The Forbidden City gets a face lift Beijing: China's old palace complex is undergoing repairs. Visitors might like to watch the process.

October 19, 1997|By Seth Faison | Seth Faison,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Of all China's illustrious and history-rich places , perhaps none is quite so stunning in scope and design as the Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing where emperors once lived and ruled.

It may also be the hardest to keep up. A vast collection of courtyards, halls and former living quarters spread out over 250 acres, the Forbidden City is forever fighting crumbling walls, decaying roofs and shaky pavilions.

China's Bureau of Relics recently announced that it would begin a $25 million renovation of the Forbidden City, or part of it anyway, mostly along the exterior walls, where a moat surrounds the old palace. "The renovation will not affect visitors," said Wang Hongnian, a senior official at the relics bureau. "We will do it part by part. Some visitors even like to come see how traditional repair work is done.

By the southwest corner, where the towering gray brick walls seem to have suffered from the elements more than in other places, a dozen workmen are replacing missing bricks.

"After another 100 years, you won't be able to tell the difference between these and the originals," said one workman, only partly in jest. The existing wall just behind him is 570 years old.

Today the moat that meanders around those walls is lined by willow trees, and elderly men with fishing poles can be found beside it on any given afternoon. But the water itself is dirty, with clumps of algae and assorted urban detritus.

Another aim of the renovation is to clean the water and dredge the moat, clearing away the thick piles of mud at the bottom.

"The moat hasn't been dredged since the mid-1970s," said Wang, the relics official. "Older people say they found all kinds of things in the moat, like musical instruments that were abandoned during the Cultural Revolution."

Over by Wu Men, a horseshoe-shaped gate that seems to draw in, like a magnet, all who approach the Forbidden City from its south-facing entrance, the crimson walls have faded from rain, wind and snow, and are peeling in places.

But the imperial yellow roofs that sit atop the gate and straddle the halls and buildings within still glisten in the afternoon sun. A renovation earlier this decade cleared the plant life from the roofs, and their rich saffron luster was retained.

Although long overdue, the renovation has its human costs. It brings to an end one of Beijing's minor secrets: A few dozen people have actually been living within the Forbidden City. Employees of the Palace Museum, they occupied a few rows of ramshackle houses along the inside of one of the enormous external walls.

Anyone lucky enough to to be invited there one evening could walk in the silent darkness of the Forbidden City and sense the echoes of Chinese culture that seem to lurk within the majestic walls and courtyards.

Parts of the palace's old living quarters, where the emperors and their thousands of attendant concubines, eunuchs and servants once stayed, are now offices of the museum, while other parts are open to visitors. But the museum authorities have decided that many of the rundown offices and the temporary housing should be razed or fixed up, as should the aging electrical wiring.

A New China News Agency account of the renovation said it would be complete by 2000. But Wang said repair work on the palace never really stops: "It will go on and on and on."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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