Rabble drawn to refuge of royalty
I WAS admiring two kneeling bronze elephants, which guard the rear entrance to Beijing's majestic Forbidden City, when the emperor approached.
Not, you understand, one of the Ming Dynasty emperors who built this vast palace complex about six centuries before.
No, this was one of the new generation of Little Emperors: a spoiled only son, the fruit of China's one-child policy - overweight, over-indulged and looking for fresh photo opportunities.
The elephants are protected by brass railings and signings declaring: "Please do not touch the ancient relic."
But when you're an emperor you do whatever you feel like, so the pudgy princeling climbed round the railing and posed alongside the elephant, his fingers raised in the V sign which seems compulsory for photos in China, while his doting parents dutifully took a dozen photos.
No sooner had that imperial party departed when a princess arrived, an attractive young woman, immaculately made-up, wearing the latest fashion and accompanied by a retinue of male admirers - because the one-child policy has also resulted in a shortage of young women - and she too headed for one of the elephants.
With a squeal of delight, the princess leaned over the railing and grabbed the two pointed bronze tusks - already highly polished from similar attentions - and clung on decoratively while her courtiers took photos on their mobile phones.
Those incidents underline just how much this ancient refuge of China's monarchs - which got its name because ordinary people were forbidden to enter its huge, glittering gates - is now the preserve of those ordinary people. On May 1, a special holiday in China, more than 200,000 people visited the Forbidden City to gain an insight into the splendour of its past.
It was an ordinary weekday when I went to pay my respects, but the place was still thronged with hordes of Chinese, most of them wearing red caps and many waving red flags.
Many had obviously come up to their capital for a day out. Led by their flag-waving, whistle-blowing leaders, they joined a great queue, hundreds of metres long, to see the embalmed body of their modern emperor, Chairman Mao.
Then they crossed the great open space of Tiananmen Square, proclaimed as the largest public space in the world, paused to have their photos taken under the giant portrait of Mao hanging on the centuries-old Meridian Gate, and trooped en masse down the passage once reserved for the emperor into the Forbidden City.
Once inside the city, they obviously relished the chance to explore this citadel from which their ancestors were barred.
Like me, they marvelled at the enormous courtyard where the emperors could hold audiences for 100,000 people, with its artificial stream, marble bridges, giant bronze incense burners and huge bronze vats which once held water in case of a fire.
They climbed the great marble terrace to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperors were once crowned, and gaped at the golden dragon throne and ornate decorations.
Thousands of them crushed against the entrance to the Hall of Preserving Harmony, once used for imperial examinations. As our guide, Bin, explained: "Touching the doors is thought to make you very clever because so many wise men have entered there." (After hearing this, I fought my way through and touched the doors myself.)
From the height of the terrace, the crowd gazed down on the surrounding palace buildings, doubtless admiring the workmanship of gleaming yellow ceramic tiles and the mythical figures perched on each ridge to keep away evil spirits.
An endless stream of couples, young and old, fought to have their photos taken in front of the intertwined cedar trees where China's last emperor, Puyi, and his wife posed on their wedding day.
Some of the bolder Chinese also took the opportunity to have their pictures taken with foreigners, especially, it seemed, those with silver hair (but not, alas, those with beards and no hair).
In defiance of the warning signs about not touching, countless hands were extended to rub the bronze heads of the ferocious mythical beasts created to guard the palace, hoping to acquire luck.
And it was easy to see that some of these visitors were in need of luck, because they were obviously on the wrong side of the urban-rural divide which separates rich from poor in modern China.
That was most clearly illustrated while we stood listening to guide Bin tell the story of the Well of Concubine Zen, and how the unfortunate young woman, Puyi's favourite among his 3000 concubines, was thrown down the well on the orders of his ferocious mother, the Dowager Empress Cixi.
While Bin was talking, a roughly dressed elderly Chinese couple stood staring open-mouthed at these strange visitors from afar. A smartly turned-out young woman walking past noticed the couple, nudged her boyfriend, and the two exchanged giggles at the naivety of their humble compatriots.
The same sort of scene - between gaping yokels and superior courtiers - would doubtless have played out if any peasants had ever been allowed inside the Forbidden City a few hundred years before.