I had expected to feel awe as I approached the Meridian Gate guarding what most Chinese call the Great Within—Beijing's Forbidden City—but I'm surprised to feel apprehension, too. After all, it's been a while since the emperors who ruled from behind these formidable walls casually snuffed out lesser lives by the thousands. From 1421 to 1912, this was the world's most magnificent command center—a reputed 9,999 rooms filled with nearly a million art treasures spread over 178 walled and moated acres.
Had I accompanied the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, the first Westerner to visit the Forbidden City, in 1601, I would have seen these pavilions, courtyards and alleyways bustling with courtiers: concubines clad in silk, gold and jade; eunuchs serving as cooks, cleaners, clerks, compilers and companions; and the emperor's hard-eyed troopers bearing curved swords. But when I first visited, in 1973, not a single human voice sullied the silence, though the cawing of crows sounded like warnings and I thought the breeze playing about my ears could be the whispers of emperors past. I spent that first day 35 years ago treading the ancient clay bricks and marveling at the long procession of scarlet pavilions. Most were locked, and there were no guides to tell me their secrets. Mao Zedong was then putting China through his Cultural Revolution, and he had virtually closed the entire nation to outsiders. He had also sent the intellectuals—including, I assumed, the Forbidden City's guides—out to the countryside to toil with peasants in order to clean the dung from their overintellectualized brains.
I fell in love with the Forbidden City that long-ago day, and over the next 18 months visited it often. Back then, I was frustrated by how much of it was off-limits. But when I returned recently for three weeks of indulgent exploration, its formerly hidden glories were revealed.
Mao's capital was still a backwater in 1973, when I was the first Australian journalist to be based in Communist-ruled Beijing. Today, it is the capital of an emerging economic colossus. The ramshackle airport terminal I knew so well traffics in charter flights and gathers weeds, while a new one, completed in 1980, disgorges tens of thousands of visitors every day. (A big, brassy addition is slated to open before China hosts the Olympic Games in August.) In 1973, a crumbling two-lane road led through run-down villages and past carts hauled by donkeys (and men) to the capital, some 15 miles away. Now, an eight-lane highway carries shiny Toyotas and Mercedes-Benzes into the heart of Beijing.
Back in 1973, no more than a thousand cars navigated Beijing's potholed roads; now, my taxi driver tells me, there are more than two million. I look in vain for the ancient landmarks that dominated the once-graceful city center, but they have been obscured, or worse, by high-rise apartments, flashy hotels and shopping malls. In its latest great leap forward, the government has targeted the economy to quadruple by 2020. By 2040, many predict, China will have the world's largest economy. If, in this frenzied dash for wealth and influence, much of the old capital has been demolished, at least Tiananmen, the massive square fronting the Gate of Heavenly Peace south of the Forbidden City, remains. In 1989 the square was the site of antigovernment protests that left hundreds dead (estimates range from 200 to 3,000 or more), but now it is much as I remember it. Mao may have been responsible for more than 40 million deaths, but his portrait still hangs in a place of honor above the giant gateway. And his mummified body lies in an eerie mausoleum in the square.
From Tiananmen, one can glimpse the Forbidden City beyond the gate—pavilions roofed in yellow tiles and pagodas that only hint at the opulence inside. To my eye, the complex's luster is being tarnished, or rather tarted up, by ill-conceived restoration efforts: in one of the larger squares, masons are replacing ancient bricks with sheets of pale-gray slate, and outside many prominent pavilions, painters are slathering glossy paint over the traditional ocher-based flat finishes, which absorb light and gave the place an ageless look. But the scale and purpose of the Forbidden City still echo through the centuries. The Yongle emperor, son of the Ming dynasty's founder, commissioned the complex in 1406, choosing the spot where, a century and a half before, the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan had set his fabled winter capital, Khanbalik. According to the book Forbidden City, by the British Sinologist Frances Wood, a hundred thousand craftsmen and a million laborers and convicts toiled three years to create this earthly paradise, which the emperor's court occupied in 1421.
Once through the Meridian Gate, I am surrounded by a sea of humankind, with myriad accents and languages identifying visitors from all over China and the world beyond, but the grandeur of the place seems to need no translation. "As the Son of Heaven, the emperor's most important duty was to keep the balance between Heaven and Earth," says Yang Xin, 86, a professor of philosophy at what is still officially known as Peking University. "To help him achieve this, the Forbidden City was designed as a small model of the entire cosmos."
Its planners, following more than a thousand years of imperial tradition to convey a sense of harmony, set the most important buildings on a north-south axis and symmetrically flanked them with lesser structures. The Meridian Gate, U-shaped and with high red walls, was designed to heighten visitors' anticipation of being in the emperor's presence, Yang told me. Passing through a high vaulted passageway, I suddenly see five white stone bridges crossing a stream in front of a plaza that my guide says could hold 50,000 courtiers. Above the square hovers the 15th-century Hall of Supreme Harmony, at 120 feet the tallest building in the complex. "All important ceremonies were held in the square or in the hall," Yang said. "The emperor was married here, ascended the throne here, celebrated the New Year here and dispatched generals to fight wars from here."
In this square, on ceremonial days, a royal deputy would command tens of thousands of courtiers and military officers to ke tou to the emperor, seated out of sight in the main hall. The massed subjects would fall to their knees and bow their heads to the pavement nine times.
In 1793, Britain's first envoy to China, Lord Macartney, arrived to negotiate a trade treaty, bearing such gifts as air guns, a 25-foot-tall clock, a hot air balloon, telescopes and a planetarium. But when he was presented to Emperor Qianlong, he declined to "kowtow"—to do so, he felt, would demean Britain's ruling king, George III. After several meetings at which the emperor declined to talk business, he sent Macartney packing with a note: "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures," it read. "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce."