E-Travel Log #2: Beijing - The Forbidden City

Attention Teachers: Please see teacher notes below.

Dear Students:

Ni men hao! Greetings from Beijing, the capital city of China. Beijing, which means 'northern capital' in Chinese, has a population of nearly 13 million people and is the political and cultural heart of China. And at the heart of Beijing, in the very center of downtown, is the Forbidden City. In this report, we're going to pay a visit to that famous city in a city. We'll also challenge you with two guess-who poems about Asian animals and list some answers to your questions, provided by students in China. Enjoy!


For almost four thousand years, until 1911, China had been ruled by emperors. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the emperor was chosen by heaven - and given the power and responsibility - to rule. If the emperor ruled well, he (or she - there was one ruling empress) could pass his power to one of his sons. If the emperor did not rule well, natural disasters would occur and the people would revolt, establishing a new dynasty.

In 1911, dynastic rule in China ended. Now, the country is called the People's Republic of China (or the PRC) and is run by the Communist Party, not an emperor.


In 1421, after declaring Beijing the new capital of China, the then emperor of the Ming Dynasty built the Forbidden City. Since it was considered a sacred place for a ruler with the mandate of heaven, entry was forbidden to all except the emperor and his family, servants and guests. Nowadays, the site is no longer out of bounds to common folks like us - and is a popular destination for both Chinese and international tourists. So, let's take a look inside!

The rectangular 78-acre walled city is actually more like a fortress and a palace rolled into one. It consists of a series of halls and buildings with, according to legend, a total of 9,999 rooms. (That might seem like a lot of rooms for just one emperor - but not if you consider that he had up to 100,000 eunuchs serving him and up to 3000 women in his harem!)


At the southern Meridian Gate, we pass through the giant red doors that were closed to citizens for almost 500 years and look across a football-field sized courtyard to the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Half way across is a moat, spanned by five marble bridges, featuring pillars with a common Forbidden City motif and a symbol of the emperor himself: the dragon. Dragons, of course, are very popular in Chinese art and architecture. There are several different kinds: the long chases flaming pearls through the sky, symbolizing the pursuit of purity; the li is the dragon of the sea; and the jiao is the dragon of marshy land.


Through the second gate, we cross another giant courtyard and ascend three massive marble platforms to reach the 'office buildings' of the Forbidden City, known as the Three Big Halls, the largest of which is called the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Continuing through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, we pass the sleeping quarters, including the Palace of Heavenly Purity (where the emperor slept) and the Hall of Heavenly and Terrestrial Union (where the empress slept), and the Palace of Terrestrial Tranquility (where sacred rites and ceremonies took place). Through another gate and the Imperial Garden, we finally pass through the Gate of Divine Prowess and exit the majestic imperial city.


Each of the buildings, of course, features amazing architecture. Notice how the details blend to form a harmonious whole, for example in the doors of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, pictured on this page. You'll also notice many bronze statues and stone sculptures, in particular, the stone lions that guard several of the buildings. 308 giant bronze urns also stand outside the wooden buildings, once used to hold water for extinguishing fires. Of course, the most distinctive architectural structures are the rooftops, made of symmetrical clay-tile tubing and studded with figures of dragons, phoenixes and other mythical creatures.


Just outside of the Forbidden City is another famous Beijing landmark, Tiananmen Square. The square itself is a giant cement plaza, surrounded by imposing statues, government buildings and museums. It has served as a gathering place for parades and official demonstrations on national holidays and a staging ground for protests against the government. These days, Beijingians gather there every afternoon to fly kites and to take strolls. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, featuring a giant painting of Chairman Mao Zedong, separates the square and the Forbidden City. To the left of Mao, there is a giant sign that says, "Long live the People's Republic of China." The sign on Mao's right says, "Long live the unity of the peoples of the world."


After strolling through the Forbidden City and flying kites on Tiananmen Square all day, you might be a little hungry: How about some Peking duck, Beijing's most famous dinner? The fattened duck is sliced and rolled into thin flour wraps with cucumber sticks, scallions and soy-plum sauce. A brothy soup with the leftover duck parts floating in it is served on the side. Yum!

Peking, by the way, is the old English way of saying Beijing and just one of Beijing's old names. It was also formerly called Beiping (Northern Peace), Yanjing (Yan Capital), Dadu (Great Capital) and Khanbaliq (Khan's Town - after an emperor from the 1200's, Kublai Khan, the grandson of the great Ghengis Khan.)


In each of our travel logs, we will include one or two guess-who poems about Asian animals. Your job is to guess which animals the poems are about. We'll tell you the answers in the following travel logs. While you are trying to guess, have a look at the form of the poems. Notice anything? (Hint: Count the syllables.) No, the poems aren't haiku: haiku is Japanese, not Chinese. These poems follow a Chinese poetry form. We'll tell you more about it in upcoming travel logs. In the meantime, try to guess which animals these two poems are about:

Animal #1

Oh, magnificent menace
Elegantly dressed to kill
Inspiring awe and wonder
You are beauty in a beast

Animal #2

Nature's violin
Chinese children's friend
Talented hopper
Small but fills the night


We will also be listing answer to questions classes in the U.S. have posed to students in China in our travel logs. Here's the first batch, answered by seventh graders from the Dali No. 1 High School in Dali, China. (Note: These are from last year's project since we haven't asked this year's questions yet.)

