Power, Tradition and Architecture: Lifting the Curtain

Inside Beijing’s Hall of Mental Cultivation

By Zishi Li

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the turn of the 20th century, the continuous expansion of western imperialist powers in China triggered an anti-foreign uprising among peasants, whose violent actions put the lives of foreign diplomats and civilians at stake. On the grounds of humanitarian intervention, seven western countries and Japan dispatched military troops to China in the summer of 1900. The Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing and planned to occupy the Forbidden City, only to find out that the once-sovereign and inviolable palaces were deserted. The emperor and the Dowager Empress had already fled several hours before.

During the last two dynasties in ancient China, Ming and Qing, the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing functioned as the imperial palace. It served as both the home and administrative center of the emperor for over 500 years. Defined by a moated symmetrical plan and filled with finely crafted building complexes, the Forbidden City exemplifies Chinese palatial architecture.

In China’s feudal era, the Forbidden City was literally “forbidden” due to its extremely limited access. The three gates aligned on the axis of symmetry remained closed most of the time, only opening to let in significant government officials for regular meetings. Without the emperor’s permission, even the royal family members could not approach the imperial palace. The common people could only stare at the glimmering glazed tiles on top of the palaces from a distance. Intruders would be tortured to death by the Manchu imperial guards.

Plan of the Forbidden City (Hall of Mental Cultivation in upper left)
Plan of the Forbidden City (Hall of Mental Cultivation in upper left)

Nevertheless, the Forbidden City was not closed off arbitrarily by the emperor. Its architectural form corresponds rigorously to the functioning of Chinese feudal regime. Its axial plan epitomizes the emperor’s sovereignty, while its architectural style strikes visitors with awe. A series of lofty red walls links the major palace Taihe to the three main gates with capacious squares in between, where ritual ceremonies and large-scale assemblies took place in different seasons. A complex of three palaces behind the monumental Taihe Palace served as the emperor’s inner court during the Ming Dynasty and the first half of the Qing Dynasty. Contrarily, the bureaus in charge of the imperial household duties are in the halls located at the four corners of the rectangular plan, concealed by the red walls surrounding the squares.

The combination of “office” and “home” in the Forbidden City emphasizes that imperial China was governed by a family with highly centralized administration, and the arrangement of the building complexes eloquently separates those two parts. However, this binary does not apply to the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Hall), the dwelling place of the emperor. A miniature of the Forbidden City itself, it is built on the west side of the axis of symmetry, adjacent to the three palaces in the rear. Apart from the bedroom on the east side, it contains a reading room on the west side, a small temple, a collection room and a delicate garden. At the heart of the Forbidden City, it connects directly to the Grand Council, inner court and household bureaus with an intricate net of passageways. Because of its homey scale and convenient location, emperors began to work there and call the chancellors in for intimate conversations in the Qing Dynasty.

The Hall of Mental Cultivation became the kernel of political institutions in feudal China during the reign of Cixi, the runaway Dowager Empress in the face of western intruders. She was the aunt of emperor Guangxu, who was too young to take charge of the country upon his father’s death. Cixi therefore took office on behalf of Guangxu while tactfully reinforcing her authority in the government. As a result, the emperor remained her puppet throughout his life. Given that women were forbidden from engaging in political affairs in ancient China, Cixi handled the governmental affairs behind a curtain in the Hall of Mental Cultivation as a ploy against the longstanding paternal tradition.

Restored interior of the Hall of Mental Cultivation
Restored interior of the Hall of Mental Cultivation

After the demise of Chinese feudal regime, the nationalist and communist government transformed the Forbidden City into a museum that exhibits the imperial treasures and objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Most of the palaces are preserved in their original forms, unveiling the once unapproachable imperial palace. Yet due to the lack of systematic maintenance in the past decades, the Hall of Mental Cultivation could no longer handle the huge flow of tourists. In the winter of 2015, a restoration project of the Hall of Mental Cultivation was launched in the hope of recovering the traditions in ancient Chinese architecture and restoring the daily life of the emperors in the Qing Dynasty. Research is being conducted on the construction process. Starting from resuming traditional building techniques, the journey of restoration lifts up Cixi’s curtain, sorts out thousands of artifacts, and clears the dust accumulated over five hundred years.

Zishi is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at zishi.li@yale.edu.