The Sublimity of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

 

As we disembarked the plane in Beijing, I got my first indication of how hot it was going to be during our three week stay in China. I was wearing a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie on the flight, but as my wife, Juneko, and I stepped into the 100-plus degree heat, I immediately realized that no sweatshirts would be needed here. Going outside was like entering a misty sauna. On the cab ride to the hotel I asked our driver if the hazy dampness hanging in the air was indication of an impending storm. All he said was “Yeah,” which was not a real answer. He just didn’t understand what I was asking. In fact, the gray mist we were breathing was the infamous Beijing pollution, and the dampness was just normal summer humidity.

Prior to our trip, while still in San Francisco, we had waited 5 hours and 20 minutes at the Chinese consulate to file forms for our visas, so I was prepared for our arrival in Beijing to involve long waits mixed with doses of chaos. Happily, that was not so. Though the Beijing airport was crowded and bustling, things went very smoothly and we were out and into a cab within an hour. The ride took us on a busy, modern freeway, through a few traffic jams and past rows of high-rise buildings; some adorned with familiar names like IKEA, SONY and Mercedes Benz, while most others were marked with Chinese characters. Watching the signs buzz by, I started to understand what it is like to be illiterate. Even though I had a rough sense of the identities of the places passing by my window (office buildings, corporate headquarters, apartment buildings, gas stations and so forth) I was unable to understand the finer details of things. Street signs, billboards and the notices in shop windows were all in a language I could not understand. My first glimpses of Beijing, thus, were of a place at once familiar and mysteriously exotic. I was reminded of the cityscapes in the movie Blade Runner: bright signs written in Chinese characters, tall buildings and dark, oppressive, gray mist.

We stayed at the China National Convention Center Grand Hotel in the northern part of the city, right next to the Olympic Village where the summer games were held in 2008. Looming nearby is the 750 foot-tall Olympic Tower, which serves as a landmark and point of orientation when wandering the area. At The Grand Hotel – and the convention center to which is attached – the staff spoke English, and throughout our stay they were very helpful in arranging transportation, giving us directions, and exchanging cash. Our accommodations were clean and comfortable as well. The hotel has a serviceable gym and an indoor pool, as well as a couple of restaurants with food that is not as great as the folks who serve it. Our first night we ate at the hotel cafe, where I ordered spring rolls and a pot of good green tea while my wife ordered a BLT with fries. I ended up eating most of the BLT, which was weird, as it was made with pickles but no mayonaise. The “bacon” was something more like limp ham. Nevertheless, it was late by that time and we were hungry, so at least we didn’t starve.

The morning after our arrival, we took a stroll to an indoor shopping mall just down the street. Neither the haze nor the heat had dissipated, and so by the time we had walked three blocks, we were soaking wet with perspiration. Luckily the shopping mall was air conditioned and also served as a subway stop, so after a cold drink at Starbucks, we bought cards at the station and took a ride downtown to The Forbidden City, just the first of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we would visit over the course of our stay.

The Forbidden City lies just across a busy roadway north of Tiananmen Square. Exiting the subway we (again drenched in sweat) entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is adorned with an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong. We were crushed among the crowd of people surging forward as visitors were channeled between barricades and fences along the sidewalk. Entering the main grounds required that we go through a check-point and show our passports to guards who typed our information into a computer. Wherever you go in China, they know who you are, and they know where you’ve been!

 

The Forbidden City covers over 180 acres and contains 980 buildings with a total of 8,728 rooms. It was built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and served as home to the Emperor until 1912. Apparently, it was customary for the Emperor to sleep in a different room every night so that potential assassins would never know exactly where he was. That, of course, was in the days before high tech surveillance. In 1860, British and French forces controlled the Forbidden City during the second Opium War. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

 

Guidebooks say you should devote two to three hours to this site, but a full day is more realistic. The place is huge, and with the temperature soaring to 111 degrees (and a heat index of 136 degrees!) during our visit, we had to take frequent breaks to sit in the shade and drink water in order to avoid heat stroke. The City is laid out in a series of successive palaces. You pass through gates in the palaces, which open up onto enormous courtyards, one after another. It seems to go on and on, giving visitors the impression of infinitely expanding space. This was once considered to be the center of the world by the Chinese, and the Emperor lived and ruled within its heart. To control this much space, to corral it between walls, moats, gates and palaces was a dramatic symbol of power; something the British and French obviously understood during their occupation in 1860.

