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

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 the 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 to society. 


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


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


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, the 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 buildings of the royal palace and disappeared. 

Therefore, in the year 1046, 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. 

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. 

Till 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 was ended in 1912, and its last emperor Puyi was banished out of the palace in 1924.

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

Since 1925, it has been 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 of the history of China and an appealing representative of Chinese architecture.

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, 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, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Hierarchical designs of the palace.


The Forbidden City is rectangular shaped, whose buildings and luxurious decorations inside represent power and fortune in 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, 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 includes three grand palaces, represents Three Enclosures in heaven of the ancient Chinese Astrology, which were used for emperors to hold grand ceremonies, meetings, and work. 

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), Photo by Liu Yedao.

Inner Court was for emperors' families to live. 

In the center are three palaces as well, for the emperor and the queen to live, represent the 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, include empress dowager, imperial consorts, prince and princesses, etc.

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. 



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' number 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, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Roof Decoration

On roofs of emperors' palaces, there are nine mythical animals guarding, while others' should deduct the number based on their hierarchy, like the queen's with seven, imperial consorts with five or three, etc.  

These nine mythical creatures are: 

  • Dragon, represents the emperor, paramount imperial authority;

  • Phoenix, the symbol of virtue and peace;

  • 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 flood.

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

Nine Mythical Animals and Leading Deity on Roof of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Nine Dragons Decorations

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 72ridges. 

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, 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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