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Architecture of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, in Beijing China, was the home of the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. The vast palace complex manifests the style and technical development of classical Chinese architecture.

The Forbidden City was built over 14 years, beginning in 1406, by over 1 5million workers. Wood was brought in from China’s southwest jungles, quarries in the Beijing area supplied marble, and the main halls were paved with specially baked “golden bricks” from Suzhou (near modern-day Shanghai).

The Forbidden City was built to house the emperors of China, and every aspect of its architecture represents that- from its ubiquitous dragon and unicorn statues, to its built in defenses, to the alignment of the city in relation to Polaris, the North Star.

The entire complex has over 9,000 rooms, four gates, an 8 meter high wall, a 3,800 meter perimeter moat, and covers 150,000 square meters. It is among the largest palace complexes in the world, and the largest surviving medieval palace.

The Forbidden City Layout

The Forbidden City Layout

The Forbidden City Layout

In a word, the Forbidden City plan is symmetry. Balance in all things was the philosophy of the designers of the city, and every aspect of the city reflects it.

The South-North Axial Balance

The most striking thing about the whole city’s design is that it is built south-to-north along multiple axises. It is built along the south-north axis of old Beijing and the structures withing the city are symmetrical along the cities, south-north axis.

The Philosophy of Balance

The axial symmetry of the city stems from the I Qing (the Chinese Book of Changes). The main idea of the book is union- or harmony. Central to the idea of harmony is balance, so all of the city’s palaces were constructed along the central axis.

Confucianism played a large part in the layout of the city. According to Confucianism, the emperor was granted power from heaven to rule over the Nation. Confucian philosophy regarded the north-south axis as the axis of power, so the Forbidden City was built thusly. The palace complex had to be built within the capital city on the north-south axis, as did the most important buildings within the complex.

Feng Shui (an ancient Chinese metaphysical science) also influenced the Forbidden City’s construction. According to the principles of Feng Shui, balance amongst people’s surroundings leads to good health and fortune, and harmony and balance in the world. and these principles are visible in the city. Each area within the city has a complimentary component, and each side of the south-north axis complements the other.

Chinese philosophy and culture also played a role in construction of the complex. Seeing the universe as a kind of spectrum, with nature viewed as on the right side, mankind in the middle, and heaven on the left. The left-hand side (when viewing a map of the city) was viewed as greater than the right. Thus, more important or honorary buildings tend to be on the left.

Heaven and Earth

Visitors who entered the city at night, from the main gate (the south gate) would notice their paths brought them toward the North Star, Polaris. This was representative of both symmetry (the city being built on a north-south axis), and of course of the emperor’s divine power. His palace was a place of harmony between the heavens and the Earth. The celestial alignment of the Forbidden City thus reflects emperor’s status as a son of heaven on Earth.

Imperial Colors and Paint

Imperial Colors and Paint

Imperial Colors and Paint

The colors and painting within the Forbidden City are almost always deeply symbolic. Despite numerous fires, reconstructions, and redecorations, some things within the city have remained unchanged.

Much of the painting and colored décor changed over the years, the complex was the residence of the emperor, so each imperial family preferred their own decorations. However, somethings remained unchanged.

Symbolic Colors

  • Blue symbolizes healing, conserving, trust, relaxation and calmness.
  • Green symbolizes growth, health, and balance.
  • Black is the color of lineage, water, and knowledge.
  • These three colors are found throughout the Forbidden City.
  • White is an unlucky color. It symbolizes death and mourning. It is not a prevalent color in the Forbidden City.

However, the two most important colors were:

Yellow

Yellow was the color of the emperor. Yellow was associated with Buddhism and the heavens. The emperor’s connection with yellow symbolized his divine rule over the nation.

With two exceptions, the roofs of all of the structures in the Forbidden City are glazed yellow tiles. The only exceptions were the Pavilion of Literary Profundity (the library) which had black tiles, associated with water and fire-prevention. The prince’s residence had green tiles, associated with wood, and growth.

The throne was wrapped in yellow cloth, and many of the buildings interiors were decorated red and yellow tiles. Visitors will also see bronze sculptures beasts and and gold-plated vessels decorating the city.

Red

Much of the Forbidden City is painted red as well. Well-known as China’s most auspicious color, and is associated with happiness, wealth, and power. Red is found on columns, window frames, and walls all over the complex.

Painting much of the wooden columns red served a functional purpose as well- protecting the wood from degradation and rot.

Paintings

The vast majority of the paintings in the Forbidden City are of dragons. 12,654 in total. Dragons were believed to protect the emperor, so the more, the better. Phoenixes were also popular as they were believed to protect the empress. The dragons and phoenixes were used on the most important buildings, those along the central axis and the major palaces. Tangent circle patterns (patterns of overlapping concentric circles, or circles with other geometric shapes in them) would be found on side halls because they were considered inferior to the imperial phoenixes and dragons.

