The Forbidden City, aka Imperial City – and sometimes referred to as the Palace Museum, for the museum that it houses (and often referred to by visitors from all over the world in more common parlance as "the imperial palace") – was built during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, beginning in the fourth year of the reign (CE 1402–1424) of Emperor Zhu, aka the Yongle Emperor, or in 1406, and was completed in the 18th year of Emperor Zhu's reign, or in 1420. From its opening in 1420 to the end of China's imperial period, the Forbidden City served as the imperial palace for 24 Ming and Qing emperors.
The Palace's Title Within the Framework of Chinese Astro-Mythology
The palace's Chinese name, Zijin Cheng (紫禁城), literally means "Purple Forbidden City", though the "purple" [Zi (紫)] here does not refer to the color (the color yellow is more commonly associated with all things imperial) so much as to the name for the North Star, Polaris ("Pole star"), the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor ("Lesser Bear") and the abode of the Celestial Emperor in Chinese astro-mythology. The North Star in Chinese astrology is also sometimes referred to as the Ziwei Star, while the Ursa Minor constellation is correspondingly referred as the Ziwei Enclosure, suggesting a city. The word jin (禁) means "forbidden" , or "prohibited", while the word cheng (城) means "city walls" – and, by extension, "walled in".
Thus these various linguistic references – some literally meaning "forbidden" and others suggesting "forbidden" by implication, since this is a dwelling intended for a Prince of Heaven, or a walled-in heavenly abode within a heavenly city – imply a place that by its very nature excludes ordinary mortals, and hence the palace's enduring title, the Forbidden City.
The Palace's Layout
The palace, grounds included, occupies an area of 720,000 sqm (7,800,000 sq ft), or an area of about 72 hectares. Though the palace, according to folklore, consists of 9,999 rooms – since the number nine is intimately linked to the emperor – in actuality (according to an official statistical survey conducted in 1973), there are only 8,704 rooms within the palace as a whole. The number nine does, however, figure in a couple of other statistics, namely, in the number of palaces (90) and the number of courtyards (980).
Because, according to Chinese mythology, China is the Middle Kingdom (which has two dimensions, one literal and one figurative: figuratively, it is the kingdom situated between Heaven and Earth (and rules over Earth, after Heaven's dictates); and literally, it is the physical kingdom situated in the center of the earth, surrounded by barbarians on all sides), the Forbidden City is laid out in a symmetrical, north-south (polar) rectangular grid pattern. Therefore the palace is constructed along the north-south central axis on which the capital city itself is built.
The palace complex extends from the traditional palatial tower arrangement in the north, the Gou Lou ("Drum Tower") and the Zhong Lou ("Bell Tower"), to, in the south, Yong Ding Men, or the "Gate of Permanent Peace and Stability". Despite its many and complex building structures and courtyards, the Forbidden City is renowned for its sublimely harmonious layout ; it is considered to be the apex of ancient Chinese architectural taste and style.
The Forbidden City falls into two principal parts: the Outer Court and the Inner Palace.
The Outer Court is made up of three main buildings: Tai He Dian, or the "Hall of Supreme Harmony"; Zhong He Dian, or the "Hall of Middle Harmony"; and Bao He Dian, or the "Hall of Preserving Harmony". These three halls, located at the front, or entrance area of the palace complex, serve as the venues for various official ceremonies – each ceremony to be observed in the hall befitting the ceremony's significance, or rank – and with lesser auxiliary halls adjacent to each of these three main halls.
The Inner Palace consists of the rear three main structure s, namely: Qian Qing Gong, or the "Palace of Heavenly Purity", Jiao Tai Dian, or the "Palace of Union and Peace" and Kun Ning Gong, or the "Palace of Earthly Tranquility". In addition, the Inner Palace is composed of numerous "everyday" buildings where the emperor conducted his daily "business affairs" and where the emperor and his large, extended "family" lived more or less in private, save for the presence of servants. They include 6 east-wing palaces and 6 west-wing palaces, which – besides the rooms that were reserved for work – included rooms that served as the living quarters for the imperial family: the emperor, the empresses and the concubines.
As a matter of security (the safety of the imperial family was paramount!) the rectangular-shaped Forbidden City is enclosed by a 10-meter-high city wall with a total circumference of 3,430 meters. At each corner of this purposefully imposing rectangular structure stands a magnificent watchtower, which, during imperial times, was of course diligently manned by the most trusted guards. Lastly, a moat – encircling the outer perimeter of the city wall, with drawbridges, of course – served as the first line of defense.
As a Museum Over Imperial Chinese Architecture and Cultural & Historical Relics
The Forbidden City in its entirety, as the former abode of 24 Chinese emperors since its construction at the outset of the Ming Dynasty, is of course the primary museum attraction of the imperial palace, if one can put it like that. The Forbidden City is the best preserved imperial palace in China, and in fact the largest ancient palatial structure in the entire world. With its many historical and cultural relics, the Forbidden City is internationally recognized as one of the five most important palace complexes in the world (the other four are: the Palace of Versailles in France, Buckingham Palace in the UK, the White House in the US and the Kremlin in Russia... if I were to be allowed to add a sixth such palace complex, it would have to be the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg – aka Leningrad during the Soviet era).
The official museum inside the palace is a veritable treasures trove of Chinese cultural and historical relics, many of them so unique – and so uniquely exquisite – that their counterparts cannot be found anywhere else on earth. And this despite the pillaging that the palace suffered during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty!
In 1961, the Forbidden City, to also comprise its Palace Museum, was listed by the government of the People's Republic of China as one of the country's most preservation-worthy historical monuments, and in 1987, the Forbidden City was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
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