The Garden in the Forbidden City:  A geologic fantasyland

The Enterprise — Mike Nardacci

One of the immense Imperial courts in the Forbidden City in Beijing has not a flower, blade of grass, or tree to offer shade for visitors.

The Forbidden City in Beijing was for centuries the home of China’s emperors — an incredibly vast, luxurious series of courts, plazas, and spectacular imperial buildings, including throne halls, offices, and residences for the emperors’ families and courtesans.  It was strictly off-limits to the ordinary people of China.  Begun as the imperial residence during the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s, the complex grew to contain approximately 1,000 buildings.

The structures are marvels of traditional Chinese colossal architecture: upturned roofs adorned with figures from Buddhist history and Chinese mythology, elaborately carved wooden walls and pillars painted Imperial red.  Constructed without a single nail, they stand on broad platforms elevated well above ground level surrounded by moats crossed by ornate bridges.

Visitors pass through magnificent gates into vast courts, each seemingly more impressive than its predecessor.  Many are decorated with beautifully rendered Chinese lettering, transmitting whatever message a particular emperor wished to convey, but the essence is communicated without any translation:  Power, power, POWER.

It is no wonder that, when the Communists took control of China, Chairman Mao Zadong saw to it that his immense portrait adorned the entrance to the Forbidden City — an ironic statement of the fact that the “classless society” now had a “People’s Emperor” in residence.

Yet, especially on a hot summer’s day, one fact becomes glaringly apparent: Nowhere among the bridges, esplanades, or terraces is there a spot of green.  There are no sculptured trees or displays of potted plants anywhere.

The giant structures bake in the glaring Beijing sun and, from early morning to late evening, there is scarcely a hint of a shady refuge, save for the immense gated doorways in the walls that divide one huge open court from another.  According to the Forbidden City’s official guides, the reason had to do with security for the emperors and their families and other government officials:  A tree could provide cover for an assassin, as could an elaborate flower bed.

Better that the ruling classes and those guests invited into the confines of the Forbidden City should see its buildings in all their unobstructed grandeur than risk some arboreal or floral beauty spot which could give cover to an enemy with murderous intentions.

But Chinese scroll paintings and artwork on vases have often depicted idealized landscapes in which craggy mountains wreathed in clouds rise above forests and in which delicately-portrayed trees and flowers and waterfalls emerge from the mist, sometimes with a solitary figure or two or a pagoda dwarfed by the natural beauty.  Traditional Chinese art and poetry have frequently centered on nature’s ability to diminish humans and their handiwork while at the same time celebrating the mystical beauties of the landscape.

Thus, it is less a surprise than a stunning revelation to pass through the penultimate gateway in the Forbidden City and enter the twisting pathways of the Imperial Garden.

All at once, the trappings of overwhelming imperial power are gone. Instead, visitors find themselves in landscape from a Chinese fairy tale, a world of ancient trees, fantastic rock outcrops, waterfalls, and flowers, and scattered and hidden among them elaborately decorated gazebos.

Above the garden is an occasional view of one of the large imperial residences, which in the lush setting seems to have lost its foreboding appearance and instead looks like a castle out of some ancient legend.

Chinese gardens

Unlike traditional European formal gardens, Chinese gardens must have the appearance of being natural, even when intricate design and planning have gone into their creation. Visitors to Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and other great cities of China are often delighted to find gorgeous gardens and parks scattered everywhere — all of them the result of careful execution and giving the appearance of having been there for centuries, as though the vast boulevards and building complexes were built around them to insure that their naturally-formed designs remain unaltered.

In the gardens of the Forbidden City, the fantastic outcrops that form grottoes and border waterfalls and bubbling streams have been constructed mainly from limestone, and display features common in the vast karst areas of China.  Huge boulders that have been weathered through or appear pock-marked are examples of what the Chinese call “Scholar’s rocks,” which have long been prized as décor in China.

They are found mainly on the shores of legendary Lake T’ai-hu, which lies in the Yangtze Delta near Shanghai.  Heavily weathered into strange and often beautiful shapes by natural acids in the environment, they range in size from large cobbles to massive boulders, and in streams and waterfalls permit water to pass through and around them, often creating musical sounds and creating patterns in the flow.

Geologists call these features “honeycomb weathering,” but, where holes have been eaten right through the rock, they are commonly referred to as “tafoni,” apparently derived from a Sicilian word describing holes. Serving as reminders of the awesome power of nature and of Earth’s long history, they are ubiquitous as objects of contemplation in Chinese gardens.

But a careful observer in the Imperial Forbidden Garden will also notice some objects that have been brought from China’s vast caves, such as heavily weathered stalagmites situated among displays of Scholar’s Rocks.  Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and other structures deposited in caves by calcite-saturated dripping water have mystified and delighted civilizations the world over.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that they were actually slow-growing life forms, and the fantastical shapes they are capable of forming have given rise to many myths and legends.  Like the Scholar’s Rocks, they clearly inspired awe for the power of the natural world in the builders of the Imperial Garden.

The “canon” for the features of a traditional Chinese garden involves four elements: greenery, flowing water, architecture, and rocks. Bordering the twisting paths of the Imperial Garden are beds of many kinds of flowers springing in lush, colorful displays and huge trees of many species, carefully color-coded to indicate their ages — some of which can be measured in centuries.

Cascades and meandering streams fed by hidden pipes seem to spring naturally from the caverns and pools formed by Scholar’s Rocks. The beautiful gazebos hidden among the foliage and rocky outcrops appear perfect settings for a poetry reading, a romantic dalliance, or philosophical contemplation, and somehow even on a summer’s day when the garden may be crowded with visitors, it manages to convey feelings of peace and harmony with nature.

Beijing and the Forbidden City have seen much turbulent history and even violence, most recently during the madness of the unleashing of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards.  But how fortunate that, through centuries of upheaval and destruction, the Imperial Garden has survived to bring to the modern world such a ravishing display of man’s harmony with nature and awe in its mysteries.