Back from China, excited and jetlagged. Beijing was still grey with winter, raw, yellow-hazy and smelling of pollution, but throbbing with life. The Chinese seem to live faster, louder, more Italianly than other races. You see more smiles – or am I just a romantic traveller?
At last, on a second attempt, I saw The Forbidden City. Versailles, Schönbrunn, the Kremlin …….eat your hearts out. There is no palace to compare.The scale, the spaces, the wide sky, the variations in a consistent style of building deserve the word awesome, however you pronounce it.
The Colossal rectangle, within its two miles of stone-built moat an arrow-shot wide, progresses from larger courts to smaller ones. The first vast space, the Outer Court, is traversed by the meandering Golden Water River, crossed by five stone bridges and lined with pale stone culminating in carved bosses. In the centre is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, 125 feet high. There are no trees, no plants, no shade, nothing green. The floor is brick.
The Inner Court is smaller and more complex, with more buildings and more subdivisions, but still no trees. It must be a punishing place in summer to parade and process, or go emperor-visiting.
You penetrate further, more marble steps and ramps, more pavilions: still no green. At last you come to the emperor’s residence. Behind it, cloistered and gated, lies his garden.
The impression it gives is that the intimacy and luxury of a garden are something private, reserved for family and friends. I have always found the freakish contorted rocks of important Chinese gardens hard to enjoy. Where the Japanese choose stones softened by the ages and deploy them (not always, but usually) in harmonious naturalistic groups, the Chinese try to evoke the crags of the Yangtze gorges that figure on so many painted scrolls. Without, it seems to me, much success.
But suddenly, in the palace garden, the pavilions grow gorgeous, their roofs elaborate, their eaves gilded. Beds of paeonies line the walks under ancient trees.
There are pots of flowers, and flowering trees, and trees sculpted to look like embroidery. There is joy in artifice, and joy in nature. In all the pomp of ultimate power, the garden is the ultimate pleasure.