The Forbidden City is one of the most important places in Beijing. It was once the Imperial Palace for the ruling dynasties of China – so what happened within these walls?
Alright, so before we get into the Forbidden City itself, we need to set the scene. That being, Imperial China. Nowadays, China (the People’s Republic of China) is a communist nation, ruled by a single political party. But for centuries before they came to power, China was an empire.
Rewind 200 years, and the Qin dynasty had managed to unite much of East Asia, to create the land that is now China. Qin Shi Huang became the first Emperor of China in 221BC. But dynasties rarely last forever, so China has been ruled by half a dozen different ones over the centuries. After Qin, the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties each rose – and each fell. Usually, an emperor would be deposed, abdicate, or simply die, and a new one would seize power instead. But in each case, the country was ruled by a single individual, who held supreme authority. Plenty more stuff happened during each period, but we don’t have time for every detail right now. China grew and changed and developed.
The Yuan dynasty came to power in 1271. They were invaders from Mongolia, who overthrew the Song emperor. But unsurprisingly, the ethnic Han Chinese people didn’t exactly respond well to these foreign rulers, and started to rebel. A peasant farmer named Zhu Yuanzhang led the army that successfully toppled the Yuan in 1386. He became the Hongwu Emperor, starting the new Ming dynasty.
Built by the Ming Dynasty
The Ming dynasty ruled for centuries, from 1368-1644, and this was a golden age for China. It was the Ming who built the version of the Great Wall of China we see today! The Hongwu Emperor ruled from his capital city of Nanjing, which had been his base of operations during his campaign against the Yuan. He also ordered all the Mongol-Yuan palaces to be destroyed. But his son was the Prince of Yan, the former Yuan capital, and when he became the Yongle Emperor in 1402, he renamed Yan as Beijing and made it the secondary capital..
The Yongle Emperor ordered a vast imperial palace to be built in the heart of Beijing. Work began in 1406, but the Emperor continued to live in Nanjing while construction took place. He formally moved in 1420, when the palace was complete, and made Beijing the official capital. Fourteen years is pretty speedy really, looking at the size of it all! The Forbidden City was now the political centre of China. It would be home to another 13 Ming Emperors over the next two centuries.
The architect and engineer, Kuai Xiang, received the honour of designing the palace. What a commission for him! The complex included dozens of individual buildings, enclosed within the outer walls. This was hardly a small task, so around a million workers, plus 100,000 artisans worked on the project. They used wood, stone, and clay bricks brought in from all over China. They dug a moat around the whole thing, and piled up the earth from it to the north, creating the artificial Jingshan Hill. The sheer size of the palace – over 72 hectares! – certainly earns it the name ‘city’!
Why was it the ‘Forbidden’ City?
So, the palace was built, large enough to be considered a city. But what’s that name all about? Forbidden City is the English translation of the Chinese name, Zijin Cheng. The first part of that, zi, actually means purple, and this refers to the North Star, the ziwei star in Chinese. In Chinese astrology, this star was the home of the Celestial Emperor, who bestowed power on the Chinese Emperor; so he and his home were the earthly equivalents. The Ming certainly thought pretty highly of themselves then! Cheng means city, and jin is the forbidden part.
The Forbidden City was an exclusive, closely guarded location. Only the Emperor could decide who came in and out of those walls. His family, concubines, and eunuchs lived inside, and he would usually invite only important officials for visits. Meaning, of course, that is was forbidden to the majority of everyday Chinese citizens. If any did try to break in – pretty difficult, given how heavily it was guarded! – they punishment was death. I wonder what would those emperors would think if they saw the open tourist attraction it is now?
Overthrown by the Qing Dynasty
After the Ming, along came the Qing. Peasant rebellions started up in the 17th century, destabilising Ming power. They eventually captured the Forbidden City in April 1644. At a loss for what to do, the last Ming Emperor, Chongzhen, hung himself on Jingshan Hill. The rebels declared their own regime, the Shun dynasty led by Li Zicheng, but this didn’t exactly last very long.
At the same time, the Manchu people in the north of China were establishing their own regime. They had declared the Qing dynasty as early as 1636. By 1644, their army was heading for Beijing – Li Zicheng fled before they even arrived, burning parts of the palace as he went! In October, the Qing became rulers of China entirely, starting with the Shunzhi Emperor. They moved into the Forbidden City and ten Qing emperors in total would live there.
The Qing kept the palace largely as it was, but did rebuild the burned buildings, and renovated other parts. Also, the Ming had favoured names involving ‘supremacy’ in the titles. The Qing chose to rename many of these with ‘harmony’ instead, maybe hoping to bring more peace and soothe the Chinese – and to dissuade rebels from overthrowing them as well? Perhaps. They also added bilingual name plates to everything, to include Manchu alongside Chinese.
It certainly wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Qing though. During the Second Opium War in the 19th century, European forces invaded China, and seized control of the Forbidden City during 1860. They handed it back when the war ended later that year. And then, in 1900, Empress Cixi fled the City during the Boxer Rebellion, a series of anti-imperial uprisings. She was able to return the following year.
The End of Imperial China
The Qing dynasty lasted over two centuries, but as we’ve already mentioned, China is no longer imperial. The Xinhai Revolution of 1912 overthrew not just the Qing, but imperialism as a whole. The Republic of China was formed. The last Emperor, Puyi, chose to abdicate in 1912, willingly giving up his power. However, the new government made an agreement with him, so he and his family could continue to live in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City. They gave the Outer Court over to the government, for public use.
That only lasted until 1924 though. People grew to resent Puyi – after all they thought, if he is no longer Emperor, why does he need a palace at all? – and a government coup in 1924 resulted in the old agreement being rescinded, and they expelled him from the Forbidden City entirely. After 24 emperors, never again would another live there.
