now, it was full of tourists—they ate ice cream bars in the pavilions, took pictures of the building where the Emperors spent their wedding nights, shouted at each other across the garden pathways, and tossed away travel fliers that men throughout the City handed out.
In the South side of the Forbidden City were the buildings for official ceremony—the three halls of Harmony. Everywhere were signs of deteriorated glory. The gold plating on huge cauldrons on the steps of the Hall of Preserving Harmony had been scraped off during World War II. The beautiful woodwork inside the halls was covered in dust, as I was. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was shrouded in a huge tent, printed with the Hall's image on a sky-blue background. The sky in Beijing that day was brown, and so smoggy that you could look at the sun. The stones underfoot were uneven and broken, the canal that once held a winding false stream dry.