The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, by Geremie R. Barmé, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Chapter 6: Within and Without the Palace

page 117 When Sun Yat-sen, provisional president of the Republic of China, paid his respects at the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor outside Nanjing he was doing so at a time when the capital was notional transferred south once more. The debates about where the capital would be continued for years—even Yuan Shikai had declared that the capital of the new Republic would be in the south. When the Nationalist forces took Nanjing in early 1927 and made it the capital of the Republic of China, they undertook a radical remodeling of the city to make it into a modern, 'Westernised' capital that would be a model for China's other cities. See Maryruth Coleman, 'Municipal Politics in Nationalist China: Nanjing, 1927-1937' (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, January 1984); Zwia Lipkin, 'Keeping Up Appearances: The Nanjing Municipal Government and the City's Elements Déclassés, 1927-1937,' (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 2001); and, Charles D. Musgrove, 'The Nations' Concrete Heart: Architecture, Planning, and Ritual in Nanjing, 1927-1937' (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 2002). As we have seen in Chapter 1 of The Forbidden City, following 1949 the Communists who occupied Beiping/Beijing would launch their own plans for that city .

A map showing the extent of the destruction resulting from the fire at the Palace of Established Happiness on 27 June 1923 (see also The Forbidden City, p.160). [From Zhu Xie, Xiri Jinghua (Tianjin: Baihua Wenyi Chubanshe, 2005)]

page 117 'Although the abdication represented a bloodless revolution...' This is not to say, however, that the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 or the subsequent ouster of Manchus who had military garrisons in most major population centres of the empire was by any means bloodless. Racial hatred stirred up over decades by propagandists, as well as popular ire resulting from pent-up outrage over Qing mismanagement of the nation, led to the widespread massacre of Manchus and their supporters.

page 118 The Republic of China's Department of Internal Affairs (Neiwu bu) is better known as the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

page 118ff While the fate of the objects in the imperial collection was hotly contested for many years, for a time in the early Republic there was a danger that precious documents in the imperial archives would be lost. Many were sold off as scrap paper and saved only through the efforts of concerned scholars. See Shan Shiyuan, Wo zai Gugong qishi nian (Beijing: Beijing Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 1997), pp.74-91; and, Edymion Wilkinson, Chinese History, A Manual, Revised and Enlarged (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000), pp.905-15. An account of the fate of the imperial library collections since the fall of the Qing dynasty has also been written by Xiang Si, the deputy head of the Palace Museum Library, who divides the losses of materials into four periods: the late Qing, the era of the 'little court', the Republic and through the early decades of the People's Republic. See Xiang Si, Gugong guobao, gongwai liushi miji: Qinggong zhenji liuchuan gongwai kao (Beijing: Zhongguo Shudian, 2007), p.57ff.

page 118ff On the creation of the Palace Museum, see Shan Shiyuan, Wo zai Gugong qishi nian (publication details as above), pp.373-401.

page 121 The competition between the Nationalists and Communists over the centre of political, and military, power in the twentieth century, was by no means limited to Beijing/Beiping and Nanjing. In the 1920s and 30s, the Communists had Soviet bases in Jiangxi province and after the Long March they established their wartime capital at Yan'an in Shaanxi. Meanwhile, confronted by the Japanese invasion, the Nationalists moved their capital from Nanjing to Chongqing.

The devastated scene following the conflagration at the Palace of Established Happiness. [Photo from Reginald F. Johnston, Twilight in the Forbidden City (London, 1934)]

page 122 Lu Xun made his observation in his diary. See Lu Xun riji (Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1976), p.11, quoted in Wang Cheng-hua, 'Imperial Treasures, Art Exhibitions, and National Legacy: The Institute for Exhibiting Antiquities in the 1910s'.

pages 122-123 For a study of the Hall of Bathed Virtue, see Shan Shiyuan, Wo zai Gugong qishi nian (publication details as above), pp.450-58. Shan notes that the Qing historian Meng Sen (author of 'Xiang Fei kaoshi') conclusively proved that the hall was not a bathhouse for the legendary consort (p.453).

