Traveller‘s tale: Soul survivor

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There are two reasons — one far-out, the other plausible — why Chinese emperors of yore preferred small bedrooms

THOSE who have visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, China would know how huge the place is. And that at the very least, two hours are needed to just walk through the palace complex with its seven gates, each leading to sprawling courtyards.

You’d need a much longer time to visit the Palace Museum and other buildings within the walled city. With nearly a thousand buildings and more than 9,000 rooms, it’s impossible for one to see it all.

One stark feature is the absence of tall trees and gardens in the outer courtyards. All you see is just hard concrete; the flat surface is perhaps as big as a football field within each of the outer courtyard.

According to my guide, Stephen, trees were not grown as part of safety measures to protect the emperors who ruled from the city. Without trees, enemies would find it hard to find spots to hide, and the high walls fortified by well-secured gates and surrounded by moats also made it hard for them to mount an attack. The emperors too, added Stephen, wanted to portray the image of strength and power, so having trees around would not do well to inject this vision.

Looking at the very large exteriors, I expected to see huge and lush imperial chambers within the inner courtyards but was I in for a surprise. The emperor’s bedroom is small and narrow, no larger than the standard master bedroom of our terrace house. There’s only a single bed set against a wall.

The emperor, I was told, slept alone while the empress slept in her own chamber nearby. Of course, there are many other smaller rooms for the emperor’s many concubines, whom he could choose at will to please him. Now why did the emperors of the old days choose to sleep in a small room when they could have one as big as a palace?

“There are two reasons for this,” Stephen told me. “One is that the Chinese believe that when one sleeps, one’s soul leaves the body. When you sleep in a small, walled space, the soul can’t roam very far and so it can come back to your body quickly and easily. This is also one way to keep your body healthy.”

Hmmm, I see... and as I pondered this over, Stephens posed a question: “Why do you feel tired even after a long sleep?” Hmmm, I went again. “That’s because your soul has travelled very far and when it comes back to your body, it has already spent much energy,” he offered the answer. For the emperors to rule their charges well, it was important to be fit, so they would not take the chances of letting their souls travel far when they sleep.

The second reason, continued Stephen, was that during winter, it was much easier and faster to get a small room warmed up with coal fire. Now, that made more sense to me. But I couldn’t help thinking that for those who believe in the first reason, they may want to consider having smaller rooms to sleep in. You wouldn’t want a tired soul, or worse, a soul that has lost its way, would you?

This building in the inner courtyard of the Forbidden City houses several small chambers


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