The Forbidden City Opens Wide as China Projects New Pride in Its Past

BEIJING — For a lot of the previous century, the Forbidden City has been an imposing void in the in any other case bustling coronary heart of Beijing.

The 180-acre compound, the place emperors and their advisers plotted China’s course for hundreds of years, was stripped of its objective when the final emperor abdicated in 1912. Since then, the palace grounds have at occasions lain empty or been handled as a perfunctory museum, with a lot of the halls closed to the general public and the few that had been open full of vacationers on package deal excursions.

But as the Forbidden City approaches its 600th birthday subsequent 12 months, a dramatic change has been taking place, with even darkish and dusty corners of the palace restored to their former glories for all to see.

As not too long ago as 2012, solely 30 % of the huge advanced was open to the general public. Now, 80 % is accessible — rapidly filling with exhibition areas, trendy eating places and cafes, bookstores, and extremely worthwhile present shops, as properly as quiet walkways, shady stands of timber and odd nooks that invite contemplation of bygone dynasties.

The revitalization of the Forbidden City has coincided with a broader push in China to guard and challenge the nation’s cultural heritage — an about-face for a Communist Party that got here to energy vowing to overturn the previous and construct a brand new, socialist utopia on the Soviet mannequin.

President Xi Jinping, who has lauded conventional teachings like Confucianism, has pushed “cultural self-confidence” as certainly one of his signature insurance policies. His authorities has pumped cash into reviving conventional cultural practices, and in 2014 Mr. Xi known as on the Palace Museum to better showcase its holdings.

The changes have paid off. The Forbidden City is growing increasingly popular. There were a record 17 million visitors in 2018.

“We never used to come here because there wasn’t really too much to see,” said Zhao Li, a 44-year-old software engineer visiting recently with his 12-year-old daughter. “But now we can walk around and see new exhibitions. It makes it easier for younger people or children to grasp the past.”

Those tumultuous postwar years left the Forbidden City a setting with no jewels.

Its decline seemed cemented when Mao Zedong and his peasant army won China’s civil war in 1949, moving the seat of government into the Zhongnanhai gardens next door to the Forbidden City.

Mao’s Communist government debated tearing down the complex, or creating a vast Soviet-style wedding cake palace opposite it. In the end the turmoil of that era spared the palace, but it was often closed, its staff members at times tortured during political campaigns.

The most striking aspect of the Forbidden City today is that the great walls around it are now mostly open to the public as spectacular walkways, allowing a drone-like view of the grounds. Only the very western wall, which overlooks Zhongnanhai, the equivalent of China’s White House, is off limits.

Also surprising is that government bodies — including the military — have vacated most of the halls they once occupied.

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