As regular readers of my blog know, its title The Great Within is the literal translation of the Chinese characters for The Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the conceptual framework of this blog, not only as a real, historical and physical place, but also as a site of my own fantasy, a displaced and sublimated artifact of my own desire.
Regular readers also know that I am fixated on a particular part of The Forbidden City: The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. This Garden was an area of the city in which concubines of a dead Emperor languished until death. I fantasize about being an Imperial concubine sadly out of a job, whose official life was over and who now waited for death surrounded by splendor.
This obsession has lead me to look for old images of The Forbidden City that might provide a concrete image of my fantastical concubine desire and provide a border, the photographic frame, to locate my obsession.
I almost exclusively look for old images of The Forbidden City especially at the end of the Qing Dynasty as I am always fascinated by the end of things, when the great project falls apart and utopian dreams become a dystopian reality.
I recently found this late 19th century stereoscope card of The Forbidden City (see below) made during the regency of Tzu Hsi of Cixi (1835-1908) who was the defacto ruler of China from 1861 until her death in 1908. She installed Puyi as the last Emperor of China on November 14 the day before her death.
Puyi would “rule” China until he was forced to leave The Forbidden City in 1924. During World War II he would become the puppet Emperor the Japanese created state of Manchukuo in Manchuria.
In the movie, The Last Emperor, there is a scene where Puyi is brought to The Forbidden City to become Emperor and see Cixi who is seated on a plinth and all tricked out. She is dying and the Buddhist monks are chanting. When she dies a giant black pearl is placed in her mouth…swoon. That’s how I want to leave this earth.
The caption of the stereoscope reads, “Within The Forbidden City, home of the Empress Dowager- Harmony Gate from elevated walk near Canal, Peking China.” Standing in marked contrast to the caption is the image itself in which the forecourt looks a bit run down, covered with weeds, the madness of weeds. Amidst this decay, stands a lone male figure, a eunuch perhaps, who is not the Dowager Empress, but a lowly servant standing alone against a desolate landscape. This stereoscope foretells the end of the Qing Dynasty and I revel in its dystopian decay in a haze of decadence.
Other recently acquired images of The Forbidden City:
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, late 1920’s