page 132 The writers and educators mentioned in the text—Yu Pingbo, Zhou Zuoren and Lin Yutang—were members of a much larger group of cultural activists who sought elements of continuity in Chinese culture, and the potential within it to create an urbane and modern sensibility that would meld the past with the present. They were by no means 'restorationists', nor were they revolutionaries who would see all that had gone before swept aside. For more on this, see my An Artistic Exile, a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp.125-27.

page 133 Regarding the proposal to paint the yellow-tiled roofs blue, see Madelaine Yue Dong, 'Defining Beiping, Urban Reconstruction and Chinese Identity, 1928-1936', in Joseph W. Esherick, ed., Making the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1980 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000), pp.121-138, at p.130.

page 133 Jing Hengyi (1877-1939) was a leading educator and cultural activist who as a young man had been one of the outspoken protesters against the Empress Dowager's rule. For a while his name had been on an imperial most wanted list and he was forced to take flight to Macao. For his role as an educator, moral guide and ideologue, see my An Artistic Exile (publication details as above), pp.28-30, 79. His radical 1928 proposal, and the support that it enjoyed for a time, signaled how prevalent the fear of an imperial restoration remained years after the expulsion of Puyi and his 'little court' from the Forbidden City (fears that, as the events in Manchuria in 1934 showed, were justified). As a member of the Republican government Jing formally canvassed a bill titled 'Abolish the Palace Museum and Sell or Auction Off All of the Objects in the Former Palace in Lots' on 28 June 1928. Among other things, he suggested that the imperial thrones should be banned from public sight so as to discourage people from lusting after imperial power. Furthermore, he said, the name 'Former Palace' (Gugong) should be changed to 'Discarded Palace' (Feigong) as the word gu used in Gugong had various positive connotations and could easily be taken to denote a measure of nostalgia for the past.

The proposal was hotly debated and a committee was set up to deal with the 'illicit property' (nichan) of the former imperial house. By the end of the year, however, extremism was on the wane and the committee was disbanded and the proposal dropped. In early 1929, Yi Peiji was formally put in charge of the Palace Museum. Jing's radical stance and the fanciful logic of his arguments were of a kind that would come to hold sway following the rise of the People's Republic in 1949. A key figure in the Republican-era history of the Palace Museum was Wu Ying (father of the noted playwright and critic of the Communist Party, Wu Zuguang). In his memoirs Wu Ying reproduces Jing Hengyi's proposal along with other related material. See Wu Ying, Gugong chenmeng lu (Beijing: Zijin Cheng Chubanshe, 2005), pp.148-55.

It is interesting to note that it is claimed that while the 'Illicit Property Committee' (Nichan weiyuanhui, set up to deal with the Qing heritage was disbanded, its composition, processes and aims were followed by similar committees established both under the Republic after the Anti-Japanese War to deal with traitors and again following the establishment of the People's Republic of China when the appropriated property of purged landlords and capitalists was disposed of (then the committees were called Renmin zhengfu gong nichan qingli weiyuanhui). For these details and observations, see:; and,

'We Will Liberate Taiwan and Recover the Antiquities of the Motherland!—selected precious national art works stolen by American Imperialism and the Chiang Kai-shek Clique of Looters' [From Art Monthly, July 1955: 28-29]

page 134 On the removal of palace object to the south in 1931, and subsequent relocations, see Wu Ying, Gugong chenmeng lu (publication details as above), p.177ff; Na Zhiliang, Dianshou Gugong guobao qishinian (Beijing: Zijin Cheng Chubanshe, 2004), pp.81-89 and 150-151; and, Zheng Xinmiao, 'Beijing Gugong yu Taibei Gugong wenwu cangpin bijiao', Guangming Ribao, 15 January 2005.

pages 135-36 For details of Ma Heng's accommodation with the new regime, see his published diary, Ma Heng riji: 1949 nian qianhoude Gugong (Beijing: Zijin Cheng Chubanshe, 2006), pp.21-234.

pages 135-36 During the pre-Cultural Revolution period, the Palace Museum was also required to support the museums of regional China (including the Imperial Mountain Lodge) by loaning out a not inconsiderable number of antiquities. Under the aegis of this scheme, some 90,000 objects of various kinds were dispatched from Beijing. See the report 'Gugong zuo fabiao shengming bochi wenwu shiqie bing bei paimai yaoyan', Beijing Wanbao, 15 May 2003.

