Forbidden Facelift

A popular tourist sight gets an Olympic update

By: Jim Calio

The Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing, is getting a facelift. As part of a massive $48.2 million rehabilitation program stretching several years, the 600-year-old palace, home to Chinese dynasties since 1420, will undergo its first large-scale reconstruction since 1911. The same year that the Ming Dynasty, China’s last, was overthrown.

Since then, Beijing’s top tourist spot, attracting more than 7 million visitors a year, has undergone the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and too many tourists on its cobble-stone roads.
“Beijing has entered an era of unprecedented, massive heritage renovation,” said Wang Yuwei, an official with the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau.

Other attractions near Beijing scheduled for major repairs are the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs and the Peking Man ruins.

The Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, is a sprawling complex of villas, chapels, treasure houses and gardens that cover 178 acres and is surrounded by a 35-foot-high wall and a 170-foot-wide moat. For now, scaffolding covers many of the outlying buildings where the emperors’ servants were once housed.

So far, the renovation has used 330,000 bricks and 590,000 tiles to repair the palace’s distinctive mustard-colored rooftops, and at this time, an estimated 100 bricklayers and carpenters are at work on the restoration. Some workers are the sons and grandsons of those who worked on the Forbidden City in 1911, and the workers still use the same skills that have been handed down for centuries.

“It is very important to keep the original look of the palace,” said Jin Honghui, the Forbidden City’s deputy director. “That is the first principle of our work.”

To that end, workers have turned to the ancient methods of construction, including use of mortise and tenon joints in the wooden structures instead of nails, which involves the careful fitting of wooden components.

But repairs aren’t always done to tradition. For example, brushes were used to paint over some of the structures in the Forbidden City during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

“In ancient times, workmen did not use brushes to splash paint. Instead, they used silk fabric,” said Li Yongge, director of the ancient palace section of the Palace Museum.

Work on the Forbidden City is due to be completed in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.