BEIJING: An army of workers has invaded Beijing's Forbidden City and is treating the 600-year-old red-walled compound to its biggest makeover in more than a century ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Stonecutters are chipping curves into white marble blocks while roofers rub glaze on countless rounded yellow shingles.
Painters daub dragons on to roof beams and carpenters treat wooden doors with animal oil.
The labyrinthine complex, home to 24 emperors, their families and courtesans, and reputed to have 9,999 rooms, is one of China's best-known icons and most popular tourist attractions.
This is the biggest renovation of the Forbidden City in more than 100 years, said Jin Hongkui, deputy director of the Palace Museum, as the compound is called.
The project will require about 20,000 workers and includes 160,000 square metres of buildings which were left mostly unrenovated since the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
That area, roughly equal to the size of 22 football pitches, is only about 15% of the total area of the complex, hemmed in by a moat, at the heart of the sprawling Chinese capital.
Part of the impetus for the project, as with many other projects around Beijing these days, is to give the site a facelift for the Olympics.
By then, Jin said, only the buildings and walkways along the central axis of the Forbidden City will have been touched up.
They (visitors) come here with a wish to learn the history of the Forbidden City. A poor and damaged palace will not satisfy them. The Forbidden City needs a thorough renovation to preserve our cultural heritage and its function in society, Jin said.
Unesco listed the Forbidden City as a world Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.
Many of its greatest treasures priceless paintings, porcelain and curios are now in Taiwan, whisked there in 1949 by the fleeing Nationalists as Mao Zedong's triumphant Communist armies swept to power on the mainland. Reuters