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Notes on the Geography of China: Beijing: Imperial Palaces

The east and west sides of the northern half of the Forbidden City include a dozen or more palaces, many of which are like peas in a pod.  Occupied by emperors, dowagers, princes, and concubines, they were built to a more intimate scale than the deliberately awe-inspiring audience halls and the associated gates and courtyards that dominate the central axis of the southern half of the Forbidden City.  Many of these palaces are closed to the public, but some are open, though often dilapidated.

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Palaces within palaces: the Forbidden City was subdivided by walls that could easily be mistaken for the outer wall of a good-sized city anywhere else. Here, we're looking south within the Forbidden City from a point east of the midpoint of the city's axis. It's about 300 meters from here east (left) to the moat. The wall is one side of a long building housing a clock museum; the other face of the museum looks west to the great audience halls, whose courtyard it encloses on the east. On this side of the wall, however, trees grow in what was once the Arrow Pavilion, or archery ground. It was a favorite spot for the virile Manchu, if not the generally effete Ming rulers. To its east (left, here) are the Three South Lodges, also known as the palaces of the young princes. They're out of bounds.

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Another interior subdivision, in this case the long east alley separating two groups of east-side palaces in the north half of the city. Imagine wanting to borrow a cup of sugar from next door.

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Another alley, First West Long Alley, dividing the west-side palaces into groups. In the distance, Prospect Hill.

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Get off the tourist route and you bump into crudely barred doors.

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Every now and then you see something curious but inaccessible, such as this, the Pavilion of the Rain of Flowers, a Buddist temple (Dafo) on the western side of the Inner Court. Adjoining it is the Palace of Peace and Compassion (Cining), a home of the Qing emperors and their families. Unlike the Ming emperors, the Qing did not generally live in the central palaces of the Inner City. Both this temple and the adjoining palace are closed to the public.

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This palace, on the other hand, is open, and it's probably the most imposing of the flanking palaces. At the southeast corner of the Inner Court, this Hall of Imperial Supremacy (Huangjidian) was the home of the Qianlong Emperor after his retirement in 1795. At the age of 84 and after a reign of 60 years, he retired in the manner, one might say, of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, which is to say that he remained very influential, even though his son was now the emperor. In layout and ornament, this palace echoes the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Note, however, that it rests on a single Sumeru terrace, not three.

Occupied for only four years before the Qianlong Emperor died, the hall was abandoned for a century, until the famous dowager empress Cixi began using it during 1889 as a reception hall. She herself lived in a more modest building behind it.

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Inside the hall, there is a caisson ceiling, a type reserved for the most important buildings of the Forbidden City. Layers of brackets produce a circle over octagons and squares; in the center is the iconic dragon chasing a flaming pearl.

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Caisson ceilings sometimes took different forms, in this case filling a dome supported on short columns, visible on the right. The central motif is the familiar dragon.

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That circular caisson is from this building in the Palace Rear Garden, the Pavilion of a Thousand Autumns (Qianqiu). Almost needless to say, it is duplicated by the mirror-image Pavilion of 10,000 Springs (Wanchun).

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Behind the Hall of Imperial Supremacy, the Hall of Pleasurable Old Age (Leshoutangdian) finally yields a spot where one can relax. For a time, this was the residence of Cixi. Sensibly, she disliked the Forbidden City and when possible lived elsewhere.

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Another view of a rear courtyard behind the Hall of Imperial Supremacy; in the background is the Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds (Changyin), where plays and operas were performed for the imperial family.

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Off the long western alley shown earlier, this is the Gate of Following Righteousness, which leads to the Mental Cultivation Hall (Yangxindian). Built in 1802, this palace became the emperor's residence. It was the home, for example, of Xuantong, better known in the West as Henry P'u Yi, the last emperor. He lived here from 1912 until, 280 years after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty, he went in 1924 to Tianjin, where the Japanese gave him the hollow title of Emperor of Manchukuo.

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A tile screen blocks the view beyond the gate. Yellow symbolizes wealth and honor and, therefore, the imperial quarters.

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A closer view.

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Beyond the screen is the Gate of Mental Cultivation.

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A ceramic-tiled oven in the courtyard of the Hall of Mental Cultivation.

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Rafters of the Hall of Mental Cultivation. This polychrome painting, though faded, is in that most prestigious style, called he xi. Each beam is divided into three sections. The ends are covered with circular patterns (gu tou), the centers with dragons and phoenixes (fang xin), and the intervening sections with lotus or, alternatively, ogival shapes or zigzags (zao tou). The other painting styles are the Xian zi and Suzhou styles. Both are geometric or floral, without the dragon and phoenix.

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Many palace rooms, on the other hand, are spartan. Here, the duty room outside the Hall of Mental Cultivation.

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An adjoining palace (the Palace of Eternal Spring, Changchun) suggests the tract-home repetitiveness of Inner Court palaces.

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Privacy screen inside that gate.

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Past the screen there's a courtyard, with a privacy screen at the left.

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