THE reinvigorated Palace Museum in Beijing has breathed new life into the historic complex and made the Forbidden City no longer “forbidden.” New and returning visitors can now enjoy walking on the city walls around the Meridian Gate, explore the private garden of the emperor’s mother in Cining Palace, enjoy the royal treasure collection of paintings and calligraphy and get up-front and personal with terracotta warriors.
The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City and a landmark in the heart of Beijing, is welcoming new waves of visitors. It has turned China’s top museum from an ancient palace with old scrolls and grand buildings into a museum with various exhibitions accessible in diversified and interactive ways.
It’s worth spending several hours in the new extention of the museum which opened on National Day holiday in October to celebrate its 90th anniversary.
What’s new now is that public access has been granted to wings of the Meridian Gate, East Prosperity Gate and city walls. There’s a digital exhibition at Duanmen Gate and more national treasures on display, many of them for the first time. Many were previously only accessible to royal families even in ancient times.
“We are so lucky as they were really forbidden areas before,” said Chen Jiakun, a Beijing resident who visited the museum last month.
The excitement of Chen, a history fan who has visited several museums in Beijing, is palpable and justified.
A total of 65 percent of the Palace Museum grounds are now open to visitors thanks to the expansion and restoration projects, compared with 52 percent previously. Eighteen new exhibitions will gradually open to the public and expose more than 4,500 new cultural and historic relics, according to head of the Palace Museum Shan Jixiang.
“There are so many ‘firsts’ associated with the expansion in terms of relic numbers, categories, exhibition spaces and content variety,” Shan wrote in the Chinese-language National Geographic magazine.
As an ancient Chinese architecture fan, I was really fond of the newly open city walls, halls and a special exhibition for architecture. It was the first time visitors had been able to walk on the walls of the Forbidden City and touch the structure.
The 600-year-old palace-style structrure represents the highest levels of building craftsmanship in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is a combination of strict building standards and architecture beauty.
The Forbidden City itself is a living relic as the world’s biggest wooden-structure ancient palace, Shan said.
Cining Palace and its garden, including luxuriously decorated bedrooms and Buddha statues, offer a rare opportunity for people to learn more about the emperors and their families. Vistors are able to get a glimpse inside the personal chambers of the emperors’ mothers and a nearby private garden, as large as a standard football field. Cining Palace, now the museum’s new sculpture hall, has more than 500 sculptures made of stone, wood, silver, gold or jade. It includes terracotta warriors previously stored in the museum warehouse and placed on display for the first time.
I still remember when I visited the museum for the first time a decade ago. Visitors were kept outside the three emperor palaces and couldn’t see many details because of the poor lighting and big crowds.
The special exhibitions of calligraphy and paintings are the museum’s most popular. The famous national treasures being displayed include the painting “Riverside Scene at Tomb Sweeping Festival.” As expected, the expansion helped the museum accommodate growing tourist numbers so it took up to seven hours to get in to see the painting at peak times in October.
It is advisable to start your visit early morning on a work day to avoid the peak crowds. Even without the long queues of weekends, visitors can spend several hours visiting the newly-opened areas.
First-time visitors should set aside an entire day to visit and organize to be on site at 8:30am opening. If you have time, the best idea is to devote two days to take full advantage of the precinct.
The new halls offer free Wi-Fi in most spaces and there’s online visitor guide narration. The museum’s WeChat account also pushes out information about exhibitions.
The final stop on the museum tour is the museum shop close to the north exit. It’s worth spending time and money on books and interesting items. The most popular products include the Forbidden City magazine with detailed descriptions of Stone Moat paintings, high-quality prints, and bag tags with the wording in Chinese meaning “Go Travelling on the Emperor’s Order.”
The museum offers online entry ticket purchasing, a highly recommended service particularly during busy weekends and holidays. Taxis and buses are the most convenient methods of transport to the museum.
New exhibition highlights
‘The World Rejoices As One: Celebrating Imperial Birthdays in the Qing Dynasty’
Longevity has long been a common dream of humanity. In the Qing dynasty, the emperor’s birthday was called the Vast Longevity or Wanshou Festival. The festival, held every decade, became one of the Qing court’s most important, displaying pictures and artwork to celebrate the great birthdays of royalty. The display shows visitors descriptions of daily lifestyle, streets decorated with lanterns and colorful ribbons, a wide range of opera performances and precious gifts made of gold and jade. The highlight is a 40-meter long painting that depicts street celebrations for the 60th birthday of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722).
Date: October 10 to January 10 Location: The Meridian Gate (Wumen Gate) and its east and west wings
The Sculpture Gallery
Exhibits on display in the Sculpture Gallery are grouped into three themes: terracotta figures, stone and brick reliefs, and Buddhist statues. The displayed items include: the world-renowned terracotta statue of warrior Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC); curved-stone reliefs unearthed in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces; and, the white stone Buddhist statues of Quyang from Hebei Province. The display area of about 1,375 square meters includes 425 exhibits and the protective barriers have been kept to a minimum.
Date: Permanent Location: The Palace of Benevolent Tranquility (Cining Palace)