BEIJING (Reuters) - Culture fans thousands of miles from Beijing can now visit its famous Forbidden City, through a three dimensional recreation of the vast palace that also allows them to dress up as an imperial eunuch and meet a courtesan.
One of the jewels in China's cultural crown, the sprawling complex in the heart of the capital already gets tens of thousands of real-life visitors each day.
But now online tourists can also watch the Qing dynasty emperor feast at dinner, train fighting crickets and feed them with blood-fattened mosquitoes, or practice archery with the help of a courtesan.
At the virtual palace, unveiled on Friday, they can also dress up as part of the huge 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," said John Tolva, program manager at IBM who led the project, dubbed "Beyond Space and Time."
"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, being distracted.
The program does not shy away from the racier sides of imperial history, shaped in part by the legions of eunuchs who controlled portions of court life and could rise to great power.
"One of the costumes you can chose is a eunuch," said IBM Vice President Paula W. Baker -- though to spare blushes that avatar is only labeled "imperial servant."
They also appear in some of the bureaucratic roles they might have filled hundreds of years ago.
"There are eunuchs, for instance in the 'approving imperial memorials' scenes," Tolva added.
Those who are interested in other intimate aspects of the emperor's life have a chance to get an up close look at the women chosen 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 (www.beyondspaceandtime.com), which is based on computer gaming software, will earn new fans for a cultural landmark which survived China's tumultuous 20th century in remarkably good form.
It has been over three years in the making and cost over $3 million, provided by IBM as part of a community program.
Exacting curators feel the result offers a good introduction to the palace, but worry there has been a certain sacrifice of historical accuracy for the convenience of a modern visitor.
"You wouldn't have been able to just wander around like this," said Hu Chui, director of the Information Department, gesturing at a soldier avatar striding toward a central hall.
"You would have been kowtowing and anyway, he is on the imperial pathway. You would get arrested for that."
Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani