The Forbidden City, the largest ancient palatial complex in the entire world, used to be the abode of the richest and most powerful people in China. For centuries the palace, with its treasures and secrets, has attracted an endless stream of admirers.
Name: the Forbidden City/Zijin Cheng/Gugong/the Palace Museum
Highlights: three Great Halls, 9,999 rooms, Imperial Garden, historical relics
Recommended length of time for a visit: one day
History: Built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD)
Witness of History
Built during the Ming Dynasty, the royal palace complex covers an area of 72 hectares (180 acres). It is a silent witness to history. Down through the decades, whether during the best or worst of times, the palace has stood solemnly in Beijing, hosting visitors from all over the world.
Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty (from 1900 to 1912), various foreign countries tried to open China’s gates by force of arms. Gugong, the Ancient Palace, suffered pillaging from forces home and abroad. An Eight-Nation Alliance (Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary) once invaded and ransacked the Forbidden City, forcing the emperor to flee from Beijing. After that, many Chinese treasures found their way to Europe.
From 1933 onwards, the Japanese invasion led to the loss of numerous treasures. After the end of World War II, some important items of the Palace’s collection were returned. But during the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist government shipped a great collection to Taiwan. Now there is a National Palace Museum in Taipei, preserving many treasures from the Forbidden City.
Over the centuries, the Forbidden City has been home to 24 emperors and their households. Citizens were not allowed to enter the palace without permission and residents of the palace also could not simply leave at will. After arrival, many of the emperors’ wives and servants never again stepped outside the palace grounds.
This is why the palace was called “the Forbidden City”. Many thrilling stories are told about former members of the emperors’ households (for example, relating how the shadows of some servants can still be seen walking in line along the wall). Those attracted by such stories are naturally eager to discover the palace secrets.
The Chinese name of the palace is also full of mystery. Zijin Cheng (紫禁城), literally means "Purple Forbidden City", though the "purple" [Zi] here does not really refer to the color (the color yellow is more commonly associated with all things imperial) but to the name for the North Star, Polaris. This "pole star" is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor ("the Lesser Bear") and is the abode of the Celestial Emperor in Chinese astro-mythology.
Essence of Classical Chinese Architecture
From the gates at the entrances to the ornaments on the roofs, numerical culture can be found at every nook and cranny of the royal palace. The palace grounds occupy 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 complex. The number nine does, however, feature in a couple of other statistics, namely, in the number of palaces (90) and the number of courtyards (980).
Symmetry in Architecture
Chinese people used to believe that China was the Middle Kingdom; in two senses, one figurative and one literal. Figuratively, it was the kingdom between Heaven and Earth (and ruled over Earth, according to Heaven's dictates); and literally, it was the physical kingdom situated at the centre of the earth, surrounded by barbarians on all sides. The people’s emperor, the son of god, should live at the center of the world. This symbolized the majesty of imperial power.
From the overall layout to the smallest detail, the complex was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles. The palace was laid out in a symmetrical pattern, on a north-south (polar) rectangular grid. It was constructed along a north-south central axis along which the capital city itself was built. The palace complex extends from the traditional palatial tower arrangement, with Gu Lou ("Drum Tower") and Zhong Lou ("Bell Tower"), in the north, to the Yong Ding Men, or the "Gate of Permanent Peace and Stability", in the south.
Careful Configuration According to Function
Main halls in the Outer Court：
Tai He Dian, or the "Hall of Supreme Harmony";
Zhong He Dian, or the "Hall of Middle Harmony";
Bao He Dian, or the "Hall of Preserving Harmony".
These three halls, located at the front or entrance of the palace complex, served as venues for official ceremonies, each ceremony to be observed in the hall most befitting its significance. Lesser auxiliary halls were situated adjacent to each of these three main halls.
Main structures in the Inner Palace:
Qian Qing Gong, or the "Palace of Heavenly Purity";
Jiao Tai Dian, or the "Palace of Union and Peace";
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, except 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 living quarters for the imperial family: the emperor, the empresses and the concubines.
10-metre-high city wall：In the interests of security (the safety of the imperial family was of course paramount), the rectangular-shaped Forbidden City was enclosed by a 10-metre-high city wall, with a total circumference of 3,430 meters. At each corner of this purposely imposing rectangular structure stands a magnificent watchtower. During imperial times, these towers were diligently manned by the most trusted guards. A moat – encircling the outer perimeter of the city wall – with drawbridges, served as the first line of defense.
Treasure-House of Cultural Relics
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. The City is representative of the greatest technical and artistic achievement in China.
All the articles in the Forbidden City were made by the most skilled craftsmen, using the best-quality materials from hundreds of years ago. Tributes to the emperors were also of the highest quality. Now visitors can see these royal articles, including ceramics, paintings, brassware, timepieces, and jade, used or collected by the emperors.