Beijing’s Forbidden City – traditionally off-limits at night for anyone except emperors, ghosts and visiting dignitaries – was lit up with lanterns and gasps after dark Tuesday as China celebrated the end of the Lunar New Year holiday.
The complex, home to Chinese emperors for five centuries, was opened at night for the first time since its reincarnation as the Palace Museum 94 years ago. And it opened with a dazzling spectacle for Lantern Day, marked on the 15th day of the new year.
The palace walls were illuminated with red lanterns – designed to recreate the feeling of the royal court of old – and a light show lit up the complex while the China National Traditional Orchestra and the Peking Opera performed. An imaged of a treasured scroll called “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” was beamed onto the palace roof.
But most of China’s 1.3 billion people would have had to settle for watching the show on television or from a hill in the park behind the complex.
Only 3,000 people were allowed in: 2,500 invited guests including model workers, couriers, sanitation workers, officers, soldiers and ambassadors, and 500 people who booked their tickets online.
Another lucky 3,000 who nabbed tickets will be allowed in for the second night, on Wednesday. “The 3,000 visitors can show off for the whole year,” one person said on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, using the online name of “One Medical Student.” (Those visitors may be able to discover whether there is any truth to the legend that the sprawling complex is haunted by ghosts who come out only at night.)
The palace complex usually closes by 5 p.m. VIPs have been taken in after dark on occasion though, as when President Xi Jinping hosted President Donald Trump for dinner inside a palace building in 2017.
There was a virtual stampede to get tickets, which were free, for the rare night-time opening. They were snapped up within minutes of becoming available online Sunday, but the website still collapsed under the strain as hopefuls continued to flock to it.
A vibrant secondary market soon emerged. Scalpers were selling tickets for as much as 9,999 Chinese yuan – almost $1,500 – on online trading sites.
The Forbidden City was the home of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1420 and 1912, when China’s last emperor abdicated. It was converted into the Palace Museum in 1925, and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s.
It is one of China’s most popular attractions and a must-see on most tourists’ lists.
The Palace Museum is now on a campaign to attract even more visitors, with curator Shan Jixiang saying he wanted to make traditional Chinese culture more accessible to the general public.
More than 80 percent of the palace is now accessible to visitors, up from 30 percent in 2012. Shan has set a target of 85 percent by 2020, to mark the palace’s 600th anniversary.
This could be seen as part of a broader political effort in China to stoke nationalist sentiment.
“Creativity makes the 600-year-old Palace Museum younger and draws traditional culture closer to the public,” said the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese state television has been running documentaries about the people whose job it is to restore cultural relics inside the Forbidden City, and about the treasures contained within and their role in China’s social development. The success of the Palace Museum provides a template for other museums, said Liu Zheng, a member of the Beijing-based China Cultural Relics Academy. They can learn how to make their collections resonate with the public and allow more people to learn about culture and history, Liu told the nationalist Global Times.
A new part of the sprawling Forbidden City will be opened next year, allowing access to the Qianlong Garden, a complex covering two acres that the fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty built between 1771 and 1776 as his retirement home.
The complex includes 27 extravagantly designed buildings, four courtyards and elaborate rockery gardens. In a helpful act of imperial haughtiness, Qianlong – who reigned from 1735 to 1796, making him the longest-serving ruler in China – issued an order prohibiting future emperors from touching the complex.
That means the buildings have never been changed. Over the past decade, they have been restored by the World’s Monuments Fund in partnership with the Palace Museum.
The restoration of a building known as Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service, which has silk trompe l’oeil paintings on the ceiling, and jade inlays and bamboo skin carvings in its reception room – was completed in 2008. Work on buildings called the Lodge of Bamboo Fragrance and the Bower of Purest Jade were finished in 2016.
“The buildings contain decoration and furnishings from a time widely considered to be one of the boldest and most extravagant periods of interior design in China’s history,” the fund said when announcing the effort. “The structures possess some of the most significant, exquisitely designed interiors to survive relatively unchanged from imperial China.”
Because the garden was largely abandoned after the last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924, the 18th-century interiors have survived relatively unaltered from the time they were constructed more than 230 years ago, the fund said.
The Washington Post’s Liu Yang and Lyric Li contributed to this report.
This story was originally published in The Washington Post.