China at work overhauling Forbidden City

BEIJING — It's the ultimate in home repair: hundreds of rooms, a century of fire damage and neglect — and steadily mounting wear and tear from 7 million visitors a year.

China is at work on the first full-scale effort to restore the imperial grandeur of its 584-year-old Forbidden City, the world's biggest palace and former residence of 24 emperors.

Rebuilding and painting the vermilion-walled palace in the heart of Beijing is expected to take until 2020. The ambitious project includes tearing down a five-story museum and other modern buildings that disrupt the original layout of the grounds.

"Our repair work will achieve the goal of reclaiming the grandeur and the real landscape of the palace at the height of imperial society," said the palace's deputy curator, Jin Honghui.

Carpenters and bricklayers are at work on scaffolding that shrouds giant gateways and halls where Ming and Qing dynasty rulers lived, played and governed an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Central Asia and from the tropics to Siberia.

The renovation, begun in 2001, reflects the communist government's new enthusiasm for resurrecting symbols of China's historic greatness as a way to bind together a nation that has abandoned leftist ideals amid breakneck economic reform.

Elsewhere in China, authorities are spending lavishly to rebuild temples, gardens and other imperial-era sites, often helped by the United Nations and foreign donors.

The government is spending $12 million a year to restore the Forbidden City, Jin said — a big sum in a society where the average annual income per person is less than $1,000.

Completed in 1420, the palace is a sprawling complex of villas, chapels, treasure houses and gardens that covers 178 acres. It is ringed by a 35-foot-high wall and a 170-foot-wide moat.

The palace is so dilapidated after a century of political upheaval and neglect that much of it is closed to the public.

But still, the Forbidden City is China's biggest tourist attraction, drawing some 7 million visitors a year. Bronze sculptures on display — copies of ancient pieces — have been rubbed shiny by tourists. Millions of feet have eroded its stone courtyards.

The restoration work requires builders to match the efforts of centuries of China's best carpenters, gardeners, painters and furniture makers, often with only sketchy records to guide them.