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China’s Virtual “˜Forbidden City’ Unveiled

October 10, 2008

A new three-dimensional recreation of Beijing’s renowned Forbidden City is allowing visitors to dress up as imperial eunuchs and greet courtesans from thousands of miles away.

The real-life Forbidden City is one of China’s cultural jewels, and receives thousands of visitors to its sprawling complex every day. But now online visitors can also watch the Qing dynasty emperor enjoying a feast, training fighting crickets or practicing archery with assistance of his courtesan.

Publicly unveiled on Friday, the new virtual palace, dubbed “Beyond Space and Time”, even allows visitors to dress up as part of an elaborate imperial entourage.

“When you enter the Forbidden City you choose one of nine historical costumes, which is to give a sense of history but also keep a sense of decorum,” John Tolva, the IBM program manager who led the project, told Reuters.

“You can’t run and you can’t fly,” he added, a restriction that aims to prevent other virtual visitors, whom you can see and interact with, from being distracted.”

The program shows both the conventional and the racier sides of imperial history, formed in part by vast numbers of eunuchs who often rose to great power.

“One of the costumes you can chose is a eunuch,” IBM Vice President Paula W. Baker told Reuters.

They eunuchs also appear in some of the bureaucratic roles they might have filled during their time.

“There are eunuchs, for instance in the ‘approving imperial memorials’ scenes,” said Tolva.

Online visitors interested in the more intimate aspects of the emperor’s life can get an up close look at the women he chose to serve him.

“There is a painting being done of the emperor and the courtesans are there, orbiting about tending to him while the painter does his job,” Tolva said.

“And for all the activities where you actually do something there is an attendant who is styled as a courtesan.”

The museum hopes the program, which is based on computer gaming software, will capture new fans for the cultural landmark that survived China’s turbulent 20th century in extraordinarily good shape.

IBM provided the project, which took over three years and $3 million to develop, as part of a community program.

However, some curators are concerned the virtual palace has sacrificed a degree of historical accuracy for the convenience of modern visitors.

“You wouldn’t have been able to just wander around like this,” Hu Chui, director of the Information Department, told Reuters as he pointed to a soldier avatar walking toward a central hall.

“You would have been kowtowing and anyway, he is on the imperial pathway. You would get arrested for that.”

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