The Home of the Court -- The Forbidden City

The innermost enclosure is the Forbidden City and contains the palace and its surrounding buildings. The wall is less solid and high than the city wall, is covered with bright yellow tiles, and surrounded by a deep, wide moat. Two gates on the east and west afford access to the interior of this habitation of the Emperor, as well as the space and rooms appertaining, which furnish lodgment to the guard defending the approach to the dragon's throne.
-- S. Wells Williams in "The Middle Kingdom."

During the past ten years, since the dethronement of the late Emperor Kuang Hsu, I have often been asked by Europeans visiting Peking:

"What would happen if the Emperor should die?"

"They would put a new Emperor on the throne," was my invariable answer. They usually followed this with another question:

"What would happen if the Empress Dowager should die?"

"In that case the Emperor, of course, would again resume the throne," I always replied without hesitation. But during those ten years, not one of my friends ever thought to propound the question, nor did I have the wit to ask myself:

"What would happen if the Emperor and the Empress Dowager should both suddenly snap the frail cord of life at or about the same time?"

Had such a question come to me, I confess I should not have known how to answer it. It is a problem that probably never presented itself to any one outside of that mysterious Forbidden City, or the equally mysterious spectres that come and go through its half-open gates in the darkness of the early morning. There are three parties to whom it may have come again and again, and to whom we may perhaps be indebted both for the problem and the solution.

When the deaths of both of their Imperial Majesties were announced at the same time, the news also came that the Japanese suspected that there had been foul play. With them, however, it was only suspicion; none of them, so far as I know, ever undertook to analyze the matter or unravel the mystery. There is no doubt a reasonable explanation, but we must go for it to the Forbidden City, the most mysterious royal dwelling in the world, where white men have never gone except by invitation from the throne, save on one occasion.

In 1901, while the court was in hiding at Hsianfu, the city to which they fled when the allies entered Peking, the western half of the Forbidden City was thrown open to the public, the only condition being that said public have a certificate which would serve as a pass to the American boys in blue who guarded the Wu men, or front gate. I was fortunate enough to have that pass.

My first move was to get a Chinese photographer -- the best I could find in the city -- to go with me and take pictures of everything I wanted as well as anything else that suited his fancy.

The city of Peking is regularly laid out. Towards the south is the Chinese city, fifteen miles in circumference. To the north is a square, four miles on each side, and containing sixteen square miles. In the centre of this square, enclosed by a beautifully crenelated wall thirty feet thick at the bottom, twenty feet thick at the top and twenty-five feet high, surrounded by a moat one hundred feet wide, is the Forbidden City, occupying less than one-half a square mile. In this city there dwells but one male human being, the Emperor, who is called the "solitary man."

There is a gate in the centre of each of the four sides, that on the south, the Wu men, being the front gate, through which the Emperor alone is allowed to pass. The back gate, guarded by the Japanese during the occupation, is for the Empress Dowager, the Empress and the women of the court, while the side gates are for the officials, merchants or others who may have business in the palace.

Through the centre of this city, from south to north, is a passageway about three hundred feet wide, across which, at intervals of two hundred yards, they have erected large buildings, such as the imperial examination hall, the hall in which the Emperor receives his bride, the imperial library, the imperial kitchen, and others of a like nature, all covered with yellow titles, and known to tourists, who see them from the Tartar City wall, as the palace buildings. These, however, are not the buildings in which the royal family live. They are the places where for the past five hundred years all those great diplomatic measures -- and dark deeds -- of the Chinese emperors and their great officials have been transacted between midnight and daylight.

If you will go with me at midnight to the great gate which leads from the Tartar to the Chinese city -- the Chien men -- you will hear the wailing creak of its hinges as it swings open, and in a few moments the air will be filled with the rumbling of carts and the clatter of the feet of the mules on the stone pavement, as they take the officials into the audiences with their ruler. If you will remain with me there till a little before daylight you will see them, like silent spectres, sitting tailor-fashion on the bottom of their springless carts, returning to their homes, but you will ask in vain for any information as to the business they have transacted. "They love darkness rather than light," not perhaps "because their deeds are evil," but because it has been the custom of the country from time immemorial.

