Af­ter years of ne­glect, the For­bid­den City’s Palace Mu­seum is fi­nally be­ing opened up and dragged into the 21st cen­tury

The World of Chinese - - News - BY JEREMIAH JENNE


For­bid­den in name alone, for years the Palace Mu­seum was ne­glected, and once even con­sid­ered for de­mo­li­tion, be­fore Nixon's 1972 visit helped re­open its gates to the public. Now an am­bi­tious pro­gram of re­gen­er­a­tion, ren­o­va­tion, and mod­ern­iza­tion is bring­ing this pre­cious relic of im­pe­rial ar­chi­tec­ture into the 21st cen­tury


I “t’s so big.” “It’s too crowded.” “Ev­ery­thing looks the same.” De­spite be­ing one of the ma­jor tourist draws in Beijing, the nearly 600-year-old For­bid­den City has some­times strug­gled to tell its story. Cu­ra­tor Shan Jix­i­ang and his staff are on a mis­sion to change this.

From 1421 to 1924, the palace served as the home to 24 rulers of the Ming and Qing em­pires. The court ab­di­cated on be­half of the last em­peror, six-year-old Puyi, in 1912 but ne­go­ti­ated a deal with the new Repub­lic of China to al­low the ex­monarch to live in the back half of the For­bid­den City. Puyi’s res­i­dency came to an ig­no­ble end, how­ever, when he and his fam­ily were un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously booted by the war­lord Feng Yux­i­ang in 1924.

The Palace Mu­seum, which orig­i­nated as a set of ex­hi­bi­tions in the south­ern court­yards of the For­bid­den City, ex­panded to in­clude the whole com­plex and opened to the public in 1925. The palace suf­fered dur­ing the wars and revolutions of the 20th cen­tury; many of the choic­est pieces in its col­lec­tion were re­moved from Beijing by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in ad­vance of the Ja­panese in­va­sion in 1937. Th­ese items ul­ti­mately ended up as the cen­ter­piece of the Taipei Palace Mu­seum.

Af­ter 1949, the palace suf­fered sev­eral years of not-so-be­nign ne­glect—there was even talk of de­mol­ish­ing it as a sym­bol of the “shack­les and lim­i­ta­tions” of feu­dal rule, but the topic proved sen­si­tive enough to shelve—as well as ac­tive dam­age done dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. In­deed, Red Guards may have suc­ceeded where sev­eral other armies had not, and sacked the city, had Pre­mier Zhou En­lai not sent troops to guard the gates.

Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 brought an end to this era of un­cer­tainty. The palace be­came a soft-power stag­ing area for vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries—most re­cently Don­ald Trump who, last Novem­ber, dined in the re­cently re­stored Jianfu Palace (“Palace of Es­tab­lished Hap­pi­ness”). That build­ing had burned down in 1923, in a fire likely set by eu­nuchs seek­ing to cover up their cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence. (It is un­clear if Pres­i­dent Trump ap­pre­ci­ated the irony.)

Ac­cord­ing to Shan, only 30 per­cent of the For­bid­den City was open to vis­i­tors when he took over as cu­ra­tor in 2012; some por­tions of the com­plex were even leased to out­side ten­ants, or used as staff ar­eas. To­day, around three-quar­ters of the prop­erty is ac­ces­si­ble and, by 2025—which hap­pens to be the cen­ten­nial of the Palace Mu­seum’s open­ing—over 90 per­cent is ex­pected be renovated and ac­ces­si­ble. (While the com­plex is known his­tor­i­cally as the For­bid­den City, to­day it’s of­ten known as Gu­gong, “Old Palace,” and of­fi­cially “the Palace Mu­seum at the For­bid­den City.”)

“If 70 per­cent of its space is not open to the public and 99 per­cent of its relics are not show­cased to pa­trons—or if vis­i­tors don’t look at any ex­hi­bi­tions but just walk down the cen­tral axis from the front en­trance to the back gate—it is not a mu­seum that peo­ple can en­joy from the bot­tom of their hearts,” Shan told Xin­hua in Oc­to­ber.

All over the palace, of­fices, tool sheds, con­ces­sions, and other non­his­tor­i­cal and tem­po­rary struc­tures are get­ting torn down. New lights us­ing fire­proof tech­nol­ogy now il­lu­mi­nate in­te­ri­ors. Fur­ther ren­o­va­tions are pay­ing the same at­ten­tion to ma­te­rial cul­ture—the art and ar­ti­facts that make a room come alive—as the phys­i­cal struc­ture. Other in­te­rior court­yards and build­ings are be­ing opened as ex­hibit spa­ces to show­case the mu­seum’s enor­mous col­lec­tion.

Among the ar­eas now ac­ces­si­ble are the palace walls: Mu­seum-go­ers can walk from the Merid­ian Gate, the For­bid­den City’s “front door,” to the East Gate at Donghua­men, which houses an ex­hibit about the palace’s elab­o­rate rooftops. Dur­ing their stroll, vis­i­tors can stop at the South­east Tower, and see a 25-minute vir­tual re­al­ity film show­ing how build­ings were erected with thou­sands of pieces

of wood but not a sin­gle nail.

