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Revisiting the exclusive world of Imperial China's ruling elite



By Jack Souther

Except for the fact he was walking backwards there was nothing to distinguish him from other elderly Chinese gentlemen strolling toward the Temple of Heaven. Looking first over one shoulder and then the other he shuffled on amid the crowd of conventional strollers. While I thought this rather odd no one was paying any attention to him and, since walking backwards must be damned uncomfortable, I assumed he was engaged in some sort of ritual penance. Then I noticed others, at least a dozen elderly gentlemen facing in one direction and striding resolutely in the other. I caught up to Ivy, our local guide, and asked what was going on.

"This walkway," she told me, "is where the emperor came each year to offer sacrifices to the Gods and to pray for good luck and a good harvest. Many older Chinese people believe they can gain some of the emperor’s power by walking here. Those walking backwards are trying to become younger. Every step backwards adds another step forward to their lives."

While the Ming emperors of Imperial China spent most of their lives cloistered within the walls of the Forbidden City they did occasionally venture out. They came to the Temple of Heaven to pray, to the Summer Palace to play, and along Spirit Way to their final destination in the Ming Tombs. During our brief stay in Beijing we retraced their paths to each of these three ancient destinations.

It took only a few minutes for us to drive the two km from Tiananmen Square to Tiantan Park where the Temple of Heaven is surrounded by well-tended lawns and leafy forest. But 500 years ago it took the Emperor a full day to make the same trip in a style becoming the Son of Heaven. Accompanied by his entourage of elephants, horse-drawn chariots, mounted lancers, and several thousand ministers he made his way from the Forbidden City in total silence. It must have been a grand parade, but no one was allowed to watch — no one, that is, except the Gods and members of the Imperial Court. Ordinary folks were forced to remain inside behind shuttered windows and dare not even peek for fear of inciting the wrath of the Gods.

On his arrival in the Temple grounds the Emperor entered the Hall of Abstinence where he atoned for the sins of the people by swearing-off such earthly pleasures as meat, alcohol and women for three whole days. Thus purified he set about the messy and arduous task of sacrificing the chosen animals and briefing the Gods on the state of the Empire.