A sign for an exhibit of Art Deco cases in the Forbidden City. A thief confessed to taking nine items and said he escaped by scaling a 26-foot wall, according to state media. (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times / September 28, 2011)
Shi Bokui, 28, a migrant worker with a sixth-grade education was caught three days later. Not the brightest of criminals, he'd left fingerprints on a glass display case and then went to an Internet cafe nearby and registered under his own name. Most of the loot, which was on loan from a Hong Kong museum, was recovered.
Restoring the reputation of the Forbidden City, the 180-acre compound that was home to China's emperors for 500 years, is proving more difficult.
"The Forbidden City is a symbol of China," said Jia Yinghua, a historian who has worked in the compound staging exhibits about the imperial family. "If anybody steals from there, the foundation of the nation is shaken."
The burglary is only the latest in a string of recent scandals that have brought ignominy to one of China's foremost attractions. In July, one of its researchers accidentally broke a 1,000-year-old porcelain dish during a botched scientific test and others were accused of submerging a Qing dynasty wooden screen in water.
More than 100 rare books from the imperial library, many of them from the 19th century, have vanished. And corrupt employees working the admissions gates were captured on videotape pocketing the entry fees ($9 per head) from tour groups, and then got caught paying hush money to a blackmailer who threatened to blow the whistle.
Shortly after the May break-in, popular television host Rui Chenggang revealed in a blog that the Forbidden City was trying to open a private club for the super-rich with membership fees starting at $150,000. That rankled socialist sensibilities, especially given that the palace had been off-limits to the public until the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, in 1911. The Palace Museum, as the compound is now officially called, blamed its commercial partner, Forbidden City Palace Cultural Development Co., operator of the gift shops and snack bars.
The walled city has 980 buildings in a geometric layout, many with poetic names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Studio of Exhaustion from the Diligent Reign. Almost everything is painted a dusty hue of vermilion, and there is an air of faded grandeur about the place, with tall grass growing through cracks in the vast stone courtyards and yellow tile roofs.
Still, the Palace Museum is the most popular tourist attraction in China, with 8 million visitors a year, most of them Chinese. The modern capital of Beijing is laid out around its walls.
In many ways, the Forbidden City is the psychic heart of the nation; it is at the intersection of imaginary north-south and east-west axes that ancient geomancers thought marked the center of China, hence the world, with the optimal feng shui. It is no coincidence that the Communist Party chose to rule from the adjacent Zhongnanhai compound that hugs its western walls — today the true forbidden city.