Forbidden City: Where History Lives On

The Forbidden City was and is a treasure trove of important relics from throughout the Chinese history.
by Cecilia Lindqvist (Sweden)
The quiet Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, in the 1960s.

Cecilia Lindqvist, a well-known Swedish writer, recounts her unforgettable trip to China to study between 1961 and 1962. As a curious European student at Peking University, Lindqvist traveled to many places in China, including Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Guangzhou, and Wuhan. Her stories are lively and sated with questions. Alongside the text are photos she took, most of which have never before been published. These images whisk readers back to China of the early 1960s.

Lindqvist learned to play the Chinese zither after becoming even more enamored with Chinese culture. “As an outsider,” she wrote in the preface of her book, “I can tell from my own experience how I had seen China during various stages of knowing the country. At first, China was like a ‘monster,’ but the more I got to know her, the deeper I fell in love with her. I owe this transformation to my frequent contact with her culture, especially language and music, and her people of different kinds.”

Born in 1932, Lindqvist is a professor, writer and photographer. Since 1962 when she finished her term at Peking University, she has returned to China many times and disseminated the Chinese culture and its social progress in her books, periodicals, and TV programs. Many of her books about China have won awards in China and her own country.

“For more than five decades, Lindqvist has seldom turned her eyes from China,” observed Wang Jiaming, who has published Lindqvist’s books in China for a long time. “In her eyes, we are removed from ourselves so that we can see from a different perspective—strange, touching and worth pondering.”

The glory yesteryear remains attractive today. The Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, which served as the imperial palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644- 1911) dynasties, has become one of the most popular tourist spots on the planet, trailing only the Great Wall in China. During peak season, it welcomes tens of thousands tourists from China and abroad each day. Visitors enter through the south gate and leave through the north one.

I first visited Beijing in 1961, a time when the imperial palace was isolated and quiet. Most of the people I saw within the magnificent halls and royal gardens were employees with file folders in hand, restoration workers and people from ethnic minorities wearing traditional costumes. Then, only a few hundred of foreigners resided in Beijing, most of whom worked in embassies. The Forbidden City was already a must-see attraction, and a few decades later, visitors swarmed into the palace.

Back then, the lack of temporary exhibitions made the space emptier, and important cultural components were missing. Dust could be found almost everywhere in the tranquil, dark halls. Most exhibits on display lacked illustrations and lighting. Of the nearly 1,000 halls there, only a few along the central axis were well preserved. Peripheral structures were severely damaged and dilapidated; weeds and small trees were growing from roofs.

Nevertheless, the Forbidden City was and is a treasure trove of important relics from throughout the Chinese history. Today, visitors can find bronze, porcelain, calligraphy, paintings, literature, science books, and clocks and watches acquired by the last empress dowager.

Personally, I was most drawn to China’s porcelain. Before my visit, I had read a lot about porcelain from every dynasty and extensively studied various collections in the Museum of Oriental Antiquities in Stockholm in my home country. As soon as I arrived in Beijing, I applied for a library card at the National Library of China on Wenjin Street near Beihai Park so I could search for everything related to porcelain during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

I learned about the philosophical background of Chinese paintings as well as the theory that “man is an integral part of nature.” The technique for traditional Chinese painting— the principles of perspective—is totally different from European art. I stayed for hours in as many halls as possible, with books in hand, absorbing as much knowledge as possible.

I met and talked with experts of the Research Society of the Chinese Zither, who were extensively knowledgeable. When I continued asking them about porcelain, which had nothing to do with music, they introduced me to experts in porcelain working in the Forbidden City, to make sure I got accurate information. Meeting them only inspired even more questions.

I still remember meeting Mr. Sun, then director of the Collection Department of Porcelain Ware. He was very friendly and answered my questions thoroughly and patiently. During our talk, two men carried a big box into the room. He opened it and began unpacking one piece after another, asking me to identify them. I learned about the meaning of various patterns. I concentrated so hard that I didn’t even realize the room was freezing.

He took two blue-and-white, seemingly identical plates from the box and asked me which dynasty they were from. “The reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty!” I replied. “Great!” he grinned. “But which is fake?”

I lowered my voice, defeated, “Sorry! I have no idea!” He asked me to close my eyes. “Touch each one on the bottom and tell me what you feel.” I did as I was told, and it was incredible! The bottoms felt completely different even though they looked exactly the same on the surface: One was flat and smooth, the other uneven and rough. Judging from the ring base, I nailed the era of the authentic piece. You could identify the duplicate by the bottom because of the different production methods.

I then asked a couple of questions about porcelain during the reign of Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty. I had read books by some British experts who determined that nothing new and unique was produced during this period, and that most production was modeled after styles of the Ming Dynasty. I had discovered a yellow plate on display that was labeled “the only of its kind made during Emperor Shunzhi’s reign.”

“Why?” I asked Mr. Sun. “It’s true,” he admitted. “That’s the only one we’ve ever found from that period. That’s all I know. Sorry!”