Immediately to the north of this row of imperial palace buildings, and just outside the north gate, there is an artificial mound called Coal Hill, made of the dirt which was removed to make the Lotus Lakes. It is said that in this hill there is buried coal enough to last the city in time of siege. This, however, was not the primary design of the hill. It has a more mysterious meaning. There have always been spirits in the earth, in the air, in every tree and well and stream. And in China it has ever been found necessary to locate a house, a city or even a cemetery in such surroundings as to protect them from the entrance of evil spirits. "Coal Hill," therefore, was placed to the north of these imperial palace buildings to protect them from the evil spirits of the cold, bleak north.

Just inside of that north gate there is a beautiful garden, with rockeries and arbours, flowering plants and limpid artificial streams gurgling over equally artificial pebbles, though withal making a beautiful sight and a cool shade in the hot summer days. In the east side of this garden there is a small imperial shrine having four doors at the four points of the compass. In front of each of these doors there is a large cypress-tree, some of them five hundred years old, which were split up from the root some seven or eight feet, and planted with the two halves three feet apart, making a living arch through which the worshipper must pass as he enters the temple. To the north of the garden and east of the back gate there is a most beautiful Buddhist temple, in which only the members of the imperial family are allowed to worship, in front of which there is also a living arch like those described above, as may also be found before the imperial temples in the Summer Palace. This is one of the most unique and mysterious features of temple worship I have found anywhere in China, and no amount of questioning ever brought me any explanation of its meaning.

Now if you will go with me to the top of Coal Hill I will point out to you the buildings in which their Majesties have lived. There are six parallel rows of buildings, facing the south, each behind the other, in the northwest quarter of this Forbidden City, protected from the evil spirits of the north by the dagoba on Prospect Hill.

Perhaps you would like to go with me into these homes of their Majesties -- or, as a woman's home is always more interesting than the den of a man, let me take you through the private apartments of the greatest woman of her race -- the late Empress Dowager. She occupied three of these rows of buildings. The first was her drawing-room and library, the second her dining-room and sleeping apartments, and the third her kitchen.

One was strangely impressed by what he saw here. There was no gorgeous display of Oriental colouring, but there was beauty of a peculiarly penetrating quality -- and yet a homelike beauty.

No description that can be written of it will ever do it justice. Not until one can see and appreciate the paintings of the old Chinese masters of five hundred years ago hanging upon the walls, the beautiful pieces of the best porcelain of the time of Kang Hsi and Chien Lung, made especially for the palace, arranged in their natural surroundings, on exquisitely carved Chinese tables and brackets, the gorgeously embroided silk portieres over the doorways, and the matchless tapestries which only the Chinese could weave for their greatest rulers, can we appreciate the beauty, the richness, and the refined elegance of the private apartments of the great Dowager.

I went into her sleeping apartments. Others also entered there, sat upon her couch, and had their friends photograph them. I could not allow myself to do so. I stood silent, with head uncovered as I gazed with wonder and admiration at the bed, with its magnificently embroidered curtains hanging from the ceiling to the floor, its yellow-satin mattress ten feet in length and its great round, hard pillow, with the delicate silk spreads turned back as though it were prepared for Her Majesty's return. On the opposite side of the room there was a brick kang bed, such as we find in the homes of all the Chinese of the north, where her maids slept, or sat like silent ghosts while the only woman that ever ruled over one-third of the human race took her rest. The furnishings were rich but simple. No plants, no intricate carvings to catch the dust, nothing but the two beds and a small table, with a few simple and soothing wall decorations, and the monotonous tick-tock of a great clock to lull her to sleep.

