Friday, February 18, 2011

Day 3 Part III - getting around in the Forbidden City.

Ah, yes doors.  Down the center of the Forbidden City is gate after gate after gate.  A huge psychological effect for someone coming in the front.  But the super-duper private garden and home area of the emperor is just 1 wall (a thick high one sure) away from the outside.  In the past there was supposedly a defense of some sort out there, but compared to the front, getting out the back was a simple matter.
But along the sides, and beyond the grand, ridiculous, pavilions of the Forbidden City is a gated chess board.  

The area where the "royalty" of different degrees resided or did stuff is a claustrophobic's nightmare.  Typically a person (a concubine, a nephew etc.) would be assigned on of these minor pavilions.  They would have the building - typically a main room and some smaller rooms - these also suffered from the "one board of pierced wood" thick issue.  So if you weren't invited to travel to the Winter Palace - where things were warmer - you got to spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to stay warm.  (Warm baths were not an option... the Chinese have never really taken to immersing the body in water - and even today, hot water plumbing into houses is limited...see a later entry).

Say you were a 74th or 75th concubine, or royal but distant nephew, someone destined never to spend time with the Emperor, except at the largest festivals or events.  Outside your smallish pavilion would be a courtyard, and the pavilion and courtyard are encased in a square wall about 4 meters high (maybe even more, 15 ft?) anyway the walls tower over head, and there is no likelihood of seeing over without a serious ladder.  One may exit the courtyard through solid doors (when closed they as much a wall as anything else). into a "hallway."  This is a corridor, open to the sky, also surrounded by the same high walls.  And there are the same solid doors at either end.  At each of these doors you enter into another "hallway."
Each courtyard exits onto its own horizontal (East-West) hallway.  These all in turn connected to vertical (North-South) hallways that connect a series of the horizontal hallways.  So you feel like a chess piece trapped in this walled grid - each square, encased in walls and bordered by hallways with doors at the end of each horizontal line segment.  And not all of the doors were marked with characters, so even if you do read Chinese, you might have to resort to counting your way about.
And then there are the spirit steps.  Every singe door also has board at the base 4" to 12" high (depends on many things...) you must step over.  So to simply go from your pavilion to a friend's pavilion even one square over, you have to step over your step to get out of your pavilion (1), the one for your courtyard gate (2), the one at the end of your hallway (3), walk along a vertical hallway past the right number of  doors, another to enter the correct horizontal hallway (4), one for your friend's courtyard door, (5) and then, at last the one into your friend's pavilion (6).  Phew.  These spirit steps are there on the belief that bad ghosts and spirits float along right at ground level, so the step will block the spirit from getting in.  It is also believed that these spirits cannot cross water, and can only travel along a single line, so many temples, tea-houses, and other special spaces will have a bridge with several right angle turns over a pond, leading to an entrance with a spirit step (and some may even have a screen beyond the spirit step as a last blocking maneuver.  A spirit would get stopped by the screen, while humans can walk around it.)
If you ask me, all those doors and spirit steps most likely did at least as good a job keeping things trapped inside the palace to haunt a particular space, as they ever did keeping things out.
And then, 6 steps means 6 doors (at the absolute minimum).  And at many doors in the palace there would have been a "door opener,"  an actual position assigned to palace eunuchs.  So a visiting dignitary - and for all I know, palace residents as well - would move through the palace having to tip eunuchs 1 door way at a time.
If this was the everyday physical bureaucracy that reigned inside the palace, and still remains for anyone to see, no wonder the system imploded.  I can only boggle at all ceremonial and mental impediments that were in place along side these physical impediments.  And no wonder the Chinese felt as if Westerners just crashed around with no regard for the civilized way of doing things!

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