Last week my heart soared several feet as the train headed through the Chinese countryside because the revolving temperature reading was nearing zero. It finally settled at a disappointing minus one as the train slowed into the station, but nonetheless I was excited. The prime destination was Shenyang’s Winter Palace, home to the Emperor Puyi (from The Last Emperor of China, I may remind you). I have a feeling that if this was his idea of escaping the harsh winter, I wouldn’t enjoy his company too much.
In the midst of Northern China’s largest city, the palace rises out of the ground, sticking out like a sore thumb among Shenyang’s modern high-rise skyline. The Winter Palace is a curious mix of out-buildings, temples and the emperor’s quarters themselves, which all need a lick of paint really. Shame. The bizarre thing is that it is partially restored and maintained in places and left to ruin in others.
Tradition dictated that the queen should walk on one side along with her courtiers and the emperor would enter on the other, surrounded by his entourage. This continues right until the entrance of the palace- stepping the wrong side would just be silly. This strict separation is mirrored in the private quarters, but the emperor would have a crafty solution to that one…
The reception palace seen above would receive all official guests, the emperor being blessed throughout by the decorated thrones of dragons, symbolising longevity.
The exquisitely decorated banquet hall was slightly bemusing in that it would only just be big enough for me and all my teddies at my annual tea party, however the details were stunning. Interestingly it was the Grand Hall is the oldest of the buildings in the Imperial Palace, but all of the main features were largely unblemished, except for the paintwork. The octagonal shape serves to represent each of the Eight Banners in the the Manchurian State- a unifying theme which is common in and around lots of Chinese official buildings: a nod towards the delicate solutions to a the nation’s fractious history.
All jokes aside RE the paintwork, any restoration work is tasteful and remains appropriately understated for the settings. The remaining artefacts are well maintained and presented, but lots of the former wealth and glory was stripped by the Japanese during the invasion. This, regretfully is a common theme in many palaces and temples in the north of China. Fortunately, these all give an insight into the daily lives of the palace staff and the royal family itself.
As the inventors of the first ticking clock in China- due to the fact that they wanted to spend equal time with their queen and concubines alike. On display were some examples of oriental and western clockery- with with hilarious consequences. China wouldn’t be the same without have the odd translation gaff here or there, but this is up there!
The concubines quarters are separate, but conveniently close to the emperor’s- each concubines being ‘on call’ so to speak at any given moment. They all dined together and would be ordered according to the emperor’s whims and current preferences. These comfortable quarters were a place of immense potential for the courtiers, even providing heirs and holding great influence over the ruling elite.
Moving through the UNESCO site we notice a something which typifies attitudes towards disability in China. Many buildings, despite being several floors high in the majority of cases, are not wheelchair accessible and this picture shows how even the Imperial Palace reaches the bare minimum for accessibility:
So close, yet so very very far… It remains a comparatively minor blemish (apologies if that sounds in any way insensitive), in one of the most interesting historical sites in Northern China.
All in all an excellent day out in Shenyang, wetting the appetite for some more travelling very soon!