Inside the Forbidden City: Finding Zen through disaster

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Kerri Lu notes that stepping into any of the individual courtyard-offices hidden to Palace Museum visitors felt like "entering a different world."

It was the gentlest of noises, a faint crack as my finger, which had just a moment ago been pushing against solid porcelain, suddenly felt the disorienting feel of nothing. The sound was barely audible, yet so shockingly real. As the rest of those in Beijing carried on with their business, there I sat in a secret, temperature-controlled room in the Forbidden City, staring at the priceless Qing dynasty artifact in my hands, recently “renovated” by yours truly, facing a harsh realization: I may have just broken off a piece of Chinese history.

I’d already had a few misadventures this past summer while working and learning in China through the Yale International Bulldogs program: taking in impossibly cheap breakfast options on good faith, forgetting the cardinal rule of discarding American currency exchange rates at the door of a flea market. There had also been a few such instances during my internship at the Palace Museum (GuGong) Publishing House: enthusiastically crashing into the architecture while touring the Palace for the first time, sleep-yelling at my supervisor during daily siesta (jet lag + disorientation = aggressive dreams projected to Teacher Li). 

The context of this particular catastrophe was the first of a series of lectures given by scholars currently conducting research within the institution; the talks were designed to immerse the summer interns in a rich cultural experience while on the job. The topic of the day was ceramics. I expected a tame afternoon.

We stepped into a room behind an inconspicuous vault-like security door to discover glass everywhere. Porcelain of all sizes in foam encasements sat behind locked glass doors. A humble semi-IKEA, semi-interrogation lamp shone above a large crimson velvet-covered table.

The “scholar” of the day soon arrived, fashionable and late, sporting a red polo t-shirt and khaki shorts, looking much more like a college student than the Confucius-citing, white-bearded archetype that I associated with the title “scholar.” He had alert, kind eyes, and a ready smile, joking with the other supervisors about his “last wild rebel days” of wearing t-shirts on the eve of the newly reformed dress code for the summer (which called for collared shirts).

Introduced as a modern authority on dynastic ceramics, Teacher Wang has identified the time period of 270,000 pieces of clay by touch alone. There were no signs of superhuman abilities in his fingertips (we all checked); like the rest of this humble figure, they seemed quite average.

Looks are deceiving. He was extraordinary. What followed in the next three hours was a whirlwind of information in intense technical Chinese as he ambitiously surveyed the first part of the entire history of the Chinese ceramics tradition. He spoke almost non-stop for the first two hours, combining personal anecdotes of archaeological digs with scholarly information about different time periods’ characteristics, as well as random trivia about certain emperors’ preference for peculiar designs and not-so-successful artistic propensities. Eloquent and to the point, he mixed humor with concrete facts, making the underwhelming homogenous clay pieces unique and worthwhile, fully encapsulating the interesting historical and political reasons behind the artistry.

At the end of the lecture, we had the rare opportunity to become “feelers” ourselves. The assistant (equally polo-shirted with a heart of steel designed for handling irreplaceable ceramics daily) brought down pieces as instructed by Teacher Wang, which were then passed around. And the dramatic production that is my clumsy life brings us to where we left off in the beginning.

When it came my turn to feel a particular glaze on a palm-sized wine cup, I was ecstatic. I carefully pressed my fingers against the grain of the porcelain, feeling the glazed clay, noting the delicate painting markings and unique signature of the artist and all these wonderful etchings, and — crack. The faintest of sounds; the heaviest drop my weak, non-steel heart has ever experienced.

I BROKE IT. Gentle caressing of irreplaceable objects was never on the job requirements. I started yelling, non-descript gibberish intermingled with under-the-breath swearing. I just held it, not knowing what to do next. The room started spinning. Cold sweat. Everyone realized what had happened and collectively gasped.

I could hear my pulse as Teacher Wang lightly broke the tension: “That one is worth $2 million, but seeing as you’re a student, I’ll give you a discount of $1 million.” There goes college tuition, future household, mortgage on my bicycle … “You’ll have to sign a letter to Yale asking for a grant, and we won’t let you leave the room.” My parents’ reaction, Chinese media attention, all potential for a future in anything…

“Relax, Xiao Lu*, that’s just some plaster we sealed over the edge so the broken part would be whole.”  My firstborn … wait, What?! Suddenly the glaze that settled over my eyes lifted, and the biggest “PHEW!” of the century came out of me as the various teachers continued joking light-heartedly. It turns out the plaster was temporary, and I was too persistent as a “feeler” to give them any doubt as to its lack of sturdiness.

I felt almost reborn as I sat back in my chair to look at the tiny cup that would have been the source of the biggest catastrophe of a Yalie abroad. Teacher Wang laughed at seeing me completely exhausted by all 30 seconds of the nerve-wracking experience. “You don’t look so good, a little pale!” He proceded to hand me the next artifact, even smaller than the first, adding: “Careful — this one is worth twice as much.”

What I learned from the most and still appreciate, now two whole months after having experienced whole-body goosebumps, was the calm I saw in Teacher Wang in the moments after I had realized my finger no longer made contact with a solid edge. He was a stoic, unflustered figure, carefully analyzing the situation and treating it with a cool-headedness often unseen in the rest of Beijing, a characteristic Zen that has roots in the nature of working within the Palace.

Kerri palace walls
One of the long passageways leading to Kerri Lu’s courtyard office.

The inner sanctum of the institution is a different world altogether — calm, cool, always collected, separated from the bustling tourist activity by the seven-meter-high walls and in the never-ending passageways. I found these precious moments throughout my internship. I saw it in my co-worker Zhou Yi, a recent college graduate, who would sit down with a 150-page draft, undaunted by the sheer size of the manuscript, and proceed to carefully check each individual character for mistakes in order to produce something valuable and enjoyable to the public. I felt it in the outstretching of arms, worn by years of research, of the elderly co-workers doing daily calisthenics in our 300-year-old courtyard. I heard it in the warm greetings of employees of all ages at the departmental meeting, the respect shown in referring to elderly employees as “teachers” out of respect, in line with the tradition of apprenticeship.

I embraced the Zen myself, biking down the cobblestone passageways on my last day of work, smiling into the lazy sun and fully appreciating the opportunity to spend time in this historic city, surrounded by academia and community. In that one moment of relief after sheer panic, I experienced the feeling of being absolutely grounded — a feeling I continue to seek in myself, beyond my most rewarding summer within the walls of the Forbidden City.

*Literally translated: “Small Lu” (my last name). In Chinese, it’s common in the workplace for elders to refer to young people using this pattern. Another piece of evidence that I live on the edge: If pronounced with the wrong tone, my name (小吕) could phonetically change to 效率 (proficiency) or 小驴 (small donkey). Huh.

P.S. To redeem myself slightly to any close followers of Palace Museum news: No, I was not the employee who broke a Grade One Cultural Relic plate in a machinery accident. His was much more valuable (1,000 years old!) and much more permanent. Although I’d like to think that he was searching for a little bit of Zen too.

 Sophomore Kerri Lu has been writing about her experiences as a Yale student since her freshman year.

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