It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.
Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.
Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.
The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.
Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.
As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.
It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.
Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.
Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.
It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.