We have been social distancing for months thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Sporting events, concerts and other mass gatherings have been cancelled. However, as the American writer and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig quipped: “Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity”. Perhaps we all need to be a little bored to generate our most inventive ideas. A collection of various games and activities found inside the Forbidden City in Beijing may shed light on how the royals – who were never allowed to leave the palace – banished boredom. They illustrate the technical virtuosity of Qing dynasty (1636–1912) craftsmen, and also provide a window on life and culture in late imperial China. Was Empress Dowager Cixi the original cosplayer – over a century ago? 1. The magician automaton With height and width of 74cm and 36cm respectively, this automaton from the 19th century was made in France. A magician figure is standing beside a table with two cups on the left and right as well as an empty dice in the middle. Underneath the cups are fruit props while inside the dice is a little doll with curly golden hair. Once the widget is wound up, the magician will use his magic wand to point at the cups and dice one after another. Every time the cups open, they shows different fruit, and the little girl pops up alternately as the dice opens and closes. The magician’s head turns left and right during the “performance” while music plays along. 2. The classical card set Playing cards was one of the popular games among people in ancient China. The concubines inside the Forbidden City were also fans of the pastime. The set above contains 120 cards. Different characters from the Chinese classic novel – The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh ) – were drawn on the cards. How authentic are the accessories worn in 'Story of Yanxi Palace'? 3. The snuff bottle The snuff bottle originated from Europe in the 17th century and then became popular in China during the Qing dynasty. The tiny and exquisite bottle was used to house ground tobacco, as Chinese people considered snuff to be a remedy for common illness such as colds, headaches and stomach disorders. Beside its functionality, these miniature bottles were also considered a symbol of wealth. The painted enamel octagonal snuff bottle with coral lid above was made during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1733-1796), as the characters under the bottle show. The western woman on it was drawn by the court painter at that time. 4. The jade and crystal massage roller Massage is not a modern therapy. In fact, it has a very long history in traditional Chinese medicine. And the design of the massage tool we are using nowadays is no different from that used over a century ago. Beside using it to press on the acupoints for different healing purposes, the roller was also used during hot summer days for cooling the body and relaxing the muscles. The photo above shows a luxury massage roller made out of various mediums, including jade, amethyst and agate. 5. The ivory mahjong The 100-year-old game of mahjong, often called China’s “national pastime”, is beloved and has been played across the country both in the past and the present. Smoking, boxing and fashion – 10 cool, real, young British royals Made out of ivory and bamboo, this mahjong set was used by the royals inside the palace. Therefore, the red and green tiles, which were zhong (中) and fa (發) in Chinese respectively, were replaced by the characters dragon (龍) and phoenix (鳳). 6. The Peking opera stage – Chang Yin Ge In the olden days, some of the wealthy Chinese who loved Chinese opera would hire a troupe to do the home-based performance, which was considered a symbol of wealth. The emperor had his own stage in the palace to watch the show whenever he felt bored. Construction was finished during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in 1776, Chang Yin Ge (暢音閣) was one of the largest Chinese opera stages in China. Different than opera houses for ordinary people, the one in the palace separated the performers and the audiences into two different pavilions. The royals, including the emperor and his concubines, took the seats inside Yue Shi Lou (閱是樓), the opposite pavilion which was in the north of Chang Yin Ge. 7. The wu chou automaton Chou (丑) is the clown role in Chinese opera while wu chou (武丑) refers to a minor military role in a troupe. This automaton mimicked the acrobatic feats of wu chou while the green box in the bottom housed the machinery that could play music and manipulate the motion of the wu chou. 8. The phonograph The phonograph was imported to China in the early 20th century and quickly became a source of entertainment at the Qing Palace. The phonograph above, according to Palace Museum records, existed during the reign of Aisin Gioro Puyi (1906-1967), the last Chinese emperor. He used to play phonograph records featuring both Peking opera songs and foreign songs. How 9 royal mums-to-be hid their baby bumps in style 9. The film projector The film projector first appeared in France in the late 19th century and the invention was imported to China not long after that. The film projector above shows one of the primitive film players in the Forbidden City. The viewer could watch pictures moving through the tunnel on top of the wooden box, which housed the mechanics. In 1904, to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the then British ambassador paid tribute to her with a film projector, however, there was a fire accident during the screening. 10. Giant paper kites Kites were one of the most typical Chinese toys, and incorporated entertainment, competition and exercise. Therefore, flying a kite was one of the common outdoor activities inside the extensive palace. The images above showed two kites – a fish and a dragon – that were both made with paper and bamboo. Both of them were huge, the fish was with a height and width of 114cm and 80cm respectively while the dragon was even bigger – 13m in length and 2.7m in width. Want more stories like this? Sign up here . Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter . Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.