Forbidden City — The Largest Existing Imperial Palace and Witness of History

Panoramic View of the Forbidden City

Panoramic View of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

 

What Is Forbidden City?

 

Forbidden City had been the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which now is the National Palace Museum. 

 

During about 500 years of being a royal palace, 24 emperors had born, lived, enthroned, reigned, fought, and died there. 

 

In this largest existing imperial palace in the world, throughout history, some people realized their dreams and brought the whole country prosperity, and some did horrible things that caused chaos and disasters in society. 

 

Of over 9000 rooms in the Forbidden City, each one has its interesting story. 

 

History and Development of the Forbidden City.

 

Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing city, built a grand royal palace named Forbidden City (or Zi Jin Cheng) there, and gave the throne to his grandson, the Jianwen Emperor. 

A few years later, Jianwen Emperor's uncle, prince Zhu Di, snatched the throne by war. 

Before Zhu Di's army marched into the Forbidden City in Nanjing, Jianwen Emperor burnt down some main imperial palace buildings and disappeared.

Therefore, in the year 1406, Zhu Di commanded to migrate Ming's capital city to his fief Beijing and built another royal palace modeled on the Forbidden City in Nanjing. 

Fourteen years later, the Forbidden City in Beijing was completed, and Ming Empire officially moved the capital there. 

Forbidden City Depicted by People of the Ming Dynasty

Forbidden City Depicted by People of the Ming Dynasty — National Museum of China

Since then, all of the successive emperors of Ming had lived and worked in this palace. 

In 1644, before a peasant rebellion army broke into Beijing city, Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide.

A few months later, Shunzhi Emperor moved into the Forbidden City, when the Qing Dynasty announced its reign as a national regime. 

Qing's emperors then lived there, until Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, and its last emperor Puyi was banished out of the palace in 1924.

Night View of the Forbidden City

Night View of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Since 1925, it has served as a museum, though many treasures were lost because of wars.

Now, it is the Palace Museum with over 1.8 million valuable historic relics, as a witness to the history of China and an appealing representative of Chinese architecture.

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

One of the most valuable treasures of the Palace Museum, the Painting "Qingming Shanghe Tu" ( or Along the River During the Qingming Festival), Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145).

 

Astrology and Tradition In the Palace's Name.

The original name of the palace is Zi Jin Cheng. 

Zi means purple, corresponds to Ziwei Enclosure, the central section of heaven and the home of the Celestial Emperor in ancient Chinese Astrology, and represents the paramount power and honorable majesty. 

Jin means forbidden, which illustrated the fact that civilians were forbidden to even just approach this grand imperial palace.

Meanwhile, people living in this palace, emperors, queens, imperial concubines, maids, and servants, were not possible to leave freely. 

Therefore, some imperial concubines liked to keep cats as companions. Many cats today in the Forbidden City are offsprings of those royal pets. 

Cat of the Forbidden City or Palace Museum

Cat of the Forbidden City or Palace Museum, Photo by Liu Shunniu.

Cheng means the city, surrounded by long, strong city walls and moat. 

The 720,000 square meters large Forbidden City is surrounded by 10 meters high, over 3400 meters long city wall, outside of which is an about 52 meters wide moat. 

Moat and Bridges of the Forbidden City

Moat and Bridges Between Meridian Gate or Wumen (Largest and Main Gate of Forbidden City) and Gate of Supreme Harmoney or Taihemen (Main Gate of Outer Court), Photo from the Official Site of Gugong.

 

Hierarchical Designs of the Palace.

 

The Forbidden City is rectangular shaped, whose buildings and luxurious decorations inside represent power and fortune in traditional Chinese culture.

The main colors of the Forbidden City are Red and Yellow, two orthodox colors whose utilization had been strictly limited to royals and religious places in history.  

Click to Read More about Culture and Symbolism of Chinese Color

Red Wall and Yellow Roof of the Forbidden City

Red Wall and Yellow Roof of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Based on the design ideology of the kings' palace of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), the Forbidden City is divided into two parts:

 

Outer Court in the South, and Inner Court in the North.  

Outer Court

Outer Court includes three grand palaces, representing the Three Enclosures in heaven of the traditional Chinese Astrology: 

  • Hall of Supreme Harmony or Tai He Dian


Most supreme hall, was for emperors to hold the grandest ceremonies. It is also the most supreme extant imperial hall in China.