1. What are your favorite foods? We like rice and other traditional Bai food like fried chili pepper, donkey meat, mushrooms, fried pig skin, barbequed meat and raw pork.

2. What kind of clothing do you wear? At school we wear uniforms, which are blue and white sweat pants and jackets. At home we wear shirts, jeans, skirts, shorts, jackets, pants and sports shoes. For festivals, we wear our traditional Bai clothes.

3. Do you have a kite festival for special occasions? Around here we don't have a kite festival, although it's very windy in Dali and some people like to fly kites. The biggest kite festival in China is in Weifang City, Shandong Province. We saw on TV that they actually held their annual kite festival just a couple of days ago.

4. What kinds of pets do you have? Most of us have dogs and cats at home. We also like rabbits. (Note by Lilia: Only rural areas in China have lots of pets like dogs and cats. It's hard to have dogs as pets in big cities because the government is strict about animal-control.)

5. What kind of music do you listen to? We listen to rock &roll music. We like Michael Jackson and Robin Williams. We also listen to traditional Chinese music and Chinese pop music.

6. What kinds of homes do you live in? Our traditional Bai houses are called si he yuan. Each house has a big courtyard in the middle with one or two stories of houses made of bricks on three sides and the gate on the other side. The front gates are made of wood and on them there are usually drawings of the 'god of the gate' to protect our houses.

7. Is the dragon a special symbol in China? Yes, the dragon is a symbol of China and the Chinese people. Chinese people also call their sons 'dragons' and their daughters 'phoenixes'. A lot of Chinese men have the word Long which means dragon in their names. You can see dragons almost everywhere in China, painted on walls, doors, roofs, even on clothes, purses, etc.

8. What do you like to do for fun? We play basketball, soccer and volleyball. We read novels. We watch TV. We also play hide and seek and other games.

9. What television shows do you watch? We like to watch cartoons, science fiction movies, legends and other children's programs. We can also rent movies to watch at home and we like American movies like Harry Potter and Home Alone.

10. What are your national symbols? Besides dragons, we would think it is the panda, since only in China there are these cute animals.

These questions were answered by second and third grade students at the Wu Li Qiao Complete Elementary School in Dali.

1. What kind of music do you listen to? We like children's music. We sing children's songs.

2. Do you use chop sticks? Yes, that's the only way to eat except for drinking soups.

3. What are your houses made out of? Our houses are made out of bricks, rocks and wood.

4. What types of festivals or celebrations do you have? On top of the national holidays like the New Year, Chinese New Year, May Day Holliday and National Holiday in October, we have many Bai traditional festivals. For example, right now we are having the March Street Market Festival, which starts on March 15th in the Chinese Lunar Calendar every year. On the day of June 24th of the Lunar Calendar, we have a Fire Torch Festival. On this day every village has a big bonfire in the middle of the town and all children are given one small torch of fire. We swing the fire around and it's so much fun! Eventually we throw the torches into the bonfire. This tradition comes from the legend of a Bai princess called Song Bai who was forced to marry a Nanzhao King. In order to save her, the people burned the palace and she was intact from the fire. So now every year on this day we burn the fire to celebrate her freedom. Also we all celebrate a day called Ben Zu Festival, which is the day to show respect to our ancestors. Each village has its own date for this festival and if one village is having it, some other villages will be invited for a big feast.

5. What are you most afraid of? We are afraid of snakes. Some girls are afraid of rats but the boys are not.

6. Do you plant flowers? Yes, we do. We grow up in the countryside so almost all of us know how to plant flowers and work in the fields.

7. What kinds of animals do you like? We like rabbits, dogs, cats, pigeons, little birds and small chickens.

8, How long do you go to school for? We start regular classes in the morning at 8 am after half an hour of preparations. In between any two classes we have 15 minutes of break. After two classes we get a bigger break. We have four classes in the morning until 11:50. Then we go home for lunch since all of us live close to the school. Our classes in the afternoon start at 1:50. We have three more classes in the afternoon until 4:50 and then we can go home to do our homework.

9. What is the best thing about living in China? Our country has beautiful scenery and a long history. We are proud of our country for that. We like to hear all the folk lore and old legends. We also like the food a lot.

10. What kinds of things do you play in China? We play hide & seek and lao yin zhua xiao ji, where one person is the hawk and he/she has to catch the small chicks protected by the hen. We like to play jump rope. We also play diu s; .hou juan, which is where everybody sits in a circle and sings a song while a boy or girl walks around with a handkerchief. When he/she drops the handkerchief behind another person, this person has to run and catch him/her. The girls also like to play a game of jumping around and doing tricks with rubber bands.


That's all for this travel log. In our next report, we'll be taking a stroll on the Great Wall of China. Till then, learn lots!

Paul and Lilia
China Project Coordinators

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E-Travel Log #2: Beijing - The Forbidden City

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