A minor miracle

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Shenyang Imperial Palace could be called a country cousin of Beijing's Forbidden City. It's smaller and came up about 200 years later.

While Forbidden City, built by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor Yong Le, is 470 years old, Shenyang Imperial Palace was built between 1625 and 1636.

Construction of what is now the eastern wing began under the Qing emperor Nurhachi, in 1625, and was continued by his son Huangtaiji.

Emperor Abahai built the halls on a central axis, including the spectacular Daqing Gate, with its blue dragons that threaten to leap out of the frescos and Chongzheng Hall.

Even after the capital was moved to Beijing in 1644, Qing emperors would use it as a temporary royal residence during their visits to Northeast China and added new wings and chambers to the existing structures. Emperor Qianlong built the west wing.

Shenyang Imperial Palace served both as the royal residence as well as the government's administrative bloc. Dazheng Hall, located at the north end of the eastern wing, is where the king received visitors. Ten smaller structures, the ministers' offices, fan out on either side of the courtyard.

"In Shenyang, the royals lived on a higher level than where they would work," says Wu Bing, director of operations, Shenyang Palace Museum.

There's a short flight of stairs leading to the hall in the eastern wing. Inside there are red pillars with green and gold dragons that guard a Buddhist shrine. Yellow glazed tiles edged with green sit on the roof like a two-tiered crown.

Often beauty lies in the details. Stone railings with delicate sunflowers and lotuses carved surround Chongzheng Hall, the main structure in the central courtyard. Blue waves and white clouds are painted on the roof boarding, through which dragons peep. A white sandstone sundial stands in the middle of the courtyard, overlooking a giant urn, meant to hold water, in case of a fire. This was where emperor Abahai would meet guests from abroad.

Black and moss green tiles give Yangxi Hall a distinctive look. Built in 1782, this archive was meant to contain Siku Quanshu (Complete Library of the Four Branches), which was the world's largest encyclopedia at the time. The royal stage, a hop across the courtyard, is quite derelict.

The yellow glazed tiles of Qingning Hall dazzle under the bright sun. Inside stands the imperial dragon bed, and also a kang (bed-stove) for winter. The anteroom would have been used for small banquets, or by shamans to perform rituals asking for a good harvest or victory in war.

The three-tiered Fenghuang Tower, once a vault for storing Qing Dynasty records, imperial edicts and jade artifacts, used to be the tallest structure in Shenyang. The treasures are now stored elsewhere and the top floor is off-limits to the public.

A hint of what one might have seen 500 years ago in these corridors can be found in the palace museum, a collection of charming antiques, including jade, enamel, lacquer ware, blue pottery and crystal artifacts.

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