Chinese Palaces — Ultimate Introduction to Imperial Palaces of Ancient China

Chinese Palaces mainly refer to grand building complexes for the Emperors to work and hold important ceremonies, and the imperial family to live in.  

 

They are representatives of majesty, imperial aesthetics, paramount authority, hierarchy, and philosophy across time. 

 

From the first unified empire the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) to the last feudal empire Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), generally, each unified dynasty constructed a main palace in the capital city, and each emperor did some construction or redecoration to some extent. 

 

Common Architectural Layout and Characteristics of Chinese Palaces

 

List and Introduction to Grand Imperial Palaces in China by Dynasty

Common Architectural Layout and Characteristics of Chinese Palaces

 

 

Grandest Halls and Gates in Central Axis

 

As the representative of the divine right and paramount authority of the emperor, Five Main Gates and Three Grandest Halls that emperors held important ceremonies and worked, were located on the central axis of a Chinese palace. 

 
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) the Largest Hall in Central Axis of the Forbidden City of Beijing; Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

Symmetrical Buildings

 

On each side of the central axis were symmetrical smaller buildings, as symbolic of the balance of Yin Yang.

Panoramic View of the Forbidden City

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

Clear Separation of Work and Rest Areas

 

Generally, a Chinese palace would be divided into two parts:

 

  • The outer court (usually the southern section) was for emperors to hold grand ceremonies, work, and meet with officials;

 

  • The inner court (usually the northern section) was for the entire imperial harems to live.

Palaces of Imperial Consorts in the Inner Court

Building Complex in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City of Beijing, Photo by Ma Wenxiao.

Fixed Locations for Important People

 

In the inner court where the imperial families live, the emperor's palace was in the center.

 

Since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), a convention regarding the location in the inner court of the palace had been formed, which the Empress lived in the middle (usually right behind the emperor's palace), crown prince in the east and empress dowager lived in the west. 

 

Therefore, even with some exceptions, the fixed locations had been used as a way to address those important people:

 

  • Middle Palace for the empress;

 

  • West Palace for empress dowager;

 

  • East Palace for the crown prince. 

Other imperial consorts would be living in houses around the emperor and empress' palaces. 

Standard Locations of Sacred Imperial Temples

 

Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), constructing two important temples in front of the royal palace had been a custom that all successive Chinese palaces followed.

  • Imperial Ancestral Temple on East (left front), where enshrined ancestors of the emperors for royals to worship.

 

  • Imperial Divine Temple on West (right front), where emperors held sacrificial ceremonies to worship the God of Land and the God of Food.

Two Temples in Front of the Forbidden City, Depicted by People of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — National Museum of China

Mountain and River of Fengshui

In Chinese Fengshui Culture, the location of mountains and rivers is an important factor of residence. 

Generally, a vibrant mountain on the north, and a clear river flow through the south, is a perfect Fengshui structure. 

Therefore, most palaces in China followed this rule strictly, even if they need to construct manmade mountains and rivers, such as the Forbidden City the imperial palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912).

Corner Tower and Moat of the Forbidden City

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

Three Islands in Lake

 

In ancient Chinese Mythology, there are three mountains in the sea on the east that have deities living: Mounts Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. 

 

Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), therefore, commanded to build three islands in a big lake in his palace, to simulate the mythical wonderland.

 

Since then, constructing a lake with three islands had been an important layout that most emperors followed in their imperial palaces. 

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Photo from Yue Xi'an

Supreme Authority and Hierarchy to Details

As the representatives of the emperors' paramount majesty, palaces in China, from scale and layout, to interior decorations, all contain significant political and philosophical meanings. 

Forbidden City, the well-protected imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912) is a great example, from its main colors, the wide use of dragon and phoenix figures, to the use of Number Nine, every detail is the showing of the supreme authority of the emperors. 

Click to Read More Symbolizations in the Forbidden City

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

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

List and Introduction to Grand Imperial Palaces in China

 

Xianyang Palace — Grand Combination of Imperial Palaces of Seven Kingdoms

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Area: Unknown

Construction:

In 350 BC, Duke Xiao of Qin (in Chinese Qin Xiao Gong) migrated his capital to Xianyang City, to better implement Shang Yang's Reform. 

The Xianyang Palace had been constructed since then.

Expansion:

From 230 BC to 221 BC, the Qin State defeated the other six kingdoms of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC). 

During this period, once a kingdom got perished, its imperial palace would be copied next to the old Xianyang Palace, under the command of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC). 

After the unified Qin Dynasty was established, the Xianyang Palace had been expanded to a huge and spectacular palace, with countless mansions that were connected using different flying corridors.  

Main Hall of Xianyang Palace

Main Hall of Xianyang Palace, based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

Destruction

In 207 BC, the Qin Dynasty was overthrown by uprising armies, and the Xianyang Palace was set on fire by the leading general Xiang Yu, respected as the Hegemon-King of Western Chu. 

This fire lasted for over three months, and half of the Xianyang Palace was burnt down to ashes.

