In Search of the Orphan

The Forbidden City

August 6, 2012

When the Jesuit missionary, Fr Matteo Ricci reached Peking on 24 January 1601, he had waited a long time to get here. He had already spent 19 years in China waiting for his opportunity to meet the emperor and gain his approval to preach the gospel.

Finally he was to get his interview and was summoned into the imperial presence in the Forbidden City.

Today as Designer, Niki Turner and I battle the crowds to enter this extraordinary Palace, I find it hard to sense the ancient world of the Wan Li Emperor's court among the crowds of Chinese tourists, but Niki, ever the optimist, suggests, 'Imagine they are the hoards of eunuchs and courtiers waiting to see the Emperor'.

This sort of works, and we pass under the Meridian Gate and cross into the great courtyard before the Gate of Supreme Harmony. I re-run the opening of Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor in my head, and imagine the place full of the imperial army ready to greet the last of the Qing dynasty.

Fr Ricci found himself disappointed with his first arrival at the Forbidden City. He was accompanied by a guard of honour of up to a thousand men, and ushered in to present his gifts to the Wan Li Emperor, but instead of meeting the occupant of the Dragon Throne, he was made to bow before it, along with the all the other foreign envoys. The Emperor had not appeared in public for over 15 years.

However among the gifts that Ricci presented, besides the jewelled crucifix, and the oil paintings of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, were two copper chiming clocks.

The Emperor was delighted with them, and ordered a special clock tower to built for the bigger of the two and kept the other one ever by his side. But of course the clocks needed maintenance and no one in the palace knew how to do this. So Fr Ricci was sent for to look after the imperial clocks. However, he still did not get to meet the emperor.

But the Wan Li Emperor was intrigued to see this foreigner which had heard so much about, and hatched a simple plan. One day when Ricci was waiting in the imperial apartments, two men arrived to see him. They were imperial painters and they had been sent to paint his portrait. But when they had done so, and Fr Ricci asked to see the result of their work, he was amazed to see that they had merely drawn him in a simple generic style as a Chinese man and just added his beard.

As Niki and I walk around the extraordinary compound of the Forbidden City wondering at the astonishing carved marble stairways, or the bronze statues, I have an unnerving feeling of being watched.

Every now and then I catch children gawping at me. Perhaps they have never seen a man with long hair and a beard. Finally, when two teenagers come up and ask if they can take my picture, I realise I am just experiencing in a tiny way, what the great Jesuit Missionary felt 400 years ago.

by Greg Doran  |  1 comment

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Feb 2, 1:41pm
Audrey Webb

Thank you for this. It was an interesting account of a visit to a strange and spot of hisorical resonance....didn't the Jesuits get about!

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