Yesterday I had lunch at what Martin’s coworkers called “a minority restaurant.” It was the best Chinese food I’ve had since I’ve been here. (Each meal is different depending on whether it’s Cantonese, Shanghainese, Peking (Beijing), etc.) For lunch we had peanuts and pork slices for appetizers (separately, and they’re pretty standard); a white fish with a crust made out of garlic, cilantro, red pepper, sesame seeds and I’m not sure what else, in soy sauce; potato balls dipped in a chili sauce, flaky tortilla-chip-like things with cheese in them and sugar on top, noodle soup, and rice served inside of a pineapple with chunks of pineapple mixed in it (mmm). Taxis are very cheap here, so we then taxied to Tiananmen Square, which is the entrance to The Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is huge with a giant mausoleam housing Mao’s body inside. The line to see Mao’s body went on for ages, and we only had half a day, so we skipped that. Closer to the gate of The Forbidden City is an obelisk-like thing, then you cross the street and enter The Forbidden City beneath the giant painting of Mao. Inside The Forbidden City, there are 800 buildings and 9000 rooms where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties lived and kept their hundreds of wives, concubines and eunuchs. To become a eunuch you had to sit on a chair with a hole in it, then CHOP with a knife and 50% of the potential died from the operation. It was believed that you couldn’t enter heaven if you weren’t whole, so the ones who did survive carried their lopped-off goods around in a bag so they could be buried with them in hopes of fooling the Gods into believing they were whole. My professor and thesis advisor, Yiyun Li, wrote a great story about a eunuch in her book of short stories, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” To become a concubine, you had to be between 14 and 16 years old. All their names were written on stone tablets, and each night the emperor turned over the tablet of the girl he wanted and placed it outside his door, then a eunuch went to fetch her, stripped her naked (except for her bound feet), wrapped her in a yellow blanket (the royal color) and carried her on his back to the emperor. The eunuch then recorded the time and date in case she got pregnant. I learned all this from my Lonely Planet guide. I also rented an “automatic guide,” which is one of those recordings you get in museums in English, but unlike back home, this one played automatically when I approached a building in The Forbidden City. On the device is a map of The Forbidden City with a blinking dot where you are and lit up dots for all the places you haven’t visited yet. When you get near a place, the recording plays, then blacks out on your device. After three hours of touring the city, my device was still almost completely lit up. I had hit about five out of 30 of the dots. One dot I didn’t miss was Starbucks. It wasn’t really a dot, but it WAS in The Forbidden City. Unbelievable. And I saw three palace buildings that each had a throne for the emperor, and the imperial garden, which is full of this weird rock that I really wanted to climb. It was a quick tour and I missed most of the recording because there was no way for me to turn it off when people were talking to me, but a couple of highlights were the 200-ton slab of rock that was transported to Beijing on an ice path. They would pour water on the ground, let it freeze (not difficult this time of year), then slide the slab on the ice. All the way to Beijing. From wherever it came from. It lies between some steps and is carved with dragons. Another highlight was these giant copper and iron vats that were the Forbidden City’s fire department. Back in the day, they were filled with water, then charcoal was burned beneath them and they were covered with quilts to prevent the water from freezing. This water was used to put out fires. And there were many fires because the palace buildings were made out of wood, so invaders or eunuchs and other officials who could profit from the repairs often set one of the buildings on fire. As for renovations, like the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, a team would start at one end of the city, paint and restore until the entire city was completed after ten years, then just start over again from the beginning. I also loved the frozen moat around The Forbidden City. Frozen. Yeah.
Flags on Tiananmen Gate
One of the Emperor’s Many Thrones
Doorway inside The Forbidden City
200-Ton Stone Tablet
Yellow Roofs in The Forbidden City
Weird Rock in The Imperial Garden