The Palace Museum
Without an emperor, there’s not much need for an imperial palace, is there? China now has a president, the head of state, and a premier, the head of government. Both now live in Zhongnanhai, the central government headquarters. But, the imperial palace has stood for almost 600 years, and is still a massively impressive site, so they could hardly get rid of it. Instead, the government renamed it The Palace Museum, and opened it to the public in 1925. This once ‘forbidden’ location could now be explored by all!
However, there have been other snags along the way. During the Japanese invasion in WWII, China evacuated many national treasures from the palace, sending them to Sichuan, and later Nanjing. After WWII, the Chinese Civil War broke out, resulting in the fall of the ROC. They retreated to Taiwan, taking some of the artefacts with them, which are now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The rest eventually returned to the Palace Museum, and it reopened to the public.
The Palace suffered some damage during the civil war, and again during the Cultural Revolution, when China tried to purge remnants of traditional capitalism from society. The Premier ended up placing army troops around the palace to protect it! However, China now recognises it as a site of importance, and it greets around 15 million visitors every year! It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and a 16 year restoration project is ongoing, due to finish in 2021, to make it look as it did during the imperial era.
The Outer Court
As we’ve established, the Forbidden City is pretty massive, so a visit will likely take several hours. Visitors get to walk in the Emperor’s footsteps by entering through the Meridian Gate on the south side, from Tiananmen Square. You pass through the 10m high wall, and across the 50m wide moat. The whole city lines up symmetrically on a north-south axis, pointing to the North Star. The southern half of the palace is the Outer Court, the public area where the Emperor conducted state affairs.
After entering the city, you’ll find yourself in a courtyard with a small stream, the Golden Water River, winding through. This space once held up to 100,000 officials waiting to see the Emperor! To the sides, are the West and East Glorious Gates, once used as entrances by visitors. The East is nicknamed the ghost gate, as this was how imperial coffins exited the city. Across the bridges, is the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony, leading the central halls. You can also visit the Hall of Martial Valour, and the Hall of Literary Glory, now used as exhibition galleries.
The central halls of the Outer Court are the most important buildings. First is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest in the entire complex, containing the Dragon Throne – could that sound more impressive? This is where the Emperor presided over his court, and held important ceremonies, such as coronations and weddings. Beyond is the Hall of Central Harmony, used as a resting chamber before ceremonies, to prepare and rehearse. Here you can also see two Qing sedan chairs – the Emperor would hardly have walked around the palace on his own feet! Finally, there is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, a banqueting hall, and later used for imperial exams.
The Inner Court
Moving into the northern half, through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, you enter the Inner Court, once the private residence of the Emperor and his family. Far more exclusive than the Outer Court! Again, there are three main central buildings, but on either side are six identical palace compounds (twelve in total). These were home to the Emperor’s consorts – the highest ranking would each get a complex to themselves, while others shared. These emperors wanted to produce as many children as possible!
His wife, the Empress, outranked the rest though. She and the Emperor lived in the central halls, which represent the principles of yin, earth and female, and yang, heavens and male, to create harmony. The first building is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Emperor’s private quarters during the Ming era. In the middle is the Palace of Union, used for family ceremonies, and now houses Qing imperial seals. And finally, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility was the Empress’s chambers, and used for their wedding night.
Things were a little different during the Qing era though. Those Emperors chose to live in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, to the west side, using the palace as an audience hall instead. Meanwhile to the east, lies the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, a miniature version of the city, with the impressive Nine-Dragon Screen at the entrance. The Qianlong Emperor (Qing) built it as his retirement home, though he never actually lived there. It is now the Treasure Gallery, a series of exhibition halls containing valuable items.
As you get close to the end of your visit, you’ll pass through the Imperial Gardens, a small area filled with colourful flowers and impressive landscaping features. You will exit through the Gate of Divine Prowess, where Jingshan Hill awaits to the north.
There are hundreds of buildings, rooms, and artefacts to see in the Forbidden City, with thousands of details and meanings to them. You’ll see many recurring features though! The buildings are all made out of wood, held together without nails, which were seen as inharmonious. The walls are red, the colour of good fortune according to the Chinese. Meanwhile, the roof tiles are yellow, the colour of supreme power, used only by the imperial family.
Lion statues guard the entrances to many of the compounds within the city, as this was the king of the animals. There is always a male and female lion in each case. The roofs of the main buildings have animal statues lined up on their corners, including lions, dragons, and phoenixes. The number of animals denotes the importance of that building – the Hall of Supreme Harmony has nine, the most of any!
All of this is just a brief overview of the Forbidden City – it has over 900 buildings in total! Not all of these are open to the public yet, but in recent years new ones have been revealed under the ongoing restoration project. Even more are set to be opened up by the time it is completed in 2021!
Adults, April-October: 60 yuan, November-March: 40 yuan
Seniors 50% discount, Students 20 yuan, Free for children under 1.2m and disabled, Half price for females on Women’s Day (8th March)
Additional charges (Adults 10 yuan, others listed above 5 yuan/free) for the Treasure Gallery and Hall of Clocks
Open Tuesday-Sunday, closed Mondays except national holidays
April-October, 8.30am-17.00pm, last entry 16.10pm
November-March, 8.30am-16.30pm, last entry 15.40pm
The Forbidden City is located in the centre of Beijing, covering an area of over 72 hectares, surrounded by a moat. It is served by many bus stops and subway stations. Visitors must enter through the Meridian Gate, on the south side by Tiananmen Square, and exit through the north gate. Note that there are security checks as you enter. The Palace Museum is equipped with facilities, including bathrooms, shop, café, and information points. Audio guides are also available inside. There is an access route through the palace for wheelchair users.
Have you visited the Forbidden City before? Leave a comment about your experiences!