From the Capital Airport we originally planned to take taxis to a subway station and ride the rail into Beijing proper. About halfway there, we realized that it wasn't worth the hassle to switch modes of transportation to save a few yuan. I was fine with the decision. It gave us more time to listen to our driver's blaring Chinese music and watch the VCD player built into the sun visor of our shiny new green taxi.
A half hour and about $12 later, we arrived at the northern gate of Beijing's Forbidden City. In all my travels in China, I'd never made it to the capital before. Coming here would be one of the highlights of my trip. For me, seeing sites isn't about a traveler's bragging rights. They're portraits of history, tools to help understand a culture with a mindset and heritage vastly different than my own. You can't speak to someone's heart unless you understand the things they hold dear. And for a culture as ancient as China, history is the prized possession.
The sheer size of the northern gate took me aback. With the pagoda-style roof, cylindrical columns and traditional red, gold, blue and green paint, it looked familiar. But it also had an otherness about it that I couldn't explain until further thought. Then I realized it: the same architectural style imitated in Chinese restaurants in America, the roof structure that tops gazebos and temples throughout China. These explain the familiarity. But this place is the archetype, the model from which all the copies got their roots--and their blueprints. This explains the otherness. A lightbulb can remind you of the sun, but look once at the sun and you'll see that they're not the same.
A thick red wall stood about 20 feet high and surrounded the entire complex, which is said to cover about 2 square miles. I wondered if it has always been red, or if it was painted that color after the Communist takeover in 1949. People swarmed the paved area outside the gate. An Indian family snapped a picture. A Chinese couple marveled. And our group of 13 Americans moved toward the ticket booth, where surprisingly those waiting had formed some semblance of a queue. Desperate tour guides barked at foreigners in multiple languages hoping for some group to enlist their services. Looking at the teeming masses of people, I thought "Forbidden City" is hardly an appropriate name for a place so crowded.
In fact, if you have 60 yuan to spend, the big gold-studded doors will fling open and usher you into the playground of the 13th-century ruling class. The walled complex, built during the Ming dynasty, is known as "forbidden" because of its original purpose--to keep God-ordained emperors and other members of the elite class from mingling with the common people. While the city was still in use, it served its purpose well, but this isolation left the emperors largely uninformed about the lives of the people they ruled. So, according to our friends, emperors delegated away a lot of the authority and served more as ceremonial figureheads than active leaders.
As we walked, Elayne said something about how the last emperor to live in the Forbidden City would occasionally sneak out so he could experience relief from the pressures of ruling and the freedom of the common people. Even though my research has proven that he only left because he was forced out, I still thought I'd like a someone that saw materialism and ease as a poison to be escaped from, not as a tub to soak in.
Then I began to think about the great city in heaven our sin forbids us to enter. Just like this Forbidden City was opened to the public after 500 years of seclusion and now draws millions every year, we want to see the throneroom of God--for which Jesus is the gate--opened to a people that have no idea about the love and benevolence that lives inside, or about the king that forfeited his high position to clear the path. When they enter this kingdom, they won't be tourists snapping pictures, trying to capture memories. They'll be citizens with direct and eternal access to the King.