The Forbidden City Opens Wide as China Projects New Pride in Its Past

BEIJING — For much of the past century, the Forbidden City has been an imposing void in the otherwise bustling heart of Beijing.

The 180-acre compound, where emperors and their advisers plotted China’s course for centuries, was stripped of its purpose when the last emperor abdicated in 1912. Since then, the palace grounds have at times lain empty or been treated as a perfunctory museum, with most of the halls closed to the public and the few that were open crammed with tourists on package tours.

But as the Forbidden City approaches its 600th birthday next year, a dramatic change has been taking place, with even dark and dusty corners of the palace restored to their former glories for all to see.

As recently as 2012, only 30 percent of the vast complex, was open to the public. Now, 80 percent is accessible — quickly filling with exhibition spaces, stylish restaurants and cafes, bookstores, and highly profitable gift stores, as well as quiet walkways, shady stands of trees and odd nooks that invite contemplation of bygone dynasties.

The revitalization of the Forbidden City has coincided with a broader push in China to protect and project the country’s cultural heritage — an about-face for a Communist Party that came to power vowing to overturn the past and build a new, socialist utopia on the Soviet model.

President Xi Jinping, who has lauded traditional teachings like Confucianism, has pushed “cultural self-confidence” as one of his signature policies. His government has pumped money into reviving traditional cultural practices, and in 2014 Mr. Xi called on the Palace Museum to better showcase its holdings.

The changes have paid off. The Forbidden City is growing increasingly popular. There were a record 17 million visitors in 2018.

“We never used to come here because there wasn’t really too much to see,” said Zhao Li, a 44-year-old software engineer visiting recently with his 12-year-old daughter. “But now we can walk around and see new exhibitions. It makes it easier for younger people or children to grasp the past.”

Those tumultuous postwar years left the Forbidden City a setting with no jewels.

Its decline seemed cemented when Mao Zedong and his peasant army won China’s civil war in 1949, moving the seat of government into the Zhongnanhai gardens next door to the Forbidden City.

Mao’s Communist government debated tearing down the complex, or creating a vast Soviet-style wedding cake palace opposite it. In the end the turmoil of that era spared the palace, but it was often closed, its staff members at times tortured during political campaigns.

The most striking aspect of the Forbidden City today is that the great walls around it are now mostly open to the public as spectacular walkways, allowing a drone-like view of the grounds. Only the very western wall, which overlooks Zhongnanhai, the equivalent of China’s White House, is off limits.

Also surprising is that government bodies — including the military — have vacated most of the halls they once occupied.

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