Yuxin Dai WR 150 04/30/2017
A “Newer” Forbidden City On Its Way?
600 years after the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties, was built, the Chinese government plans to “redecorate” and “polish” it. However, the Chinese government prefers to calls its action a “conservation” plan. Conservation by definition is a process to extend an object’s lifespan, but the Chinese government’s version of conservation plan intends to change the way the Forbidden city used to be without solving problems the Forbidden City faces.
The Forbidden City requires very high maintenance and conservation becomes a major problem due to the extremely high volume of tourists, on average, there are 6 to 8 millions visitors each year. The Chinese government then designed a series of plans, based on the government report, these plans will eventually open up 20% more opening areas, reconstruct several buildings, return many artifacts to its previous condition and build a underground exhibition hall. It seems to many people that this plan has little to do with actual conservation and will somehow attracts more tourists. After viewing the plan, many professionals also raised their doubts. Under the protests and pressures that come from historians and archaeologist, this conservation plan did not go as smoothly as the Chinese government expected.
Here comes the first problem raised by the Taihe Dian reconstruction team. Taihe Dian, the palace where an emperor meets his courtiers, is the most important reconstruction project since it is the biggest wooden structured palace remaining in China. According to Yongue Li, the leader of the reconstruction team, the reconstruction process for Taihe Dian is very challenging and any mistakes will make us end up with a broken palace. How difficult can it be? Well, when craftsman recreate different parts, they are unable to make those parts exactly the same, therefore, when they put these newly made parts together, it might cause the palace to collapse. To make it more concerning, here comes the documentary “Masters in Forbidden City”. Both historians and the general public find that many workers who currently works for the Forbidden City project have very limited knowledge of history and crafting skills. In other words, the Chinese government is handing over priceless artifacts and palaces to workers who are used to fixing broken pipes. It is hard to imagine that someone with these skills will be able to fix a palace, isn’t it? The intention of fixing these artifacts is to extend their lifespans, however, with workers that are not skilled enough, it is highly unlikely this goal can be achieved. When workers failed to fix our pipes, we can get new ones, but if they failed to fix our palaces, what can we do?
Another issue is alternating the significance of artifacts. An anonymous painter who currently works in the Forbidden City projects expresses a point in the documentary “Masters in Forbidden City” that different painters have different views and habits.When they are assigned to restore the paintings in the Forbidden City, their personal interpretations of the paintings will be added and may change the interpretation of the original author. If we put his point in another word, it becomes “Since we are assigned to restore the paintings, we will do whatever we think is right.” Is it worth it restoring the paintings by sacrificing their original meanings and leaves no space of imagination?
Also, leaders of this conservation project stated that the government plans to fix these broken artifacts in order to recreate the glorious Kangxi period. If government wants to show people what was the Kangxi period like, why not create a model of the Forbidden City and do whatever needs to be done instead. There are also plenty highly accessible TV series about Kangxi period, is it truly necessary to change the current Forbidden City just for this purpose? What the Forbidden City needs is an actual conservation plan instead of a so-called “conservation” plan that changes rather than protects the Forbidden City.
Moreover, the Fengshui of the Forbidden City will also changed. Fengshui is a very important culture of China, most people in ancient China who were rich or powerful believed in Fengshui, especially the royal family. The layout and geographic location of the Forbidden City are all chosen by Fengshui masters based on Fengshui theory. Many Fengshui masters today believe that the current plan of building the underground exhibiting hall will affect the Fengshui of the Forbidden city by changing its symmetrical layout and removing the soil. Emperor Zhudi hired a very famous Fengshui master to design the layout and the style of his palace and spent 14 years constructing, changing it now seemed highly disrespectful to both Zhudi and the Fengshui master. Imagine you put so much effort into something, and all of a sudden, a random person comes in and tells you that he is going to redo everything. The underground exhibition hall will indeed bring in more tourists and boost the economy, but what is more important, the tourism industry or traditional Chinese culture? Chinese government made its choice, but the citizens were never given the chance to choose.
Despite the fact there are so many doubts raised by professionals, the Chinese government still has not modified the plan yet. The plan was meant to solve problems the Forbidden City faces, however, other than bringing in more tourists that may cause even more future problems, I cannot see how this plan is going to actually help the Forbidden City. Major problems the forbidden city faces are artifacts’ exposure to direct sunlight and humid atmosphere that causes wood to mold, which are both caused by the excessive amount of tourists. While the root problem remain unsolved, the purpose and focus of the current conservation plan thus becomes derailed. I wonder what is happening next, and hopefully, I will have a redecorated home rather than a “redecorated” Forbidden City.
This public intellectual essay is tailored for Scientific American. Scientific American covers a wide range of topics while most of its articles tend to be opinionated and written in a conversational style with the support of professional views. My essay tends to be very conversational and readable, therefore, I think Scientific American will be a great fit. .