For over a decade, the 63-year-old Shan served as direc­tor and party sec­re­tary for the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage. While the move from be­ing the coun­try’s top cul­tural watch­dog to run­ning a mu­seum was some­thing of a de­mo­tion, Shan’s ex­pe­ri­ence al­lowed him to clean up an es­tab­lish­ment pre­vi­ously mired in cor­rup­tion, and move for­ward with am­bi­tious plans for the fu­ture. In 2012, the mu­seum had 15 mil­lion vis­i­tors, and dur­ing peak pe­ri­ods, over 150,000 would come through the Merid­ian Gate in a sin­gle day. Real­iz­ing that hu­man traf­fic posed a sig­nif­i­cant risk for his­toric preser­va­tion, Palace Mu­seum staff im­posed a limit of 80,000 vis­i­tors per day in 2015, and in­sti­tuted re­al­name reg­is­tra­tion to make it hard for scalpers to take ad­van­tage of the pol­icy. Even with this daily quota, the mu­seum has seen a rise in sight­seers, with nearly 16 mil­lion vis­it­ing last year.

In Oc­to­ber, the mu­seum at­tempted to move ticket sales en­tirely on­line, clos­ing walk-up win­dows. Shan’s rea­son­ing was that this would make vis­it­ing the For­bid­den City more “ac­ces­si­ble,” cut wait­ing times, and fur­ther frus­trate scalpers. In­stead, the change ended up frus­trat­ing vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers un­fa­mil­iar with the new sys­tem or un­able to pur­chase their tick­ets on­line, and spe­cial booths had to be opened to as­sist them. (While the For­bid­den City has of­fered on­line reser­va­tions since 2011, the web­site is Chi­nese only, and pay­ment op­tions are lim­ited to Chi­nese cards and Ali­pay.)

In an in­ter­view with China Ra­dio In­ter­na­tional in Oc­to­ber, Shan said that up­dates were com­ing and that the mu­seum plans to work with on­line book­ing ser­vices and mobile apps, an area where the Palace Mu­seum has al­ready had suc­cess.

Since 2013, the Palace Mu­seum’s New Me­dia Depart­ment has re­leased eight apps al­low­ing users to ex­plore the For­bid­den City with a dig­i­tal guide, build their own city, or ex­plore im­pe­rial fash­ions and ex­pe­ri­ence palace life. The 365 Days of Master­pieces, an app re­leased in 2015, pro­vides daily up­dates that high­light pieces in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion. It quickly be­came one of the Ap­ple Store’s most down­loaded Chi­nese apps.

The For­bid­den City has also en­tered the lu­cra­tive world of e-com­merce. The mu­seum’s Taobao store opened in 2008, and re­ceived a boost in 2014 when they de­vel­oped a line of trendy ac­ces­sories and toys. “We have de­signed and de­vel­oped a to­tal of around 8,700 kinds of dis­tinc­tive cul­tural cre­ative prod­ucts and ac­ces­sories by the end of 2015,” Shan told China Daily ear­lier this year. “For ex­am­ple, we all use phones, so we de­signed more than 400 kinds of phone cases dec­o­rated with cul­tural el­e­ments; we also de­signed stringed Bud­dhist beads-in­spired ear­phones, which be­came the win­ner of a na­tional cre­ative prod­ucts con­test.” Though there’s no longer 9,999 rooms filled with a mil­lion works of art, last year, the Palace Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of cul­tural prod­ucts and gifts reached over 1 bil­lion RMB in sales.

Mu­seum staff re­main busy open­ing more ar­eas for vis­i­tors. The Changyin Ge (“Stu­dio of Un­im­peded Sound”), the largest opera house in the For­bid­den City, was renovated ear­lier this year. His­tory buffs also await the re-open­ing of the Yangxin Dian (“Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion”), the court­yard where many Qing rulers lived and worked. An ex­hibit of its fur­nish­ings and art­work ap­peared at the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum in Beijing last year, be­fore trav­el­ing to Shang­hai and Hong Kong. A branch of the Palace Mu­seum is now slated to open in Kowloon in 2022, a pro­posal crit­i­cized by Hong Kong res­i­dents con­cerned that the plan was ap­proved with­out public con­sul­ta­tion.

De­spite the chal­lenges, the Palace Mu­seum is lead­ing the way for other Beijing his­tor­i­cal sites in re­search and guest ex­pe­ri­ence. No longer sim­ply a slog through empty court­yards, the For­bid­den City is ready to take its place among the great mu­se­ums of the world.

Puyi (third from right), the last em­peror, with his tu­tor and ad­vi­sor Sir Regi­nald Flem­ing John­ston (fourth from right) and his broth­ers on Yangx­ingzhai Tower in the For­bid­den City

Ar­ti­facts from Yangxin Dian, an un­opened court­yard of the For­bid­den City, were ex­hib­ited in Nan­jing in De­cem­ber 2017

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