Other pavilions and towers are decorated with Suzhou style patterns. Suzhou patterns were usually much simpler geometrical patterns than the tangent circles.

The paintings in the halls and pavilions played important roles. Not only did they make the walls more appealing, but they also make protected the wood they were on and provided extra wall layers in the halls and palaces.

The Number 9

The Forbidden City is also known as a Palace of 9. The Chinese symbol for 9 (九) looks similar, and has a similar pronunciation to jiu (久), meaning everlasting.

The Forbidden City famously has 9,999 (and a half) rooms. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central harmony, and the Hall of Preserved Harmony, are all 9 Zhang and 9 Chi (ancient units of Chinese measurement) high (about 30 meters).

Each gate of the city has 81 door nails, in 9 rows and 9 columns.

The 4 corner towers on each corner of the city wall also had 9 wooden beams, 18 pillars, and 72 ridge beams- not only are these numbers all multiples of 9, but they also add up to 99.

There are 12,654 dragons painted throughout the city, another multiple of 9.

Wood

Modern China is concrete, steel, and glass, but ancient China was built of wood. In ancient China, wood was abundant. According to the feng shui 5 elements theory, it was also considered auspicious- as wood in buildings connotes spring, life, and growth.

Wood fell out of favor in Chinese construction for several reasons. It is hard to maintain- almost no ancient wooden structures or artifacts remain in the present-day. Wood is also flammable; wood that didn’t rot or break would fall victim to fire. The Forbidden City had over 50 fires during the Ming and Qing Dynasties from which it required repeated rebuilding. The last fire was in 1923.

Wood construction provided several specific benefits to the imperial city. Walls and window frames could easily be replaced- allowing the palaces to evolve at the demand of the emperors.

The heavy glazed roofs are supported by interlocking roof brackets. These are known as “dougong.” which literally means “cap and block.” Their ornate complexity is not only beautiful, but practical. They help disperse the weight from the roof beams to the enormous vertical columns that support the buildings. The dougong required no glue, nails, or other fastening devices- they fit together seamlessly on their own. Use of these duogong is thousands of years old.

The Forbidden City now stands as the world’s largest complex of well-preserved wooden structures dating back to medieval times.

Animals

Throughout the Forbidden City, there are numerous animals. Each animal represents something.

Roof Animals

Roof Animals

Roof Animals

The roofs of the city host a menagerie of creatures. The number of animals found on the roof indicates the status of the owner of the building. Thus, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, used by the Emperor, has the highest number of animals, on all four corners of the roof. The kissing dragon controls fire, the phoenix brings good luck and happiness, the lion symbolizes power, horses represent ability to travel to the seas and the heavens, the lion-dragon is the king of animals, the fish draon helps collect clouds to halt fires, the unicorn symbolizes justice, bull dragon peace, and the flying monkey signified prevention of thunder-caused destruction.

All of said animals can be found on top the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and some of them on the roofs of the other halls.

Lions of Stone and Bronze

Dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), these symbolic guardians can be seen in front of the gates of many parts of the imperial city.

The lions are always found in pairs, couples actually. The female lion is on the left, her paw resting on a lion cub. The female lion represents guardianship. The male lion, on the right, rests his paw on a globe. The male lion symbolizes the emperor reaching out the the world- either in friendship and affection, or military might.

Opera House

Opened in 2017, after extensive renovation, Changyin pavilion is a 21 meter high, three story opera house. It is also the Forbidden City’s largest stage.

Built in the 1770s in the Palace of Tranquility and Longevity, is is one of the oldest still-functioning stages. It now plays Chinese opera and occasionally hosts foreign talent for important guests and dignitaries.

The Emperor’s Garden

Yuhuayuan, the Imperial Garden, is the northernmost area within the Forbidden City. It is an enormous place, taking up about 12,000 square meters. Visitors to the garden can see incense burners four meters tall, trees over 400 years old, and numerous pavilions.

The most famous structures in the garden are the Hall of Imperial Peace, the Pavilion of Myriad Springs, Gathering Beauty Hill, an artificial hill with a cave built inside and an observation pavilion on top, and the Pavilion of 1000 Autumns.

This garden is truly a feat of design. It fits over 20 buildings, a long, winding pathway, a bridge and stream, a hill, rock gardens, flower beds, sculptures, and ancient trees all into its tiny space.

In-depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel

Take your time to enjoy the One-Day In-Depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel:

  • Our English-speaking expert guide will lead you to explore this largest imperial palace in the world and give you comprehensive explanations with pictures.
  • You will see all highlights and discover the hidden history of Chinese imperial life.
  • This in-depth Forbidden City tour takes about 5 hours while common Forbidden City tour only lasts about 2 hours.
  • In the afternoon, you’ll visit Jingshan Park to have a bird's eye view of the Forbidden City and watch sunset.