If Shakespeare could say with an English monarch in his mind, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," we might repeat it with added emphasis of Tze Hsi. For forty years she had to rise at midnight, winter as well as summer, and go into the dark, dreary, cold halls of the palace, lighted much of the time with nothing but tallow dips, and heated only with brass braziers filled with charcoal, and there sit behind a screen where she could see no one, and no one could see her, and listen to the reports of those who came to these dark audiences. Then she must, in conjunction with them, compose edicts which were sent out to the Peking Gazette, the oldest and poorest newspaper in the world, to be carved on blocks, and printed, and then sent by courier to every official in the empire. Ruling over a conquered race, she must always be watching out for signs of discontent and rebellion; being herself the daughter of a poor man, and beginning as only the concubine of an emperor, and he but a weak character, she must be alert for dissatisfaction on the part of the princes who might have some title to the throne. She must watch the governors in the distant provinces and the viceroys who are in charge of great armies, that they do not direct them against instead of in defense of the throne.

When her husband died while a fugitive two hundred miles from her palace, she must see to it that her three-year-old child was placed upon the throne with her own hand at the helm, and when he died she must also be ready with a successor, who would give her another lease of office. Even when he became of age and took the throne she must watch over him like a guardian, to prevent his bringing down upon their own heads the structure which she had builded. Nay, more, when it became necessary for her to dethrone him and rule in his name, banishing his friends and pacifying his enemies, keeping him a prisoner in his palace, it required a courage that was titanic to do so. But she never flinched, though we may suppose that many of her poorest subjects, who could sleep from dark till daylight with nothing but a brick for a pillow, might have rested more peacefully than she.

She had a myriad of other duties to perform. She was the mother-in-law of that imperial household, with the Emperor, the Empress, sixty concubines, two thousand eunuchs, and any number of court ladies and maid-servants. Their expenses were enormous and she must keep her eye on every detail. The food they ate was similar to that used by all the Chinese people. I happen to know this, because one of her eunuchs who visited me frequently to ask my assistance in a matter which he had undertaken for the Emperor, often brought me various kinds of meat, or other delicacies of a like nature, from the imperial kitchens.

I want you to visit three of the imperial temples in these beautiful palace grounds. The first is a tall, three-story building at the head of that magnificent Lotus Lake. In it there stands a Buddhist deity with one thousand heads and one thousand arms and hands. Standing upon the ground floor its head reaches almost to the roof. Its body, face and arms are as white as snow. There is nothing else in the building -- nothing but this mild-faced Buddhist divinity for that brilliant, black-eyed ruler of Chinas millions to worship.

Standing near by is another building of far greater beauty. It is faced all over with encaustic tiles, each made at the kiln a thousand miles away, for the particular place it was to occupy. Each one fits without a flaw, a suggestion to American architects on Chinese architecture.

The second of these temples stands to the west of the Coal Hill, immediately to the north of the homes of their Majesties. One day while passing through the forbidden grounds I came upon this temple from the rear. In the dome of one of the buildings is a circular space some ten feet in diameter, carved and gilded in the form of two magnificent dragons after the fabled pearl. It is to this place the Emperor goes in time of drought to confess his sins, for he confesses to the gods that the drought is all his doing, and to pray for forgiveness, and for rain to enrich the thirsty land. The towers on the corners of the wall of the Forbidden City are the same style of architecture as the small pavilion in the front court of this temple.

Now as the buds of spring are bursting and the eaves on the mulberry-trees are beginning to develop, will you go with the Empress Dowager or the Empress into a temple on Prospect Hill, between the Coal Hill and the Lotus Lake, where she offers sacrifices to the god of the silkworm and prays for a prosperous year on the work of that little insect? Above it stands one of the most hideous bronze deities I have ever seen -- male and naked -- in a beautiful little shrine, every tile of which is made in the form of a Buddha's head. During the occupation tourists were allowed to visit this place freely, and their desire for curios overcoming their discretion, they knocked the heads off these tiles until, when the place was closed, there was not a single tile which had not been defaced.

One other building in the Forbidden City is worthy of our attention. It is the art gallery. It is not generally known that China is the parent of all Oriental art. We know something of the art of Japan but little about that of China. And yet the best Japanese artists have never hoped for anything better than to equal their Chinese teacher. In this art gallery there are stored away the finest specimens of the old masters for ten centuries or more, together with portraits of all the noted emperors. Among these portraits we may now find two of the Empress Dowager, one painted by Miss Carl, and another by Mr. Vos, a well-known American portrait painter.