Beijing Travel Guide

The Forbidden City

Beijing Forbidden City - Decorative wall relief
Decorative wall relief

Forming the very heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City, officially known as the Palace Museum (Gugong), is China's most magnificent architectural complex and was completed in 1420. The huge palace is a compendium of imperial architecture and a lasting monument of dynastic China from which 24 emperors ruled for nearly 500 years. The symbolic center of the Chinese universe, the palace was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries until the abdication in 1912. It was opened to the public in 1949.

Marble Carriageway Golden Water Hall of Supreme Harmony
The central ramp carved with dragons chasing pearls among clouds was reserved for the emperor. Five marble bridges, symbolizing the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism, cross the Golden Water, which flows from west to east in a course designed to resemble the jade belt worn by officials. The largest hall in the palace, this was used for major occasions such as the enthronement of an emperor. Inside the hall, the ornate throne sits beneath a fabulously colored ceiling.
Map of the Forbidden City

Meridian gate Roof Guardians Gate of Supreme Harmony Chinese Lions
From the balcony the emperor would review his armies and perform ceremonies marking the start of a new calendar. An odd number of these figures, all associated with water, are supposed to protect the building from fire. The largest hall in the palace, this was used for major occasions such as the enthronement of an emperor. Inside the hall, the ornate throne sits beneath a fabulously colored ceiling. Pairs of lions guard the entrances of halls. The male is portrayed with a ball under his paw, while the female has a lion cub.

Outer Court
At the center of the Forbidden City, the Outer Court is easily its most impressive part. Most of the other buildings in the complex were there to service this city within a city.

Place door with a lucky number of studs
lace door with a lucky number of studs

Design by Numbers
The harmonious principle of yin and yang is the key to Chinese design. As odd numbers represent yang (the preferred masculine element associated with the emperor), the numbers three, five, seven, and the ultimate odd number – nine, recur in architectural details. It is said that the Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms and, as nine times nine is especially fortunate, the doors for imperial use usually contain 81 brass studs.

Exploring the Forbidden City
A short distance north through the Gate of Heavenly Purity lies the Inner Court with three impressive inner palaces. Further on through the Imperial Flower Garden stands the Shenwu Gate, the north gate of the Forbidden City, an exit from the palace that leads to a walk across to Jing Shan Park. On the western and eastern flanks of the Inner Court, it is also possible to explore numerous halls, some of which house museum collections (entry fee payable).

The Inner Court
Beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Outer Court) lies a large but narrow courtyard with gates leading to the open areas east and west of the Outer Court and a main gate, the Gate of Heavenly Purity, leading to the Inner Court. Here lie three splendid palaces, mirroring those of the Outer Court but on a smaller scale. The double-eaved Palace of Heavenly Purity was used as the imperial sleeping quarters and for the reception of officials. It was here that the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, wrote his final missive in red ink, before getting drunk, killing his 15-year-old daughter and his concubines, and then hanging himself on Jing Shan, just north of the palace, as peasant rebels swarmed through the capital. Beyond lie the Hall of Union, used as a throne room by the empress, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, the living quarters of the Ming empresses. During the Qing dynasty, the hall was used for Manchurian shaman rites, including animal sacrifice.

The Pavilion of a Thousand Autumns in the Imperial Gardens
The Pavilion of a Thousand
Autumns in the Imperial Gardens

The Imperial Gardens
The Imperial Flower Garden, north of the three inner palaces and the Gate of Earthly Tranquillity, dates from the reign of the Ming Yongle emperor. It is symmetrically laid out with pavilions, temples, and halls as well as a rock garden and ancient trees. On the west and east sides of the garden are the charming Thousand Autumns Pavilion and Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion, each topped with a circular roof. Positioned centrally in the north of the garden, the Hall of Imperial Peace formerly served as a temple, and, on top of the lofty rockery in the northeast of the garden, the Imperial View Pavilion rises with long views over the gardens and beyond. During the Qing dynasty, sacrifices were performed in the gardens on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (China’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day) by the emperor, empress, and imperial concubines to a pair of stars that represent lovers.

Eastern Palaces
On the east side of the Inner Court lies a much closer knit series of smaller palaces and courtyards formerly used as the residences of imperial concubines. Nowadays, some of these areas serve as museums of jade, paintings, enamels, and antique collectibles, including the impressive Clock Exhibition Hall (housed in the Palace of Eternal Harmony) with its sizeable and fascinating display. Note that these are occasionally moved to other halls and at some an entry fee is payable. Among the collection are elaborate Chinese, British, and French timepieces, donated or collected by Qing emperors. In the southeast of the inner court is the Palace of Abstinence, where the emperor fasted before sacrificial ceremonies. Further southeast stands a beautiful Nine Dragon Screen, a 100-ft (31-m) long spirit wall made from richly glazed tiles and similar to the screen in Beihai Park. Screens were used to shield areas from sight and allow visitors to make themselves presentable. The screen leads on to the jewelry displays housed in a series of halls in the northeast of the complex, including the Imperial Zenith Hall and the Palace of Peaceful Longevity. These halls contain an array of decorative objects and tools used by the emperor. Northwest of the Palace of Peaceful Longevity is its flower garden, a tranquil strip of rockeries and pavilions.

Western Palaces
Much of the western flank of the Forbidden City is closed to visitors, but the halls west of the three inner palaces are accessible. The Hall of Mental Cultivation was used by Yongzheng for his residence, rather than the Hall of Heavenly Purity, where his father, Kangxi, had lived for 60 years. The East Warm Chamber of the Hall of Mental Cultivation was the site of the formal abdication by Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor, on February 12, 1912.

One of four arrow towers at each corner of the palace wall
One of four arrow towers at
each corner of the palace wall

The Palace Walls
The wall around the Forbidden City is marked at each corner by an elaborate Arrow Tower, notable for its many eaves. The northern gate of the palace is called the Gate of Divine Prowess or Shenwu Men, and served as a combined bell and drum tower. The palace wall was enclosed within a moat and another wall ran around the grounds of the Imperial City. Beyond this lay the inner and outer city walls of Beijing. Damaged in the 1950s and 1960s, only a few parts of the Imperial City wall survive, while the city walls have all but vanished. However, the wall of the Forbidden City and its four gates have survived intact and can still be admired.

Chinese Dragons
Imperial five-clawed dragons
on a glazed Nine Dragon Screen

Chinese Dragons
The Chinese dragon is a curious hybrid of sometimes many animal parts – snake’s body, deer horns, bull’s ears, hawk’s claws and fish scales. Endowed with magical characteristics, it can fly, swim, change into other animals, bring rainfall and ward off evil spirits. The five-clawed dragon represented the power of the emperor, and therefore could only adorn his imperial buildings. The Chinese dragon is a beneficent beast offering protection and good luck, hence its depiction on screens and marble carriageways, and its significance, even today, in festivals such as Chinese New Year.

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