The Mysterious (and Fireproof) Roofs of the Forbidden City

The Mysterious (and Fireproof) Roofs of the Forbidden City
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The Forbidden City is the largest and oldest complex of wooden buildings in the world. Despite the fact that their austerity gives them the appearance of being eternal and immutable, the entire site has always been under threat of an ancient foe - fire. It suffices to know that just after its completion, the Imperial City was struck by lightning and three of its main buildings, including the Hall of the Offer to Heaven (later renamed the Hall of Supreme Harmony), were literally reduced to ashes. For this reason, besides the large basins continually filled with water placed at every corner of the courtyards, it was necessary, over time, to come up with viable solutions for preventing fires caused by candles, embers, cloth, fireworks and, above all, lightning - the most terrible and unpredictable of fiery threats. As tradition would have it, faith in good luck was foremost. There was an entire army of good omens ready to defend the complex from unfortunate events - the roofs were adorned with gold-enamelled tiles (soon a symbol of Imperial power) created with depictions of lucky animals whose numbers were increased according to the importance of the building’s function. The procession of lucky beasts on the gables of the complex was composed of turtles, sea horses, mythological knights riding phoenixes and, above all, dragons - the Lords of the Sky, capable of bringing rain. Despite these “precautions”, the problem of fires was grave and persistent, and as early as the Qing Dynasty at the end of the XVII Century, more scientific means were employed. Thus, at such an early time in history, the first rudimentary anti-lightning devices were created. In fact, above the cornices of various rooms, you can still find various animal-like figures stretching iron tongues towards the heavens. Each of these tongues is connected to an iron wire running from the roof, down a column and straight into the ground. True prototypes of the modern-day lightning rod, which, even today, still surround the statues and the roofs of the buildings of the complex. Unfortunately, even these systems couldn’t totally save the heart of the Empire from its ancient nemesis, which struck once again as late as 1923, damaging the Pavilion in the Jianfu Garden.

Chiara Vedovetto - © 2020 ARTE.it for Bulgari Hotel Beijing
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