  • Hall of Central Harmony or Zhong He Dian


For emperors to rest before or amid grand ceremonies.

  • Hall of Preserving Harmony or Bao He Dian


For emperors to hold ceremonies, celebration banquets, daily meetings, and imperial examinations. 

Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court, also the Largest Hall of the Forbidden City.

Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court, also the Largest Hall of the Forbidden City; Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Buildings surrounding the three halls were places for the crown prince to study, for officials to meet and work, and so on. 

Emperors' Throne and Luxurious Decorations in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court

Emperors' Throne and Luxurious Decorations in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian), Photo by Liu Yedao.

Inner Court

 

Inner Court was for emperors' families to live, behind the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Men).

In the center are three palaces in the central axis as well: the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Gong) for the emperor, the Palace of Union and Peace (Jiaotai Dian), and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning Gong) for the empress to live.

 

They are representing the connection and harmony of the sun and the moon, Yang and Yin

On the north of these three halls is a beautiful royal garden, and on two sides are some residents of the royal family, including empress dowager, imperial consorts, prince and princesses, etc.

Palaces of Imperial Consorts in the Inner Court

Palaces of Imperial Consorts in the Inner Court, Photo by Ma Wenxiao.

 

The Number Nine in the Forbidden City.

 

According to I Ching (or Book of Changes), nine is the largest number (or the largest single digit) of Yang, hence the representative of heaven, paramount power, and majesty of emperors. 

Therefore, the Forbidden City used the number nine, exclusively, in many of its designs. 

Doornails

 

Most gates of the Forbidden City are decorated with 81 golden doornails, with a nine-by-nine array. 

 

Princes, nobles, and officials should deduct their doornails' numbers based on their social status; civilians were not allowed to have doornails, no matter how rich they were. 

The Nine-by-nine Array Doornails on Gate of the Forbidden City

The Nine-by-nine Array Doornails on Gate of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Roof Decoration

On the roof of the emperors' supreme hall, there are ten mythical animals guarding, and his other buildings have nine. Others' roofs should deduct the number based on their hierarchy, like the queen's with seven, imperial consorts with five or three.  

These ten mythical creatures are: 

  • Lion, represents power, bravery, and dignity;

  • Heavenly horse, the incarnation of honor and benevolent;

  • Sea horse, the symbol of auspiciousness and loyal;

  • Xiayu, a mythical creature with the power of calling for wind and rain;

  • Suanni, a son of the dragon, a creature of blessing and leadership;

  • Xiezhi, the mythical creature of justice;

  • Douniu, a type of dragon that could fight and suppress floods.

  • Hang Shi: A creature that looks like a monkey with wings, and holding a magic weapon that can defeat demons and evil spirits. It is also believed as the incarnation of the Deity of Thunder, which could protect the building from thunder and storm.

 

Of all ancient Chinese architecture, only the supreme hall in the imperial Forbidden City, the Tai He Dian or Hall of Supreme Harmony, has Hang Shi on the roof. 

In the front is a deity riding on a phoenix, who leads those creatures and guards those palaces. 

Ten Mythical Animals and Leading Deity on Roof of the Forbidden City

Ten Mythical Creatures and Leading Deity on Roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Nine Dragons Decorations

Nine-Dragon Wall of the Forbidden City

Nine-Dragon Wall of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Corner Towers

There is a tower on each corner of the Forbidden City, defending and guarding the royal palace.   

Each corner tower was made of 9 beams, 18 columns, and 72 ridges. 

Corner Tower and Moat of the Forbidden City

Corner Tower and Moat of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

 

What Emperors Would Do When They Don't Like to Live in the Forbidden City?


The Forbidden City is grand, and fabulous, with countless luxurious decorations and sets. However, not all emperors liked to live there all the time. 

Zhengde Emperor (1491 — 1521) built a place outside of the Forbidden City and tried his best to escape outside of the capital city. 

Emperors of the Qing Dynasty obtained more centralized power, which allowed them to construct other fancy resorts and palaces to live or relax, such as the Old Summer Palace (which was burnt down by the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860), the Summer Palace, and Mountain Resort Chengde

For more information, please visit the official site of the Forbidden City Museum 

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