After wandering around the palaces, statues and stairways (and periodically seeking shade) for a few hours, we eventually made our way into the Museum of Clocks, which holds a collection of antique Chinese time pieces, some small, some the size of a small house. While the grounds of The Forbidden City demonstrate a mastery of space, the Museum of Clocks demonstrates that the control of time was also of great importance to Chinese rulers. Time and space comprise the backdrop against which all things in our world unfold, and by enclosing both of these dimensions within the walls of this royal location, Chinese Emperors conveyed the scope of their control and power; a power subsequently seized by the British and French, then by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and finally by the communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong.

It was mid-afternoon when we left the Forbidden City, exiting down a road lined with stores and street vendors. We boarded the subway – thankful to dry off in the air conditioning – and tried unsuccessfully to find a vegetarian restaurant that had good reviews in our guidebook. Instead, we ended up in another air conditioned shopping mall where we feasted on vegetarian Subway (brand) sandwiches before taking the other subway (public transportation) back to the hotel. At this point our first full day in China was coming to a close and I felt as if I had been beaten and tortured by a group of the Emperor’s guards. All I wanted to do was drink lots of cold water, take a shower and go to sleep.

I awoke the next morning, which was Friday, thinking it was Thursday. This was because in traveling from North America to Asia, we lost a day. I had a splitting headache – probably from dehydration – and generally felt like crap. I reflected on how glad I was that we were not scheduled to go anywhere until Friday. Then, the phone rang and the front desk clerk said: “Your driver has arrived to take you to The Great Wall.” I guess we were going somewhere after all!

Our driver spoke no English, so a smile and a handshake – and trust on our part that he knew where we wanted to go – had to suffice as an introduction. We boarded the van and set off on the hour and a half trip north to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. Our route took us on a superhighway and then onto a series of narow country roads. The tour busses and cars had to squeeze by one another while also endeavoring to avoid collision with unhelmeted riders on scooters and bicycles. The misses were mostly near misses. Our route took us through farmlands lined with orchards and fruit stands selling peaches, cherries and apricots.

We arrived at the gates of the park, and after purchasing tickets, walked down something resembling a main street; although it was not part of a real city, but an artificially constructed attraction. This is when it started to hit me how similar this place is to the US. Sure, there is not yet a Great Wall back home, but if Trump gets his way and there is one someday you can bet that it will be commercialized pretty much the same way as here. Just like in China, it will probably be accompanied by fast food restaurants and folks selling trinkets, souvenirs and t-shirts.

At the end of “main street” we boarded a bus, which thankfully was air-conditioned, and rode up a steep hill to the actual entrance to the attraction. This entrance, again, looked like an artificial village. From our vantage point below the ridges and the peaks we could see the turrets and the snaking lines of the wall above. Never mind the touristy nature of the place, this sight, I must admit, provoked a feeling of awe in me. It was a feeling similar to what I remember experiencing when I first saw Niagara Falls, Wat Arun in Thailand, or La Sagrada Familia in Spain. I had seen pictures of each of these wonders previous to encountering the real sights first-hand, so you might think that upon actually visiting them that they would be robbed of some of their visual novelty and power; that they might pale in comparison to their media representations. For me, that was never the case. Here, standing beneath The Great Wall, it was just the opposite. The images I had previously seen instead primed me to know what to look for. They gave me a frame of perspective that allowed my mind to start grasping the magnitude of what it was that we were now in the presence of.

The Great Wall is over 13,000 miles long; over four times as length of the US. Viewing the mountainous ridges along which this structure rests, my heart raced and my breathing halted. At first I saw the closest structures – the restored watchtowers and battlements directly above – but as my eyes traced the lines of the fortification, I was overwhelmed by its seeming endlessness. The Wall goes on and on. One watchtower is connected to another, each one looking smaller than the last until the Wall disappears into the hazy distance. The terrain here is steep and rugged, making me wonder about both the mechanics and the logic of constructing such an enormous structure in this particular location. It was, of course, not built all at once. It was begun around 200 BC, with construction continuing over hundreds of years, as various segments went up piece by piece until they were at last connected together. But why here? Why in a place where the mountains stand as a natural barrier? Mongol invaders during their 13th Century conquest of Beijing just went around the Wall anyway, so the barrier was not even effective. These thoughts only added to the uncanniness of the whole experience of looking at The Wall. Hundreds of years of persistent effort, expense and labor have resulted in an architectural artifact both absurd in its conception and awesome in its execution.

