Warm as Toast

  Warm as ToastAll the important buildings in the Forbidden City face south with their solid back walls to the north. This gives them maximum sun-shine and, together with the high enclosure walls, keeps cold northernly wind from buffeting the rooms.

  Secondly, beneath the floors of the halls were horizontal flues or conduits of heat from fires fed from two manholes under the verandas. Nowadays, at many halls, such as the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (which was used by emperors Kangxi, Tongzhi, ancl Guangxu as their bridal chambers) , tourists can still see the wooden covers of the man-holes, two metres deep in the ground. During the night all the inhabitants of the palace, from the Emperor, empresses and imperial concubines down to the maids and eunuchs, slept on kangs-hollow brick beds heated from below-in structure very much like the cruder kangs used by the rural people in northern China.

  A third source of heat came from braziers. Standing on three (sometimes four) legs, there were burners under perforated covers, elaborately made of gilded bronze or filigree cloisonne. They varied in size. The largest ones, like those still standing in the major halls, could be hundreds of kilogrammes in weight and more than a metre high. Smaller ones the size of melons were hand or foot warmers. These were used exclusively by members of the imperial family. Fuel for the braziers was best-quality charcoal made from hard grained wood in rural counties around Beijing. In Beijing, the charcoal was deliveredto a government organization called Hongluo chang in the western part of the old town, where it was cut into specified lengths and, before delivery to the palace, packed into small round wicker baskets painted red. Hence its name “hongluotan” (red-basket charcoal).

  Charcoal of this grade was brilliantly black, burnt longer and gave strong fires with very little smoke or smell so that pollution of the ornate halls was cut to the minimum. Large quantities of charcoal were required for the Forbidden City at that time. Daily allotments were dealt out according to rank. For instance, during the reign ofQing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), 60 kilogrammes of charcoal were for the Dowager Empress, 55 for the Empress, 45 for each first-grade imperial concubine, 37.5 for each second-grade imperial concubine, 15 for a princess, 10 for a prince, and 5 for a grandson of the Emperor.

  Administering supplies of firewood and coal to the Forbidden City was a Fuel Department, whose chief during the Ming Dynasty (1368~1644) had the privilege of making reports before the Emperor in per-son. During the Qing Dynasty, in addition to serving eunuchs assigned to each hall or establishment, there were three organizations in the palace, each consisting of 25-50 eunuchs, that were charged respectively with the fixing and repairing of stoves and braziers, the storage and distribution of fuels, and the lighting and tending of fires under the floors or brick beds.

  Charcoal fires, despite strict regulations for their control, posed a constant threat to the wooden buildings. One serious palace fire was caused by Hao Shitong in 1797, a eunuch in Palace of Heavenly Purity who threw the ashes from a brazier near the foot of a wooden partition. The cinders revived during the night, and set the partition onfire. The flames then spread and burnt down the palace, and three other important buildings in its vicinity. The poor eunuch was sentenced to death and 25 others who were implicated were severely punished.

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