The next empire rebuilt some of the remaining buildings, and everything was destroyed in chaotic wars in the late Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

Chariots and Horses Fresco unearthed from Ruins of the Xianyang Palace

Chariots and Horses Fresco unearthed from Ruins of the Xianyang Palace — Shaanxi Academy of Archeology (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Epang Palace — Unfinished Feat

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Construction Time: 212 BC — 207 BC 

In the year 212 BC, under the command of Qin Shi Huang, Epang Palace started to construct as the new imperial palace of the unified Qin Dynasty. 

The Epang Palace was designed to be the grandest palace, which should surpass the spectacular Xianyang Palace. 

Restoration Map of Royal Palace of the Qin Dynasty, the Epang Palace.

Restoration Map of Main Hall of the Epang Palace

However, Qin Shi Huang passed away in 210 BC, large-scale peasant uprisings outburst in 209 BC, and the Qin Dynasty was ended in 207 BC. 

Therefore, the Epang Palace had never been finished.

Jade Cup unearthed from Ruins of the Epang Palace

Jade Cup unearthed from Ruins of the Epang Palace — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Those constructed building complexes later had been used as imperial hunting places, military garrison bases, and gradually became farmland. 

As an unfinished palace from over 2000 years ago, the ruins of the Epang Palace are still quite impressive, which only the relics of the front hall of the Epang Palace are around 800 acres.

Ruins of Front Hall of the Epang Palace

Ruins of Front Hall of the Epang Palace, Photo by Gou Bingchen.

Changle Palace — Palace of Empress Dowager

Changle means Eternal Happiness

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Area: 6 square kilometers or about 1483 acres

Construction Time: 202 BC — 200 BC

Under the command of Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, Changle Palace was rebuilt on the foundation of a palace of the late Qin Dynasty. 

After Emperor Liu Bang moved to the newly constructed Weiyang Palace in the year 198 BC, the Changle Palace had been the residence of empress dowagers, until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) was established in another city. 

Ruins of A Hall of the Changle Palace

Ruins of A Hall of the Changle Palace, Photo by Shen Weilong.

Weiyang Palace — Symbol of the Han Empire and the Longest Living Imperial Palace in China  

Weiyang means Endless

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Area: 5 square kilometers or about 1236 acres

Construction Time: 200 BC — 198 BC

After Weiyang Palace was constructed under the command of Emperor Liu Bang, it was the political center and symbol of the Han Empire.

Emperors of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8AD) lived, worked, and held grand ceremonies in the palace. 

Front Hall of Weiyang Palace

Front Hall of Weiyang Palace, based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

After the Western Han Dynasty was ended, the Weiyang Palace had been the imperial palace and political center of Emperor Wang Mang (reigned 9 AD — 23 AD), Emperor Xian of Han (reigned 189 — 220), as well as some successive separatist regimes.  

Sui (589 — 619) and Tang (618 — 907) Dynasties also included the Weiyang Palace as part of their imperial complex, which turned into ruins in chaotic wartimes in the late Tang Dynasty. 

Hence, Weiyang Palace is the imperial palace in China that had lasted the longest period (1041 years) so far and model of the successive palaces.

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Weiyang Palace

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Weiyang Palace, Photo from Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Administration.

Jianzhang Palace — Fabulous Palace of Emperor Wu of Han

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Construction Time: 104 BC

Jianzhang Palace was constructed under the command of Emperor Wu of Han, who later held meetings and worked there. 

It is bigger than the Weiyang Palace, the main palace of the Han Empire, and was believed quite extravagant. 

The Empire was largely expanded and flourished during the reign of ambitious Emperor Wu of Han, which was reflected in this splendid palace. 

After Wang Mang usurped the throne in the year 8 AD, the building complex of the Jianzhang Palace had been gradually torn down and later destroyed in wars.  

Restored Map of Jianzhang Palace

Restored Map of Jianzhang Palace, by Jiang Xiaolu. 

Sui (581 —  618) and Tang (618 — 907) Dynasties

Daxing Palace - Taiji Palace — Magnificent Political Center of Sui and Early Tang

Daxing means grand prosperity

 

Taiji means the great origin and ultimate

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

 

Area: 1.92 square kilometers or about 474 acres

Construction Time: 582 — 583

Built under the command of Emperor Wen of Sui, it had been the imperial palace and political center of Sui and early Tang Dynasties. 

 

Originally named Daxing, later changed to Taiji Palace in Tang Dynasty, though some emperors had lived in other palaces for different reasons, it remained as the political center that emperors held grand activities, such as enthronement and worship ceremonies.  

 

This grand palace was destroyed with the fall of the Tang Empire. 

Ziwei Palace — Extravagant Palace of Deities

 

Ziwei is the place in Ancient Chinese Astrology that the Emperor of Heaven lives

 

Location: Luoyang, Henan Province

Area: 4.2 square kilometers or about 1038 acres

Construction Time: 605

Under the command of Emperor Yang of Sui, the spectacular Ziwei Palace used 1.7 million labors and was finished in 60 days. 

Restored Yingtian Gate Complex of the Ziwei Palace

Restored Yingtian Gate Complex of the Ziwei Palace, by National Cultural Ruins Date Center.

