On my first visit to the Forbidden city I was surprised to see mostly Chinese people touring the sights. Around every corner I ran into blocks of Chinese tourists being herded by young local women with bull horns and flags rattling off the significance of a particular building or artifact in China's illustrious 5,000 year history. I was expecting more foreigners and fewer Chinese. Then I go to the Summer Palace and see the same thing. The Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square, Ming Tombs, all are overflowing with people from all around China.
When you consider the massive population of China it shouldn't be surprising that domestic tourism would be so popular. Of that population most have an appreciation, if not avid interest in their nation's history. Near many supermarkets and transportation hubs in Beijing you will notice library vending machines growing in popularity. Swipe your card and select a book and it will be dispensed to a metal slot where you would normally expect a Twinkie to be waiting. The machines are only so big, so the selection of reads are likewise only so varied. Most of the books inside are about Chinese history and government. A visit to a bookstore will show the same thing, rows upon rows of books discussing the many events and peoples in China's famed five thousand year history. Daytime television is no different; dramas set during various dynasties and significant wars fill more than a little airtime. The Chinese like them some history.
The way Chinese admire their long history is easy to laugh or roll your eyes at, but it does merit some consideration. Of what the Chinese consider to be the four greatest and oldest civilizations, 四大文明古国 (Egypt, Babylon, India, and China), only three remain. A quick look over the situations in those three nations and you'll see that of those three China maintains the largest population, most influential economy, and greatest consumption of luxury goods. Not too shabby. Seeing what remains of the roots of this civilization appeals the its residents’ sense of national pride. Should I be surprised to see so many Chinese tourists inside of China? No.
After seeing a few tourist spots in China you'll notice a few recurring themes, or that it all looks the same. To the average foreigner the buildings in the Forbidden City will be indistinguishable from those in the Summer Palace, or any other place; red paint, yellow roof tiles, ornamentation in turquoise, blue, and gold. Very pretty the first time you see it. On her second trip to China my aunt said, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” She was not impressed. If you’re expecting ancient ruins or interesting artifacts you might be feeling the same way. The buildings are heavily restored and the original artifacts were mostly destroyed or looted at some point during the past century. For example, the interesting artifacts that should be in the Forbidden City in Beijing are instead in a museum in Taiwan (a sore subject, I assume). All the the buildings that have been restored and set up like they might have so long ago are conveniently roped off, you get to peer into the shadowy insides from afar. You don’t get to wander through the impressive halls as the emperor would. Not what I expected when I first went.
Does this mean that these places aren’t worth going to? No, of course you should see them. When I have friends come through I tell them to go where they really want to go. If you really want to see the Forbidden City, chances are you will be pleased with your experience. After your second or third visit, not so much. How can you make it worthwhile? Before you go visit a tourist spot, do some research. The Chinese love to see these places because they appreciate why they are important. A foreign tourist can do the same, build appreciation for the places you visit, wherever you go. Also, don’t forget to notice the other people who are there. Look at what you came to see but remember to turn around and see the other people that are there. You’ll see a lot of interesting people, including many, many locals.