pages 137-138 Details concerning the confiscation of antiquities by Party leaders like Kang Sheng, who was later denounced and his own collection confiscated by the state, come from oral history interviews undertaken by Sang Ye in 1996. See also Cheng Ruixiu, 'Duju huiyande qingtongqi jianding dajia Cheng Changxin', in Wenwu Tiandi, 2006:6.

page 138 The details of the stripping of the contents of the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility for the refurbishment of the White Horse Temple outside Luoyang, Henan province, are taken from 'Gugong Baima Si: Wenwu guisu zhi zheng heri xiu?', Laodong Bao, 20 November 2000; and, 'Beijing Luoyang 33 nian 2900 jian Gugong lisan wenwu zhi zhengduo', Dongfang Ribao, 29 June 2005. Private eyewitness reports attest to the damage inflicted on the murals of the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility at the time.

page 138 The Cultural Revolution-era damage to the museum included the decision to beautify and modernise the Forbidden City for tourists. During the months May-September 1972, various halls and palaces of the museum were closed to be painted and fitted with a heating system. The paint jobs on the main axial buildings—Three Main Halls of the Outer Court, as well as the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility in the Inner Court—was, to say the least, sloppy, and the new sewerage system disrupted the original subterranean system that led to long-term problems. For details, see Shan Shiyuan's My Seventy Years in the Former Palace (Wo zai Gugong qishi nian). It should be noted that since Shan's book was so heavily censored—virtually all of the controversial material from the Sixties through to the Eighties was deleted—that a more descriptive title would be My Forty Years in the Former Palace.

page 138 The overt abuse of objects in the Palace Museum collection would come to an end with the Cultural Revolution. However, in June 1976, only months before Mao's demise and the arrest of the 'Gang of Four', due to the difficulty of maintaining dynastic costumes, and in particular given the rapid deterioration of the Palace Museum's collection of Bannermen soldiers' military uniforms, it was decided that every person working at the museum would be given a set. There was a decision that everyone would get one bundle of various coloured uniforms (each of the banners had a different colour, or a main colour bordered with another band of colour), regardless of position. However, it was stipulated that the bronze buttons decorating the uniforms would have to be removed and returned for melting down and recycling. The result of the unpicking of the uniforms meant that people were left with little more than a pile of ageing rags. All these were good for was to make bundles or for use in the soles of cloth shoes. Shortly thereafter the Tangshan earthquake forced many people in Beijing to move into tent accommodation and much of the material they had just received was hastily discarded. One writer did, however, see a quilt cover made from the old uniforms. (This information is based on an oral history interview conducted by Sang Ye with Wang Jin.)

page 140 For the number of acquisitions by the Palace Museum since 1949, see Zheng Xinmiao, 'Beijing Gugong yu Taibei Gugong wenwu cangpin bijiao', Guangming Ribao, 15 January 2005.

page 140 For the observations by Chen Danqing, see Chen Danqing, 'Changshi yu jiyi—Dongnan Daxue bainian xiaoqing renwen jiangtang jiangyan (2002 nian 4 yue 20 ri)' in his Tuibi ji (Guilin: Guangxi Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 2005), p.18ff. My thanks to Claire Roberts for bringing this essay to my attention.

page 141, illustration 25 The popular-based campaign against the Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City which opened in the year 2000 gained momentum from early 2007 after Rui Chenggang, a news anchor working for China Central Television, wrote in his blog that it was 'a symbol of low-end U.S. food culture' and 'an insult to Chinese civilization'. Within days over half a million people had read the comments. From July, indifferent drinks produced by a US corporation were replaced with indifferent beverages of local provenance. Starbucks had been given the option of selling their products along with other beverages under the Forbidden City brand, but the company declined the offer. See 'Starbucks closes controversial Chinese palace outlet', The Associated Press, 14 July 2007.

page 142 While there are still many areas in the Forbidden City that are still off-limits to tourists, insights into many aspects of the palace and the museum collection not generally on view featured in the popular 12-part television series made by China Central Television and the Palace Museum in 2005. For the script of the series, see Zhang Hongwei, Zhao Wei, Zhou Bing and Chen Lianying, Gugong (Beijing: Zijin Cheng Chubanshe, 2005).