Also called the Hall of Preserved Harmony, Baohe Dian (保和殿), it is one of the three halls comprising the Outer Court of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was used for rehearsing imperial ceremonies and also for the final stage of the Imperial Examination. It was also used as another location where the Emperors would rest and prepare for other rites and ceremonies.
Hall of Preserved Harmony
Built in 1420, like most of the Forbidden City, by Emperor Yongle (1402-1424) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Hall of Preserving Harmony had many imperial uses.
Originally, the hall was built as a place for the Emperor to rest, and change clothes before departing for important ceremonies such as selecting the Empress or the Crown Prince.
In 1798, Emperor Qianglong (1735-17969) of the Qing Dynasty (1368-1912), decided it would be where the Imperial Palace Exams were held triennially. The emperor personally presided over these examinations. It was the highest examination in China and the top 10 successful candidates would have their papers personally read by the emperor. This exam has had lasting cultural and societal impact the world over- both in East Asian and Western examination systems.
During the Qing Dynasty, the hall was used for more purposes, including holding banquets. The emperors would entertain nobles of ethnic minority groups like Mongolians over the Lunar New Year holidays. Additionally, feasts would be held for other imperial events, like the marriage of a princess. During these festivities, the Emperors would entertain the family of the nobles being married, as well as high officials and family relatives who served in the imperial government.
Like several other halls in the Forbidden City, it perished in the 1625 fire and was subsequently rebuilt. It was renovated again in 1765.
An Enormous Stone
Smaller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony but larger than the Hall of Central Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony’s most striking visual feature is a massive marble carving resting behind the hall. The ramp is carved with cloud dragon designs (long slender dragons with large heads and short legs, amidst a cloudy sky). The enormous stone carving sits in the center of the stairway leading down from the hall. It was originally sculpted in the Ming Dynasty, and not touched again until the Qing Dynasty, when it was re-sculpted. It wasn’t touched at all before or after [during the reign of Imperial China] because the penalty for any who so much as touched the stone was death. Sixteen and a half meters long, three meters wide, and 1.7 meters high, the cloud dragon carving weighed in at over 200 tons. The carving pictures 9 dragons amongst floating clouds, symbolizing the unity of the Chinese empire and the power divinely granted to the emperor by the heavens.
The enormous stone was transported all the way from Fangshan district, an area 70 kilometers from the Forbidden City. Hauling the stone took over a month in time, 20 thousand men, and thousands more horses and mules. It had to be done during the winter, so periodic holes could be dug on the pathway; the holes would be filled with water and when they froze over, workers and beasts of burden would slide the gigantic rock across the ice.
A Thousand Dragons
The three main halls of the Outer Court have a total of 1,412 marble dragon heads. These dragon heads are below the columns of the terrace on which the halls stand. They function as a drainage system, piping water out of the roofs and the Forbidden City’s walkways and terraces. The spouts come out of the dragon’s mouths, so it appears that they are spouting water from their mouths on rainy days, like a natural, gravity-based fountain. On rainy days, it’s quite a spectacle to see- over a thousand dragons disgorging water from their mouths.
Going straight from the carving will lead to a marble stone also carved with the cloud dragons design. After passing it, one will pass the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Qianqingmen), the threshold to the Forbidden City’s inner living quarters.