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China Overhauling Forbidden City

It's the ultimate in home repair: hundreds of rooms, a century of fire damage and neglect -- and steadily mounting wear and tear from 7 million visitors a year.

China is at work on the first full-scale effort to restore the imperial grandeur of its 584-year-old Forbidden City, the world's biggest palace and former residence of 24 emperors.

Rebuilding and painting the vermillion-walled palace is expected to take until 2020. The ambitious project includes tearing down a five-story museum and other modern buildings that disrupt the original layout of the grounds.

"Our repair work will achieve the goal of reclaiming the grandeur and the real landscape of the palace at the height of imperial society," the palace's deputy curator, Jin Honghui, said Thursday.

Carpenters and bricklayers are at work on scaffolding that shrouds giant gateways and halls where Ming and Qing dynasty rulers lived, played and governed an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Central Asia and from the tropics to Siberia.

The government is spending US$12 million a year to restore the Forbidden City, Jin said -- a big sum in a society where the average annual income per person is less than US$1,000.

Completed in 1420, the palace is a sprawling complex of scores of villas, chapels, treasure houses and gardens that covers 178 acres in Beijing. It is ringed by a 35-foot-high wall and a 170-foot-wide moat.

The scale of the place is equally vast. The cavernous throne room could double as an aircraft hangar. Jin said that after working there for two years, he isn't sure how many rooms the palace has.

A portrait of the country's founding father Mao Zedong hangs from the palace's main Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen. The gate serves as the reviewing stand for leaders during military parades and gave its name to the Chinese capital's main square, the symbolic political heart of the nation.

The last imperial resident was Puyi, the boy ruler depicted in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 film "The Last Emperor." Puyi's dynasty was overthrown by Sun Yat-sen's revolutionaries in 1911, but he was allowed to stay on until 1924. He was finally evicted by a reform-minded warlord who turned the complex into a museum.

The palace is so dilapidated after a century of political upheaval and neglect that much of it is closed to the public.

But still, the Forbidden City is one of China's biggest tourist attractions, drawing some 7 million visitors a year. Bronze sculptures on display -- copies of ancient pieces -- have been rubbed shiny by tourists. Millions of feet have eroded its stone courtyards.

The renovation already has consumed 330,000 bricks, and 590,000 tiles for the palace's distinctive mustard-yellow rooftops.

Officials plan to remove several modern structures, including the National Archives Museum, which "has nothing to do with the palace," Jin said. They also plan to conceal power lines and water pipes that jut out of many of the buildings.

The work requires modern builders to match the efforts of centuries of China's best carpenters, gardeners, painters and furniture makers, often with only sketchy records to guide them.

Among their projects: Starting from scratch to rebuild the Jianfugong Garden, destroyed by fire in 1923.

To figure out what the garden should look like, Jin said, researchers rummaged through official archives and pored over documents totaling some 80 million Chinese characters.

"Our aim is to ensure the integrity and historical truth of the Forbidden City," Jin told reporters in a parlor at the palace. "It's very important to keep the original look of the palace. That is the first principle of our work."

(China Daily October 29, 2004)

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