Saturday in the Forbidden City

On Saturday morning, after services, kiddush, and breakfast, we set out for the Forbidden City. With such an ominous name, it was a place that I was a bit reluctant to visit. We walked about two long blocks and arrived beside Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao’s Mausoleum and adjacent to the Great Hall of the People. We proceeded down a flight of steps and into a pedestrian tunnel so that we could cross the very wide street that separates Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City.

We were not alone. Thousands of people converged on the Forbidden City, home of Emperors of China in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The area it occupies is vast and it is representative of the style of formal Chinese buildings with a formal entrance (in this case consisting of three doors, each of which had its unique use), a courtyard (or garden) and then another building behind which was another courtyard or garden and then another and another. Each change required stepping up and down as the buildings were several steps above ground level and with each doorway of each building having a board vertically set perhaps 12 inches high that one had to step over to enter. These boards at entrances were standard throughout all of the temples and old formal buildings that we visited.

We heard several explanations for the board. We heard that it will stop enemies from charging in. They have to stop in order to step over and this literally unbalances them. We heard that the bowed stature that climbing over something inevitably engenders is a forced sign of respect. We heard that they kept the building free of mice and we heard that in places where it floods, it kept the water out. Someone even suggested that it kept the chickens that were kept inside from escaping! After a while we came to expect them and I started to think it might be an idea that would slow down the grandchildren….

The imperial palace, consisting of a rumored 9,999 buildings ( a number I find somewhat exaggerated) is quite a complex. There is a wonderful online tour at

One of the items pointed out to us by our tour guides was a huge pot which had been put there for holding water. In early times, they were essential since there was no natural water source on the grounds. There were a large number of these huge pots. Many were coated in gold. When the Japanese invaded, they literally scraped the gold from the pots and we could see the remnants of the gold among the scratchings.

The vastness of the area and the style of the structures were nothing like what I had imagined. We listened with interest to the beliefs about what the emperor needed to do to ensure the well-being of the country. We heard about the symbolism of the colors that were used in the building and decorating.

It was a hot sunny day, but everyone remained interested in learning as much as we could, and when we returned to the hotel, we had plenty to talk about.

That evening we went to the Beijing Opera. Of course it was not at all what we expected. It was, instead, a performance put on in a very small auditorium that seated our group and no others. Two men enacted to music an encounter between good and evil that included a great deal of movement and dance with them using knives to threaten and slash at each other. The movement was graceful and the timing was superb. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Some of the pictures I took in China are now available for viewing at:

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  1. frank spigel says

    Welcome back, so glad your column is up and running again. Sounds like your trip was a great experience for you and your husband. I wish pictures from my trip to Israel were available, especially me taking a camel ride and a mud bath at the Dead Sea. Sounds like we both had great trips.