Helen Wurthmann: Forbidden (essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Missouri, whose Southern statehood led to the civil war, regardless of whether or not modern Missourians consider themselves Southerners. Missouri and I are the middle children of our respective families: often overlooked but still legitimate. I was also lucky enough to be raised by a strong female role model hailing from Tennessee, who still falls into her southern drawl when she speaks passionately on any subject. She introduced me to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, both of whom taught me the difference between crazy and brilliant.


My aunt told me that you know a country is westernized when native people show up to their own tourist destinations.

There were crowds of Chinese people at the Forbidden City—and a few foreigners, too—herding between buildings, up stairs, and around the smudged glass windows that reveal the insides of rooms. Now I am not only claustrophobic, but crowds as an idea freak me out. They recall terms like “mob mentality” and “stampede.” All this did little to improve my mood. I was tired, for one. This was only our second day in China, the land of twelve hour time differences, and the previous day I’d climbed the Great Wall in my pathetically out-of-shape body.

Other than exhaustion, I was also annoyed by faux-communist China. When walking into the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, you have to go through an outer wall with a giant picture of Mao on the outside, which is about as absurd as the American flag on the moon. Then, of course, there was our guide, who had asked us to call her “Emily.” Emily was still in love with Mao and his ideals, giving her the habit of prefacing explanations with, “Before China was founded in 1949” or laughing as she told the story of the last emperor. You know, the one who was raped by his concubines when he as nine and from then on was afraid of women. Hilarious.

These little subliminal messages were beginning to bug me, festering in my anti-communist, post-feminist, American disposition. I would walk around Beijing in perfect cultural cluelessness and then—Bam!–

Lastly, the Forbidden City was not living up to my expectations. Why wasn’t I experiencing the same scenes I’d seen in Mulan, Shanghai Noon, or Hero? This was supposed to be the sprawling city of honorable Chinese heritage, not a harumphing mass of tourists. And what was with the schizophrenic weather? Raining one minute, sun-sweating the next. I thought I’d left all that back in the Midwest. This is supposed to be my vacation, goddamit!

…It’s times like these when it’s hard to like me.

We shuffled from place to place, struggling to understand our guide’s descriptions. Her accent and the ambient noise left a lot up to the imagination. Luckily I had only been out of college for three weeks and still had my listening student mask down pat. My retired Colonel and lawyer of an aunt had a different approach. She would listen for a few moments, but if the guide discussed something she’d heard before, she would wander away to inspect whatever was nearby. Since she’d visited China three times in the past this pattern happened quite a lot. That left me to feign interest if only to make Emily feel like she was doing her job.

I don’t remember much about the inside of the Forbidden buildings except dark shapes in dark rooms, especially since Emily kept impatiently rushing us through the palace like we were in some big hurry. Later, we’d be left waiting at the train station for nearly two hours because we sprinted through everything else.

This mind numbing pattern continued into the afternoon until we got to the gardens a short time before closing. Maybe it was the photosynthesis, but I like to think it was history’s magic that allowed us to suddenly breathe peacefully. Unlike the harsh structure of the rest of the city, the gardens meander around giant trees and rocks, a forbidden wilderness. The calm was intoxicating, crowds dispersed. We became individual souls again, or perhaps ceased to become anything at all.

“I think you should take my niece to see the crown jewels,” my aunt said to Emily. My face got hot. “I want to wander through here for a while.”

I want to enjoy the gardens, too, I wanted to say. They were clearly the best part of the city. Plus, the jewels were halfway across the palace grounds, so seeing them would be the last thing I would do before the site closed for the day.

Rather than argue, however, I kept these thoughts to myself. Having traveled with many a companion, I quickly learned to force privacy on occasion. It was only the second day of our trip (third if you count flying across the world), but my aunt and I had spent every waking hour together. And when you spend that much time with a person you barely knew before traveling, it’s a good idea to give each other some space for the sake of sanity.

As Emily and I powerwalked through the wall-enclosed streets, I thought about how I had no interest in seeing jewelry. Unless I plan on wearing it, I feel no amazement in the rarity of gemstones or the intricacies of ancient craft. We worked against the crowd, which was headed for the exit, leaving for the evening.

When we reached the gate, a security guard stopped my pass-toting guide. The emperor’s jewels were held in a separate section of the city as a way to milk more cash from tourists and apparently the tour guide pass that allowed access to the greater Forbidden City did not grant Emily access to this section for free.

Looking back, I have to wonder if my aunt intentionally sent me to see the jewels because she knew Emily would not be able to get in. She’s traveled to China enough times to possibly know these detailed inner workings. Maybe she was trying to give us both a break from our frantic, controlling guide. Or maybe it was all luck. Either way, I paid ten yuan, agreed to meet Emily in half an hour (never mind that I didn’t have a watch or phone), and passed through the gate.

I will say this about the Forbidden City: the walls are thick. They completely block out the noise on the other side of wherever you are. And—oh my god—open space! This exclusive area was basically deserted compared to the rest of the city. Apparently most people would not spend extra money to see jewelry.

I decided to at least swing by the jewels to make sure I wasn’t missing anything spectacular (I wasn’t—just more small and crowded dark rooms) and to make sure I could reference an item to prove that I’d seen them. The crown itself seemed a good enough example. But immediately after my quick perusal, I escaped to explore the few buildings in this VIP area.

As I wandered, I was reminded of when I went to Prague the previous year. It’s one of Europe’s oldest cities, but it can be lost in the overflow of tourism. In Prague, I stumbled into a Night Walking tour and realized that sometimes you have to experience a historical place in empty silence to truly feel those overwhelming vibes of faded magnificence.

The buildings in this section of the Forbidden City hadn’t been renovated like the others. The structures looked less like a museum and more like the living palace it once was. Sure, they weren’t as pretty as those on the other side of the wall, but what about history makes us think it was glossy and neat? The past is as much of a mess as life is today, and you need a bit of ruin to keep from glorifying it beyond recognition. As I stood on an ornate bridge linking building to ground, I thought of the girls who were condemned to live as concubines from the age of twelve, or the eunuchs who patrolled the city, or the emperors who carried the weight of an empire on their shoulders without ever stepping foot outside their tiny bubble.

A line of guardians perch on the corners of each building in the city. They always follow an order, beginning with a man on a giant chicken (which no one could ever successfully explain to me), followed by a dragon (symbolizing the emperor), and so on. The more guardians, the more important the building. The one I sat beneath had only these two, which for all I know meant I was sitting outside the royal toilet. I wondered if the Forbidden City guardians might be considering the changing China around them with horror and disbelief. Or perhaps they’d seen enough in their time to stop being surprised by the fickleness of power, pain (love), secrecy, and honor. The Forbidden City is not some quaint pop culture reference.

It is not really anything–except maybe the evidence of change and changelessness.