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You know you’re not supposed to do something, so you want to do it even more, right? Or is that just me? No! It’s human nature. And I’m not just talking about the Forbidden City at the ROM. Think of Lot’s wife, fleeing Sodom and impending disaster. The angels give her one simple rule: flee and don’t look back. (Okay, that’s two rules, but don’t get petty.) Does she follow instructions? No. She looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
Let’s move on to Bluebeard. His gives his new wife one rule and one rule only. “Do not, under any circumstances, enter that room.” Does she listen? Nooooo. Of course she opens the door and barely escapes with her life.
What’s the point, you ask? My point is the Forbidden City exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It’s Forbidden! Doesn’t that make you want to see it even more? And what you need to know is that there are more forbidden things about it than you might imagine.
About the Forbidden City
First some backstory. Kicking off the Royal Ontario Museum’s 100th anniversary is the blockbuster exhibit, The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors. For more than 5 centuries, the gates of China’s Imperial Palace were closed to outsiders, and now you, my esteemed readers, have the chance to step inside.
The exhibit showcases 250 imperial treasures (but not all at once, it will change halfway through so you’ll have to go twice) and many of these objects have left the Forbidden City for the first time ever.
When I attended the media preview for The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors I learned about many forbidden things. To keep from venturing down a forbidden and dangerous path and to avoid making the same mistakes I did read these 10 important tips:
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #1
Do NOT, if you should happen to see a professional photographer, ask her or him to snap your photo with a man dressed up like a Chinese emperor. This is akin to asking a Playboy model to take her clothes off for free.
If you do want your photo snapped with a man dressed up like a Chinese emperor, and if you happen to see a man dressed up like a Chinese emperor, you are better off asking a random stranger to take the photo instead.
Warning: if you do accidentally ask a professional photographer, who you thought was a random stranger, said photographer may sigh, roll her or his eyes, looked pained and say, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And then not do it.
The penalty: You will feel flustered and won’t enjoy all the imperial Chinese treasures quite as much as you might have. Plus you will be left searching for a random stranger.
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #2
Do NOT skip the little things. You know that saying, don’t sweat the small stuff? It’s wrong. Blockbuster sights come in all different sizes. If you skim past some of the porcelain, for example, you will miss the Chicken Cup and then hit yourself in the head for the rest of the day.
About the Chicken Cup
The little white Chicken Cup has chickens painted under the glaze. It’s Ming Dynasty and was commissioned by the Emperor Chenghua, who had the cup made for his mother. She liked tiny things. THE CHICKEN CUP IS THE RAREST AND FINEST OF ALL MING PORCELAINS. DO NOT MISS IT. Why? Because it’s so rare. And because it’s about chickens!
Subsequent emperors who wanted their own Chicken Cups were unable to match the quality, and only one other Chenghua Chicken Cup is still in the collection of the Palace Museum today.
Penalty for missing the Chicken Cup: You will get a headache from hitting yourself in the head all day after you realize you missed it.
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #3
Do not get so sidetracked by a man dressed up like a Chinese emperor that you forget to study The Imperial Throne Set at length. Made of lacquer and jade, it’s a Qing dynasty treasure and one of the first things you’ll see in the exhibit.
Penalty: You’ll need to backtrack, which is like taking two steps backwards and no steps forward and then you’ll never get home.
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City tip #4
Do NOT wear bright yellow. Only the Chinese emperor and empress are allowed to wear yellow. (Since there is no longer an actual Chinese emperor you might be able to get away with it, but then everyone in the know will look at you and think you think you’re as important as an emperor.)
Penalty: Public shaming.
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City tip #5
Do NOT assume that the Ming and Qing Dynasties are really really ancient. The Ming Dynasty is only moderately ancient. It ran from 1368 to 1644. The Qing Dynasty isn’t ancient at all. It ran from 1644 to 1912. The Forbidden City itself was completed in 1420.
Penalty: Looking like a know-it-all who knows nothing.
What is forbidden at the Forbidden City tip #6
Do NOT spit in the Outer Court. Not only is it rude, it was forbidden in the days when the emperors lived in the Forbidden City. In fact, if you were lucky enough to be a high-ranking official who was granted entrance to the Forbidden City, you could not talk, spit or cough if the emperor was present.
Penalty: Death (I just made that up. But listen to this: If you entered the imperial gardens of the Forbidden City and weren’t part of the imperial family, the punishment really was death. And no one needs to smell the roses that badly.)
What’s forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #7
Do NOT use the symbol of a five-clawed dragon. This is the symbol of the emperor and is reserved only for him.
Penalty: All the people wearing symbols of four-clawed dragons will look at you scathingly.
What’s forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #8
Do NOT enter the Hall of Mental Cultivation unless you are a trusted official or wife. This is the emperor’s private residence. You will have to cultivate your mentality elsewhere.
What’s forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #9
Do NOT think that women had no power. Well, many didn’t, but the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi, also known as the Dragon Lady, who started out as an imperial concubine, effectively ruled the Qing Dynasty from 1861 to 1908. Take that, sexist males.
What’s forbidden at the Forbidden City at the ROM tip #10
Do NOT miss my favourite Chinese treasures listed below. Penalty: You will have to walk on your knees and swim across the Pacific to see the actual Forbidden City in Beijing.
1) The Portrait of Emperor Yongzheng in his Study painted on silk. Oh, how I adore Oriental portraits on silk. So serene and composed.
2) Two of Prince Yinzhen’s paintings of Twelve Beauties. Ink and colour on silk. The Twelve Beauties are a series of paintings commissioned by Prince Yinzhen to hang in his personal study. Were they his concubines? We don’t know. But they’re exquisite, and offer a glimpse into a private and romantic feminine world.
3) Finger bling: women’s nail guards. Aristocratic women had mega-long nails to show they did no manual labour. Up to 6 inches! These elongated gilt silver nail guards with pearls, red stones and Kingfisher feathers from the Qing Dynasty reveal how removed the highborn were from day to day toil.
4) Imperial dog outfit. No I’m serious. It’s a red silk brocade outfit made for a dog called Dali, which means Big Luck and even covered his tail and snout. Takes pampered pooch-ness to whole new level.
5) You’ve gotta love jade. The pale milky Crouching Ox from the Qing dynasty is so delicate and alive you will want to pet its silky jade head. It’s just sensational. And so is The Forbidden City exhibition at the ROM.
The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors at the Royal Ontario Museum runs until September 1, 2014.
The Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum in Beijing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, spanning 720,000 square metres and housing more than 1.8 million art treasures. Now that, my friends, is a serious museum.