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Peking; The great sights of a capital city

By Ellen SteeseTravel editor of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1982


It is immediately apparent, as you step inside the 30-foot walls of the former Imperial Palace in Peking, that in its day it was a hierarchal fantasyland on the order of Versailles. Its 9,000 rooms and 250 acres were probably none too many for the 20,000 to 30,000 people who once lived here. There are no fewer than five gates in the high wall through which we entered: the center for the use of the emperor, the ones on either side for the emperor's wives and relations, the outside for riffraff - at least, riffraff with invitations.

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Riffraff without invitations were forbidden to enter on pain of death, hence the name by which the palace is most often known: the Forbidden City.

Now, of course, the Forbidden City is a museum; and blue-, olive-green-, and gray-suited Chinese wander through its vast stone courtyards, nibble small brownish apples between its lofty red wooden pillars, and peer with mild curiosity into glass cases containing chopsticks, bowls, jewelry boxes, and scepters of solid gold - items no less remote-seeming because the feudal period they represent ended quite recently, in 1911.

''This gate is called the Meridian Gate because the emperor believed that the meridian went through the city,'' said Miss Liu, our charming CITS guide, leading us through the central, emperor's arch to a courtyard whose stones, she said, were the top layer of 15, set in alternating directions, so that no one could tunnel in.

The gray, rectangular courtyard stones were massive enough that even one layer might well challenge the intruder. The courtyard, of a size to assemble an army in, was formed by long buildings with curious curling tile roofs, and Chinese-red pillars. The effect was definitely imperial and impressive rather than charming, I thought, until Miss Liu pointed out the amusing little metal sea animals on the roofs (to prevent the buildings from being burned down by lightning, she explained: ''In Chinese mythology it was believed that sea animals could produce water'').

She then led us past quaint, life-size bronze tortoises and storks (representing longevity for the emperor), lions (to frighten evil spirits away from the emperor), and a delightfully carved stone container (for setting off fireworks on occasions like the emperor's birthday).

''The air must be bluem with incense when the emperor appeared,'' said Miss Liu, leading her group of Western tourists into a receiving room titled the Hall of Supreme Harmony. A huge throne sat on a sort of chancel; every surface in the room was carved; and dragons, symbols of the emperor, snaked up and down the pillars.

The Forbidden City is a city; receiving rooms and courtyards alternate endlessly, it seems, and weeks could be spent there. But it is a Versailles without a Louis the XIV; although 24 emperors lived here, no individual one was ever mentioned. This leaves the visitor to speculate whether these beings were always too august to have a personality, or whether there is a simple lack of modern interest in the leaders of the bad old days.

Peking originally consisted of four concentric rings, Miss Liu told us: the Forbidden City at its heart, then the Imperial City, the Inner City, the Outer City. The last three are fairly monochrome: the Forbidden City seems to have absorbed all color and variety - as if color and variety, as much as gold globes of the heavens with the stars marked in pearls or robes of woven peacocks' feathers, symbolized wealth and power.

Old and new China are deliberately linked by the juxtaposition of the Forbidden City and Tian An Men Square. The exiting tourist stumbles out underneath Chairman Mao's painted visage - surely one of the most conspicuous portraits in the world - which beams from the gate of the Forbidden City, facing the vastness of the square. Across the plaza is the Great Hall of the People and Chairman Mao's mausoleum. The day I was there, thousands of Chinese - mostly men , for some reason - lined up four abreast, brought by their communes to pay tribute to Chairman Mao, who, like another emperor, lies in state in a glass case under a Chinese flag.