The 30,000 visitors who braved record-level rainfalls in Beijing to tour the Forbidden City on Wednesday, July 20, were rewarded with a sight worth writing (or microblogging) home about: a system of storm drains built 600 years ago utterly upstaging its modern counterparts across the city.
On Wednesday, as Beijing issued an orange storm alert and parts of the city saw floodwater up to a meter high, sarcastic comments appeared online about how great it would be to go see the ocean at the Forbidden City (Palace Museum). Later that day, China.org followed up with images and a Weibo post showing the old palace grounds “almost free of water,” which Palace Museum officials attributed to the extensive system of drainage spouts, canals, and underground channels dating back to the year 1420, in the reign of the Ming’s Yongle Emperor, first emperor to reside in the Forbidden City.
At this point, the currents of popular opinion did a 180-degree turn, and Sina Weibo exploded with images of “thousand dragons spitting water,” referring to the distinctively shaped gargoyles that divert water from the palace’s exterior walking paths into drainage channels below (there are actually 1,124 of them, ranged around the Three Front Halls of the palace).
This was not actually the first time that the media has taken note of the contrast between the engineering prowess of the Ming and of modern Beijing. Similar photos and reports about “putting the 600-year-old system to test” surfaced during the storms of July 21, 2012, which had been the worst storm to hit Beijing in 61 years. To go further back in history, torrential downpours were reported to have periodically devasted Beijing since at least the Yuan Dynasty. According to Yuan History, compiled by the successor Ming Dynasty in the early 1300s, a flood “destroyed the capital city, and 20,000 troops were sent to defend against it” at the end of the seventh (lunar) month in 1291, and 57 years later “the capital experienced heavy downpours, the capital collapsed.”
As for the Ming’s records of their own time, The True Records of Ming Emperor Yingzong states “in the seventh month of the fifth year of the Jingtai Emperor (1454), the capital experienced heavy downpours; the nine city gates collapsed and many people died. In the leap sixth months of the 35th year of the Wanli Emperor (1607), the capital saw heavy rains that lasted 20 days; the rains inundated the capital city, there was water 5 chi (80-85cm) high on Chang’an Avenue, potholes more than 10 chi deep, and every magistrate’s office inundated.”
Through it all, the Forbidden City supposedly remained unaffected. In the year of 2016, the palace can add one more notch to its belt of imperial landmarks it has bested in the realm of flood-survival: the thousand-li, invincible Great Wall, a 30-meter section of the rampart of which collapsed on Tuesday due to heavy rain near Juyongguan Pass northwest of Beijing.
According to a report published in Shandong’s Qilu Evening News after the 2012 floods, the effectiveness of the palace’s drainage system is said to be due to several factors. First, every hall in the palace, and many of passageways that interconnect them, is built on a dais that is elevated away from the ground level and that allows water to be drained onto channels below, which criss-cross the grounds in various complicated paths and eventually lead to the system of canals and lakes surrounding the palace. There is a secondary drainage system consisting of drains in the ground that divert water into underground channels, which also terminates in the lakes and canals. Each courtyard in the palace is also built to be slightly higher elevation in the middle and lower on the four sides, allowing water to flow away from the main quarters, into the drains on each side and corner when it hits the ground. Like Beijing itself, the palace is built to be at slightly higher elevation in the north and lower in the south, allowing water to drain in the same direction as rivers flow in the entire region.
The irony of Beijing’s actual drainage system being bested by something built before Columbus’s voyages (and during Admiral Zheng He‘s) has not been lost on netizens reeling from the devastation floods all across the country, who have cheekily asked city officials and engineers to learn from the skill as well as the concern shown by the Ming and finally update Beijing’s antiquated drains.
After all, what city doesn’t need more water-spitting dragons?
Cover image from huizhou.cn