In the past, uninvited entrance into the Forbidden City would have been met with instant execution. For many years now this has thankfully not been the case, although I strongly suspect one of the guards to the palace wishes he could deliver such swift retribution on my head.
In the latter half of the twentieth century the palace was opened up to the public. Today, the Forbidden City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, both for foreigners and Chinese nationals alike. It is certainly an amazing place. I had it on very good authority that the most impressive way to view the whole complex was to enter at the Gate of Divine Might and head south through the palace, so this is what I attempted to do.
I was instantly met by a guard waving frantically at me. I politely waved in return and carried on my way. He mimed something to me so I gave him the thumbs up, but kept walking. I am not exactly sure what giving somebody the thumbs up means in China, but it must be similar to in the UK because it generally does the trick.
In this case, however, it didn’t. He was adamant that I shouldn’t be entering through the northern gate. I had met these kind of access problems elsewhere in China and generally, when I just pretend to be a stupid foreigner who doesn’t understand or know any better, I’m allowed on my way with a grudging shrug. If that fails then my next technique is to ask lots of questions, which often leaves people so shocked they frenetically wave me on in a gesture of outraged horror.
So I challenged him, questioning why I wasn’t allowed to enter the Forbidden City from the north. He said he couldn’t answer that, so together we summoned his superior who was napping in a nearby port-a-cabin. He wasn’t best pleased to be woken up, but he eventually came out, leaving what looked suspiciously like a large, semi-automatic on his seat.
I started by telling him what I wanted to do and he replied that I couldn’t do it. After ten minutes talking with him it finally dawned on me that I actually wasn’t going to be allowed in through the Gate of Divine Might. Complementing his coat and covert hints at bribery had both failed, so instead I resorted to finding out the reason I was being turned away. After all, I knew that in the very recent past it had been possible to enter through this gate. Indeed, if you search online right now, many websites state that you can still enter from both the northern and southern gates.
I told him this, but he flatly denied that this had ever been the case. It might seem like, by my questioning, I was causing unnecessary problems. I find that it can be cathartic to occasionally challenge the status-quo, albeit in my own little way, in China. As a general rule, whichever way of doing things that would seem to be the most logical and sensible, expect the polar opposite to be the way things are actually done. This quickly becomes infuriating and the only way I have been able to keep myself sane is by these occasional discussions, discussions where I can explain my frustrations and seek answers as to why things are as they are. Admittedly this rarely does any visible good, but mentally I find it very beneficial.
As is often the case, my queries as to why I was being stopped from entering were met with the classic Chinese response: ‘No why’. I simply turned and walked through the gate at this point. As I told him over my shoulder, if there was no reason – ‘no why’ – that I was being denied entrance, then presumably it shouldn’t be a problem for me to go through the gate. He ran after me and barred my way, clearly getting rather angry, but he had hit on a particular pet hate of mine.
‘No why’. It is a common response from my students when I ask them to explain why they hold a particular opinion. I struggle to explain to them that, without an argument to back up their opinion with (whatever it may be), their opinion would be seen by many to be almost worthless. This is basically what I explained to the guard at the gate. If he could give no reason not to do something, why could I not do it? If there was no reason that he could give me not to enter through the Gate of Divine Might, then I would say goodbye and go on my way – through said gate.
He did not like that at all. Logical, sound reasoning can be a heinous thing in some places it seems and he threatened me with the police. It was at this point that I decided to leave, realising that ending up in a Chinese prison over something so trivial would not have been my finest hour.
I can certainly appreciate the irony of being the first man to be barred entrance to the Forbidden City since the fall of dynastic China. Later in my stay in Beijing I was able to tour the palace, entering through the Meridian Gate in the south, and it is definitely a wonderful place. I won’t soon forget it, or my discussion with the guard at the gate. Why had the rules changed? Why couldn’t he answer my questions? Why was his reaction to coherent logical reasoning so disproportionately strong?
In China? ‘No why’, of course.