Forbidden City's fire guards, no more royal yet loyal

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In front of the Forbidden City's iconic Hall of Supreme Harmony, firefighters pump water straight into the sky. Spray tumbles afield from the surrounding red walls and yellow tiles as if there were an enchantment guarding the old mystery.

To ward off any slips such as high-pressure water washing away tiles or damaging load-bearing columns, all the fire drills within the palace compound now also known as Palace Museum, are designed meticulously with every detail measured precisely in advance, said Zheng Hao, a 26-year-old firefighter at the Forbidden City Special Service Station of the Tian'anmen Area Fire and Rescue detachment in Beijing.

"The 600-year-old palace is far more delicate than you can imagine, just like an elderly man, in need of thoughtful care and protection," Zheng said.

The Forbidden City, which was constructed between 1406 and 1420, was once the imperial palaces of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. It is a UNESCO inscribed World Cultural Heritage and has one of the world's largest and most intact ancient wooden structures. The Palace Museum was established in 1925 on the base of the former imperial compound.

The Palace Museum is among the largest combustibles in the capital city of China, according to Zheng.

He sighs, evocative of Lingzhao Xuan, commonly known as "Crystal Palace" located in Yanxi Palace. Once the only Western-style architecture in the whole Forbidden City, the relics went up in flames during the late Qing Dynasty, leaving infinite sorrow for all humankind.

The fires in Notre Dame Cathedral and Japan Shuri Castle in 2019 also set alarms for firefighters thousands of miles away in China.

"The Forbidden City used to belong to the supreme emperor, but now it is a shared cultural heritage of all humans. We must prepare for all eventualities beforehand because any loss would be unbearable," said Cai Rui, leader of the fire station.

Old seasonal traditions, including weeding in spring and water storage in summer, sweeping leaves in autumn, and breaking ice in winter, were passed on through generations and continue to work fine.

"Our ancestors had a relatively high awareness of fire prevention, but most of the preventive measures are based on superstition," Zheng said.

For instance, Wenyuan Pavilion, the biggest library inside the Forbidden City, is covered with black tiles because the color corresponds to water according to the Chinese five elements philosophy. And the pairs of Hang Shi statues on the roof, holding vajra pestles, resemble the Thunder God in Chinese myth. Therefore, it is believed to be able to prevent lighting strokes.

In the modern era, the Palace Museum has been well-equipped with the latest technologies. Smoke detection cameras, infrared cameras and lightning rods, among others, manifest a leap in the effectiveness of fire prevention. Based on real-time data, the fire station can use big data to trace and monitor possible hazards.

To ensure complete coverage, the firemen subdivide the Forbidden City into 10 areas and 55 individual buildings, and check and record the conditions of fire facilities on a daily basis.

Each of them is savvy to the layout and routes in the palace, and the ancient mystery is part of their everyday life as well.

Firefighters are on duty every day throughout the year and even if taking time off, they must return before the palace gates are closed.

In addition to the routine training and drills, utmost caution is exercised in terms of the equipment used within the palace premises. The firefighters use only electric cookers instead of stoves in the kitchen to ensure the palace's maximum safety.

Though the fire station has been in operation for five decades, it sees itself only as a moment in the palace's long sweep of history.

"We always maintain the same freshness and awe as our first rendezvous. The Forbidden City is like our lover, so delightful but delicate, and thus we will do everything to safeguard her from any harm," Cai said. 

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