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.”
While the complex’s collection is still impressive, many of the most legendary artworks on display when the museum opened in 1925 are now gone.
Successive emperors had collected some of the best and most iconic artifacts of Chinese culture, especially the monumental landscapes and calligraphy that are among the most highly prized cultural products of Chinese civilization.
But in 1933, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, under the command of Chiang Kai-shek, moved most of the holdings to the south for safekeeping. The prized pieces followed the Nationalists to Taiwan, where they now form the backbone of one of the world’s great museums, the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
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.
A few years after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the complex was in a sad state. Its mostly wooden buildings were cracked, crumbling and peeling into an ugly grayness.
Only a narrow corridor of the vast, rectangular grounds was open, and renovation work was so shoddy that it seemed like the set of a movie — acceptable at a distance but cheap and makeshift up close.
Improvements began to get more serious in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing. The main imperial throne room, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was rebuilt and a few shops were opened, including Starbucks. The coffee chain left, though, in 2007, after a concerted media campaign complaining about an American icon on the palace grounds.
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.
Next door is the imperial temple, once one of the most important structures in the complex, which is now being restored.
But even all that new space is not nearly enough to showcase the treasures collected over the centuries by the Sons of Heaven during their imperial reigns. Currently, the Forbidden City can display only about 30,000 objects at a time, or 2 percent of its total.
By 2022, a new campus in the university district of Haidian, about 18 miles to the northwest, is scheduled to open to the public, a 153-acre facility that will have room to show imperial carriages, carpets and regalia.
The museum staff members have also become more creative in using the space. During a recent visit, there was a show on how the imperial family celebrated the Chinese New Year, including reproductions of auspicious New Year’s couplets written by the emperor Kangxi, whose six-decade rule ended in 1722.
Lisa Tan, a 38-year-old editor at a Beijing publishing house, said the new shops were especially attractive because they offered traditional porcelain or cloisonné made by government-recognized masters using traditional methods.
“It’s good that the Forbidden City is taking a lead in keeping these traditional practices alive,” Ms. Tan said. “Their gift store has even become fashionable in some circles.”
And some of the more kitschy commercial activities are being curtailed, including photo studios where people can dress up like an emperor or empress.
Most visitors are still part of package tours that quickly funnel people through the central part of the complex. But taking a slower, more meandering path through the Forbidden City is a better way to soak up the history and discover some of its secrets.
For a visitor willing to take some time, the most notable and pleasant spots are the wings of the palaces and the courtyards that are now open and where one can sit, drink a tea and watch the vermilion walls shimmer in the summer sun.
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