I visited the Forbidden City for the first time in 2009. That was also my first time in China and Beijing. I went back to Beijing in 2016. But by the time of my second visit, I had very vague memories of the palace. Although it wasn’t new to me, its immense size and beauty captivated me again.
In my recent post Keeping Sane Mind, I wrote about places that make an impact on us. This is certainly one of such places. To be inside of the palace, surrounded by its beauty while you learn about its historical significance in the Chinese culture, is a phenomenal feeling.
It was a ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government and also home of emperors and their families for almost 500 years. Fourteen emperors of the Ming and ten of the Qing dynasty ruled from there, until the last emperor abdicated in 1912, when the Republic of China was established.
The Forbidden City was constructed from 1406 to 1420, as an impenetrable fortress. It covers 72 hectares. It is 961m long and 753m wide and it has a rectangular shape. There are 980 surviving buildings and 8886 rooms, which contradicts the claim that there are 9999 rooms. Anyway, there is no evidence to support this claim. The city is surrounded by 7.9m high walls and by a 6m deep and 52m wide moat. The walls are 8.62m wide at the base and 6.66m at the top.
Horizontally, the Forbidden City is divided in two parts. The Outer Court or the Front Court was the southern part of the complex. They used it for ceremonial purposes. The northern part was the Inner Court or the Back Palace. That was the emperor’s residence, but they also used it for day-to-day state affairs.
Vertically, there are three sections. The central vertical section contains the most important buildings.
But how much information do you really need to understand the palace complex? This is certainly not an ordinary museum. Rather, it’s a city with so much in it. Thus, it is very easy to become completely overwhelmed with many details.
This is especially true if you try to understand which palace is which and there are also names of other buildings. They all look almost the same and in many cases structures are identical. You can have an excellent guide book with you but, after a while, you will become saturated with the huge volume of information that you try to absorb.
The additional complication is that palaces and halls have rather exotic names, such as The Hall of Supreme Harmony or The Hall of Middle Harmony. It’s not possible and it’s not necessary to follow everything in detail. In my opinion, it is more important to be fully present in the moment and absorb and enjoy the beauty around you. I am saying this out of my own experience.
Construction of the Forbidden City started in 1406, after Yongle Emperor moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing. One million people worked on the palace complex. It took them 14 years to complete everything. The palace was the seat of the Ming dynasty between 1420 and 1644.
Li Zicheng and his rebel forces captured the palace in April 1644. He became the emperor of the Shun dynasty.
By October 1644, the Manchus achieved supremacy in northern China. They held a ceremony in the Forbidden City and proclaimed Shunzhi Emperor as the ruler of China, under the Qing dynasty.
The Qing rulers renamed some of the main buildings, to emphasise Harmony rather than Supremacy. They also made bilingual name plates in Chinese and Manchu and introduced Shamanistic elements to the palace.
During the Second Opium War, the Anglo-French forces took control of the palace in 1860 and occupied it until the end of the war.
The Empress Dowager Cixi fled from the Forbidden City in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion.
The palace complex was the residence to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It ceased to be the political power centre of China in 1912, when the Last Emperor Puyi abdicated. In agreement with the new government of the Republic of China, Puyi remained in the Inner Court. The new government opened the Outer Court to the public. They evicted Puyi from the palace after the coup in 1924.
The new Republican government established the Palace Museum in 1925.
The Japanese invasion of China in 1933 forced the evacuation of national treasures from the Forbidden City. One part of the collection came back at the end of the Second World War, but the other part went to Taiwan in 1948. This small, but high quality collection became public in 1965, as the core treasure of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the palace was damaged. During Cultural Revolution, an army battalion was sent to guard the city and prevent further destruction.
It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, as the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, due to its significant place in the Chinese culture and architecture.
It is now the Palace Museum. The ongoing restoration project will eventually bring all structures within the complex to their original state.
The palace is the perfect example of traditional Chinese palatial architecture. It has influenced cultural and architectural developments throughout East Asia.
An interesting point is that there are no trees in the Outer Court. There are two theories about this:
- the Outer Court was a place for solemn public ceremonies. They did not allow trees in order not to overshadow the Emperor’s supreme godly power and imperial dignity.
- the lack of vegetation prevented possible assassins from hiding and it also enabled perfectly clear defensive lines of sight.
At that time, they considered the Emperor the son of Heaven, that possessed the Heaven’s supreme power. It was a divine palace and consequently forbidden to ordinary people.
In my Beijing post I mentioned that, in order to enter, you have to present your passport when you buy your ticket. The palace is primarily made of wood and authorities take due care to prevent a possible damage. If you consider that approximately 16 million people visited the museum in 2017, you can understand such strict security measures.
The museum is big and it takes 4-5 hours to see everything. After all, it takes time to see the whole city. Apart from main palaces, you should also visit other sections. There, you will see houses where people that worked in the palace lived: palace officials, guards, cooks, eunuchs, servants …
You can also visit smaller palaces where the Emperor’s concubines lived. Approximately 40% of the palace is still closed to the public.
The entrance to the palace is through Tiananmen or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the symbol of China. The gate separates the palace from Tiananmen Square.
The Forbidden City is magnificent and all that you need to do now to enter is to buy a ticket. Otherwise, it was a forbidden place to ordinary people like us, for nearly 500 years. It’s an amazing thought.
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