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.
And yet—there was something glorious in it all the same, hints of the mystery of the ceremonies once held in the City, of a past when incense burned constantly and eunuchs in silk robes strolled the grounds and young girls were taken from their homes and made into wives of the Son of Heaven—a beautiful, terrible past, now lost. I thought of this, and thought of everything that time destroys, and that was when I cried.
To leave the Forbidden City, we had to pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tiananmen). But to reach it, we had to first run a gauntlet through a courtyard packed with vendors and beggars. A barefoot, shirtless young man missing both arms sat quietly, staring at the ground between himself and his begging bowl. Old men and women in Maoist garb held out their hands and plucked at sleeves. We were not to give these people anything, our tour organizer had warned. If we did, we would soon be overwhelmed by every beggar in the courtyard. We were to watch out for small children, who were skilled pickpockets. I crossed my arms tightly across my chest and turned away as my group reassembled to head out to Tiananmen Square.
Over Tiananmen hangs the famous portrait of Mao. Flanking it are large banners of gold characters on a red field. A friend who can read Chinese told me that it says something about the Forbidden City belonging to the people—to the tourists whose voices echoed in the pavilion where the last Emperor learned English, as well as to the maimed young man and old men and women who begged for a few scraps of paper that bore Mao’s face. Just across the street was Tiananmen Square, the parliament building, Mao’s body lying in state. It was the day before the anniversary of the massacre. How many acts of carelessness had there already been, I wondered. And how many more would there be?