Since 656, Emperor Gaozong of Tang and Empress Wu Zetian renovated and expanded the Ziwei Palace, and spent lots of time in this city. 

 

After the destructive An-Shi Rebellion outburst in 755, Ziwei Palace was extensively destroyed in wars. 

 

Though it had been restored a few times by the successive regimes, the Ziwei Palace had never regained its prosperity, until everything turned into ruins centuries later. 

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace, Photo from Official site of Luoyang.

Daming Palace — Symbol and Political Center of Tang Empire

 

Daming means great wisdom and brightness

 

Location: Xi'an, Shaanxi Province

Area: 3.2 square kilometers or about 791 acres

Construction Time: 634 and 662

Daming Palace was the most orthodox political and cultural center of the Tang Dynasty

In the year 634, under the command of Emperor Taizong of Tang, the palace started to construct as a retirement mansion for his father. However, it stopped about half a year later, after his father passed away. 

Tang Tai Zong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Emperor Taizong of Tang Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Yan Liben (601 — 673) the Designer of the Daming Palace — Palace Museum

In 662, Emperor Gaozong of Tang commanded to continue to construct this palace.

 

About ten months later, the grand Daming Palace was finished, when the emperor and his queen Wu Zetian moved in. 

Since then, the Daming Palace became the political and cultural center of the Tang Empire. 

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace, based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

In the mid to late Tang Dynasty, with the ups and downs of the empire, Daming Palace had been ruined and renovated several times.

Gilt Bronze Door Knocker unearthed from Ruins of the Daming Palace

Gilt Brass Door Knocker unearthed from Ruins of the Daming Palace — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Until in the year 904, Zhu Wen commanded to ruin the capital city, including all palaces.

 

This time, the Daming Palace encountered the biggest destruction, when countless splendid building complexes turned into dust. 

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Daming Palace

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Daming Palace

Imperial Palace of Yuan Dadu

Location: Beijing

Construction Time: 1267 — 1285

Yuan Dadu or Dayidu, the capital city of the Yuan Dynasty, was around 50 square kilometers or 123,55 acres big. 

The whole city with a grand imperial palace in the middle was constructed under the command of Kublai Khan and took about 18 years. 

After the city was finished and the royals and governments of Yuan moved in, Yuan Dadu became the political center of the Yuan Empire. 

Until in the year 1368, when Zhu Yuanzhang'a army was marching closer, Yuan's last emperor Toghon Temür took his people escaped out of the capital city. 

Afterward, the grand imperial palace of Yuan was gradually abandoned. 

Restoration Map of Capital City of the Yuan Dynasty

Restoration Map of Yuan's Imperial Palace in Yuan Dadu

Forbidden City of Nanjing — Grand First Imperial Palace of Ming with Catastrophic Destructions

Location: Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Area: 1.16 square kilometers or about 287 acres

Construction Time: 1366 — 1392

Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, chose Nanjing as his empire's capital city, where he commanded to build the splendid Forbidden City as Ming's imperial palace. 

In 1402, Zhu Di usurped the throne and decided to migrate Ming's capital city to Beijing. 

Under Zhu Di's command, modeled on the Forbidden City of Nanjing, another smaller imperial palace also named Forbidden City was constructed in Beijing, which was finished in 1420.

Dragon Decorated Stone Chapiter unearthed from Ruins of the Forbidden City of Nanjing

Dragon Decorated Stone Chapiter unearthed from Ruins of the Forbidden City of Nanjing — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Afterward, Ming's capital officially moved to Beijing.

The Forbidden City of Nanjing, however, suffered extensive destructions with the fall of the Ming Empire, in wars between Ming and the next dynasty Qing, in dismantles and rebellious wars during Qing's reign, and in countless chaotic wars afterward. 

Ruins of Gate of the Forbidden City of Nanjing

Ruins of Gate of the Forbidden City of Nanjing, Photo by Tevatron.

Forbidden City — Largest Existing Imperial Palace in World

Location: Beijing

Area: 0.72 square kilometers or about 178 acres

Construction Time: 1406 — 1420

Constructed under the command of the Yongle Emperor, the Forbidden City of Beijing was the imperial palace and political center of the Ming Empire. 

Click to Read More about Forbidden City in Beijing 

Imperial Palace of Shenyang — Manchu Style Royal Palace

Location: Shenyang, Liaoning Province

Area: 63,272 square meters or about 15.63 acres

Construction Time: 1625 — 1636

Built under the command of Nurhaci, as the imperial palace of Manchu's Qing Regime.

In the year 1644, Qing's Shunzhi Emperor moved to the Forbidden City of Beijing.

 

Since then, Shenyang Imperial Palace became the place that Qing's emperors lived in when they were touring there, and had been expanded during Qianlong Emperor's reign period. 

Imperial Palace of Shenyang

Imperial Palace of Shenyang

Forbidden City — Largest Existing Imperial Palace in World

Location: Beijing

Area: 0.72 square kilometers or about 178 acres

After Shunzhi Emperor moved to the Forbidden City of Beijing, it had been the political center of the Qing Dynasty.

Click to Read More about Forbidden City in Beijing