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Doors to the Hall of Middle Harmony have nine rows of nine knobs because the number nine is prized in Chinese numerology (Justin Guariglia)

Forbidden No More

As Beijing gets ready to host its first Olympics, a veteran journalist returns to its once-restricted palace complex

It was under Qianlong, who reigned from the 1730s to the 1790s, that China extended its rule west to what is now Xinjiang province and south to Tibet, doubling its territory and becoming the world's richest and most populous nation. He appointed the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, as a tributary ruler and protected him with Chinese troops. "Qianlong was not only a great warrior, but also a great painter and poet," says Yuan Hongqi, a deputy director of the Palace Museum. "He's my favorite emperor."

Mine, too. When he was 65, Qianlong finished building a retirement palace and garden of his own design, but he held on to the throne for another 20 years. As it happens, during my visit the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund announce a major restoration of the garden with help from Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute experts, to be completed in 2016.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, where emperors conducted affairs of state, is by general consent the most magnificent building in all of the Forbidden City. In constructing it, its builders relied on cosmology and feng shui (literally, "wind and water"), the belief that orientation and environment wield good and bad influences. The builders also believed the numbers nine and five to be auspicious. So the trained eye sees many combinations of nine, from passageways leading to squares, to golden knobs decorating giant doors—nine across, nine down—to the famed Nine Dragon Screen. (And remember those 9,999 rooms?) Erected in 1771, the screen is 95 feet long and 12 feet high. Its 270 glazed tiles form nine five-clawed dragons set against a backdrop of roiling clouds and sea. "Five is important because it's midway between one and nine," says Professor Yang. "So the imperial dragons have five claws, while all other dragons have three."

The dragon represented imperial traits: benevolence, excellence, boldness, heroism, perseverance, nobility and divinity. And so dragons are everywhere. Two perch on the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and 1,142 marble dragons' heads disguise the downspouts at its base. A marble ramp carved with dragons leads to the hall, where there are more dragons inside—13,844, to be precise—adorning columns, screens, walls, eaves and ceiling. More still run rampant over the Dragon Throne, while above it a painted dragon plays with a giant mock pearl. When I ask Li Ji, the Palace Museum's executive deputy director, just how many dragons there are in the Forbidden City, he gestures helplessly. "Too many to count," he says.

Beyond two other impressive pavilions—the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony—a pair of golden lions stand guard at the Gate of Heavenly Purity, the entrance to the emperor's private quarters, which is surrounded by high red walls. Next to the entranceway I see, improbably, a Starbucks in a building in which officials once waited to see the emperor. (The coffee emporium has since closed, after a Chinese blogger stoked widespread opposition to the franchise.) More modest pavilions once housed imperial concubines.

"The emperor chose his night companion from nameplates presented to him by a eunuch," says Yuan. A high-ranking eunuch, the Chief of the Imperial Bedchamber, would remove the woman's clothes to ensure that she carried no weapons or poisons, roll her up in a quilt and carry her on his back through the courtyards to the emperor.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), only Manchu girls were eligible to become the emperor's concubines. (Manchus, warlike nomads from the northern steppes, made up just 2 percent of China's population yet ruled the country.) Typically, the empress dowager—the emperor's mother—led the selection process. In a famous 18th-century Chinese novel, Dream of a Red Mansion, an imperial concubine reflects on her pampered servitude: "How much happier are those whose home is a hut in a field, who eat salt and pickles and wear clothes of cotton, than she is who is endowed with wealth and rank, but separated from her flesh and blood."

Passions and ambitions stewed in this world within a world. In Chinese lore, more than 200 concubines died on the orders of the 16th-century emperor Shizong. Seeking to end their misery, 16 members of his harem stole into his bedchamber one night to strangle him with a silken cord and stab him with a hairpin. The emperor lost an eye in the struggle, but the empress saved his life. Court executioners then tore the limbs from the concubines and displayed their severed heads on poles.

Concubines often developed close attachments to the eunuchs, whose role as royal servants in China long preceded the building of the Forbidden City. In his autobiography, Emperor Puyi wrote that eunuchs at the court "were most numerous during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when they reached a strength of 100,000," but that number had dwindled to about 3,000 by the time Puyi became emperor, in 1908. The eunuchs, castrated to prevent nonimperial pregnancies among the concubines, tended to know their master's weaknesses and were often willing to exploit them. "The emperor in many cases became the plaything of those pariahs from the normal world," writes Taisuke Mitamura in Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics. "They deftly colored for their own purposes the ruler's picture of the outside world and turned him against any ministers who tried to oppose their influence."

Most eunuchs had chosen their way of life, says Yuan. "It seemed a little thing to give up one pleasure for so many," an unnamed eunuch told the British Sinologist John Blofeld in City of Lingering Splendour, Blofeld's memoir of early 20th-century Beijing. "My parents were poor, yet suffering that small change, I could be sure of an easy life in surroundings of great beauty and magnificence; I could aspire to intimate companionship with lovely women unmarred by their fear or distrust of me. I could even hope for power and wealth of my own."

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