To an ignorant outsider who can only read the English translations, the Chinese seem to love poetic, beautiful, enigmatic titles.
All the palaces and pavilions in the Forbidden City have deliciously elegant names which have been changed and changed again by a succession of emperors; from mental cultivation to appreciating flowers to supreme harmony to joyful longevity.
It’s easy to imagine the emperors and their consorts doing little else but dream up these phrases as they sat in their Pavilion of Bestowing Wine, composing poetry and placing wine cups to float in the stone channel created specially for this purpose (‘A kind of drinking game’, I overhear a tour guide tell her faithful flock).
Of course the city is designed to awe as a representation of complete power, and awe it does. But there is so much attention to beauty, to entertainment, to time-wasting.
The artfully tumbled honeycomb rocks of the gardens are labeled ‘Perilous Hills.’ Such is the overall sonorous tone of the city, it takes me a little while to realise this is not another Imperial flight of fancy, but the modern museum’s version of ‘steep slope’ or ‘unsafe surface’.
These phrases and titles are not confined to historic sites. North west of the city, where new housing compounds for the rich are going up everywhere, the names are Merlin Champagne Town, Shine City, Dragon Bay.
One building site promises ‘Customised propitious clouds for festival lover’. The fences around another site, depicting vast kitschy mansions amid blue lakes, announce that ‘Ultimate virtue is just like water; it is ultimate beauty’.
Is it a quote from a Chinese poet? It seems lovely but meaningless to me, associated at least with super-expensive and exclusive real estate.
But I suppose that’s exactly what for 500 years the Forbidden City was – the most absolutely exclusive real estate in the Middle Kingdom.