Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Did Aragorn get a summer cottage in the Grey Havens?

The last remnants of Great Imperial Monuments consume our last full day in Beijing. We begin with the Summer Palace, the emperor’s refuge from April through October. It is a sight to behold, but is not nearly so, well, imperial as the Forbidden City. As we enter, it is clear that this is a place not at all devoted to projecting power, but solely to enjoying it.

The Summer Palace is a compound build around a manmade lake. The lake takes up most of the compound, and if I understand our guide Zhou correctly, most of the compound is the lake. I cannot imagine the countless number of slav—er, ‘workers’ who must have toiled away on that project alone.

And that project is not alone. A reasonable large hall (for state affairs) sits in the entrance way before the lake. And all around the lake stretches the compound.

The compound, for my money, has exactly two points of interest. The first is the Long Hall; the second is the Marble Boat.

The Long Hall is a several-hundred meter open-air hallway. That is not its significant attribute. Nor is its significant attribute that it runs along the manmade lake, though it does. No, the significant attribute is that on each of the several hundred crossbeams of the Long Hall’s ceiling, a different vista of China has been painted. Apparently, some emperor along the way wanted to keep an eye on the kingdom, but he didn’t want to have to travel there. Thus the pictures. Pretty handy if you have enough slav—er, artisans. Sorry. Artisans.

Despite my reaction to the imperialism of the production, I would like to emphasize two things. First, the vistas are truly beautiful; they are the product of immense talent. Second, I don’t know which emperor commissioned these paintings, but I like his style. I’ve always though of pictures and reading as a good substitute for travel, and now I see I’m in good company!

The Marble Boat is a monstrosity on the shoreline of the lake. It was, at some point, a traditionally-styled Chinese boat, but some emperor decided to emulate the West along the way and add a mishmash of European elements that make it look rather silly. The story on the boat is that an emperor decided he wanted a parallel to an old Chinese parable, the contents of which indicate that an emperor is as to his people as a boat is to water. The boat rides atop, above, beyond the water, yet agitated water may tip a boat.

This emperor did not want to be tipped, Zhou tells us. He had his boat built on the shore, and made of untippable marble. I find this hilarious and nearly double over laughing. “What?” Zhou asks.

Don’t you see? If this boat were to ride upon the water…

“It’d sink,” says Andrea.

Indeed. I wonder if the current government of the Middle Kingdom understands the parallel, too.

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