A gondola took us up the side of the mountain to The Wall itself. The view from the gondola was of the surrounding forested mountains and the valley below. A woman in the car behind us had a panic attack, crying in terror as we ascended upwards. When we disembarked, she was still weeping, but being comforted by her family. Fear of heights, I guess.

It was a short walk from the gondola to the first of the watchtowers, where we rested in the shade, drinking water and seeking relief from the sun. The place was busy with tourists – we heard Spanish, German, English, French as well as Chinese being spoken – but it wasn’t as crowded as we had seen in some pictures. Perhaps the heat was keeping people away. In any case, everyone was soaking wet and commenting on how hot it was. It was probably well over 100 degrees. I overheard a woman say to her partner that she’d like to walk to the top of the ridge, but was sure that she would pass out if she tried. I felt exactly the same. There was no way that I was going to be able to go very far.

From our starting point we could travel in two directions. One direction would take us up the ridge to what looked like an amazing vantage point overlooking the valley. However, I would only be able to make that trip if I got a piggy-back ride and if we had an overnight stay at the top. The other direction was more level, so that is direction in which we walked for a couple of hours. During that time I alternated between feeling awful and feeling exhilarated: we were actually on The Great Wall! I turned to Juneko a few times to declare, “We’re in China!” Amazing.

Soaked through and through we made our way back down to the exit, which involved a toboggan ride to the bottom. The toboggan ride was kind of silly, but better than suffering through further sweatiness while hiking down the mountainside. After reuniting with out driver we hit the road, arriving back in Beijing in time to get caught in their terrible afternoon traffic. That evening we had an $8 dinner of seafood rice and pork buns before turning in for the night.

According to Kant, the sublime experience occurs in two variations: the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical sublime has to do with the awe inspiring sense of infinity arising from an encounter with seemingly endless repetition. The dynamic sublime involves the sense of awe we feel when in the presence of seemingly infinite power. The Forbidden City and The Great Wall each provoked both of these sorts of experiences in me. The wide open courtyards and the palaces of The Forbidden City drew my mind toward thoughts of numerical infinity while also encouraging me to contemplate the enormous political power required to marshall the forces required to construct and control the grounds. The breathtaking scale of The Great Wall, with its battlements that stretch into an unseeable distance, likewise left me awestruck in contemplation of the enormous, seemingly infinite, amount of will, labor and administrative power required to complete such a monumental project. These Chinese monuments are truly sublime in both of the Kantian senses.

And there were more sublime sights yet to see. The next ones would be The Summer Palace, The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong. I’ll write about those in a future posting.

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2 thoughts on “The Sublimity of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

  1. Loved reading about your experiences; it’s interesting to compare them to ours, when we visited in 2004. I recall too well the unending sweat pouring down my body when we were there. Is there still a Starbucks in the Forbidden City? Perhaps there was too much outcry and they had it removed (we were appalled)! We also had Chinese tourists ask to take their picture with us (where as at first, B. thought they were just asking him to take their picture, but they wanted HIM in it too) – which was a first. We loved eating Beijing duck, and drinking in the bars in the Embassy District. Loved the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, but missed Mao’s tomb because it was closed. We also didn’t make it to the Great Wall, which sounds amazing by your description. You two look like you had a wonderful time; look forward to your next post.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I bet in the 14 years between our visits, the landscape of Beijing has really changed. There seems to be construction going on 24 hours a day!

      While there were lots of Starbucks everywhere else that we went, I didn’t see any in the Forbidden City. We also missed Mao’s tomb, although we tried to visit three separate times. We kept showing up during what we thought were the visiting hours, and each time we were told that it had closed for the day. Frustrating! It sounds like you had better luck with the food than we did. We only had a few meals that were any good, and we never tried the Peking duck.

      More to come!

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