A Steppe Inside the Forbidden City

Ultimately, at the heart of [Khanbalik], Khubilai created a Mongol haven where few foreigners, including Chinese, could enter. Behind high walls and guarded by Mongol warriors, the royal family and court continued to live as Mongols. The large open areas for animals in the middle of the city had no precedent in Chinese culture. This Forbidden City constituted a miniature steppe created in the middle of the Mongol capital. During the Mongol era, the whole complex of the Forbidden City was filled with gers [yurts] where members of the court often preferred to live, eat, and sleep. Pregnant wives of the khan made sure that their children were born in a ger, and the children received their school lessons in the ger as they grew up. While Khubilai and his successors maintained public lives as Chinese emperors, behind the high walls of their Forbidden City, they continued to live as steppe Mongols.

When the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone visited the Mongol territories in the 1320s, he described the Forbidden City in Khanbalik: “Within the precincts of the said palace imperial, there is a most beautiful mount, set and replenished with trees, for which cause it is called the Green Mount, having a most royal and sumptuous palace standing thereupon, in which, for the most part, the great Can is resident.” In a passage that sounds very close to earlier descriptions of Karakorum, he wrote, “Upon the one side of the said mount there is a great lake, whereupon a most stately bridge is built, in which lake is great abundance of geese, ducks, and all kinds of water-fowl; and in the wood growing upon the mount there is a great store of all birds, and wild beasts.” …

Inside the confines of their Forbidden City, Khubilai and his family continued to act as Mongols in dress, speech, food, sports, and entertainment. This meant that they consumed large amounts of alcohol, loudly slurped their soup, and they cut meat with knives at the table, thereby disgusting the Chinese who confined such acts to the kitchen during preparation. With the emphasis on alcohol and rituals of drinking and drunkenness, the scenes at court must have been somewhat chaotic as the free-roaming, individualistic Mongols tried to imitate the complex and highly orchestrated rituals and ceremonies of the Chinese court. In contrast to the Chinese imperial tradition of courtiers lining up according to rank, the Mongols tended to swarm chaotically, and, perhaps most disturbing to the Chinese, the Mongol women mingled freely among the men on even the most important occasions. The ceremonies in the Mongol court became so disorganized that sometimes the khan’s bodyguards had to beat back the crowds of officials and guests with batons.

SOURCE: Genghis Khan and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (Three Rivers Press, 2004), pp. 199-200

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