Forbidden City: Taste the History and Culture

Located in the heart of Beijing, China, the Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, shares the honor of being one of five world-famous palaces with the Palace of Versailles in France, Buckingham Palace in England, the White House in the U.S. and the Kremlin in Russia.

It is the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, where 24 emperors ascended the throne and exercised their strong power to the nation.

Ancient Chinese Astronomers believed that the Purple Star (Polaris) was in the center of heaven and the Heavenly Emperor lived in the Purple Palace. In ancient times, the emperor was said to be the son of Heaven. The Palace for the emperor on earth was so called the Purple City. It was forbidden to oridinary people, hence it got the name ‘The Purple Forbidden City’, more popular called as ‘The Forbidden City’.

The Forbidden City was firstly constructed between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Zhu Di. Here is the story how people moved the enormous stone and wood needed to Beijing to built the Forbidden City, then you can imagine how hard this job would be at that time. For the huge stones, engineers created a huge ice path by pouring liquid water on the frozen soil, and thousands of horses pulled the stone across the ice to the centre of Beijing. Wood was even more difficult to move. Giant trees in Sichuan province were felled for the main halls, but it was found that they were too large to move. Workers had to wait until torrential rains washed the logs into rivers, where boatmen steered them into the Grand Canal, from where they were floated north to Beijing and towed into the palace grounds.

Forbidden City is enclosed by a 10-meter-high defensive wall in rectangular shape. At each corner of the Forbidden City, there stands a magnificent watchtower, which was heavily guarded in the past. Around the city there is a moat. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and more than 9,000 rooms. It is impossible for visitors to see every corner of the palace in a single day. There are four gates in each side, with Meridian Gate (Wu Men) as the main entrance.

The Forbidden City is an extremely formal place: it is almost symmetrical and hierarchically arranged so that all the important buildings run down the centre, north-south. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which comprise the outer palace where the Emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation, and the Hall of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, comprising the inner palace where the imperial family lived.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. Only the most important ceremonies were held in this hall including the enthronement of an emperor, celebration of the first day of the New Year, winter solstice, Spring Festival, the emperor’s birthday, announcement of successful candidates in the imperial examinations and proclamation of imperial decrees.   Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony, the resting place of the emperor before presiding over grand events held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Emperors would rehearse their speeches and presentations here before departing to the Temple of Heaven for the sacrifice rites.   The last hall is the Hall of the Preserving Harmony, used for banquets and later for imperial examinations.   The first structure inside the inner court is the Hall of Heavenly Purity, the emperors’ sleeping quarters. Behind it is the Hall of Union, where the imperial seals were stored. The third is the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, the emperors’ wedding room. Besides the three main buildings there are the six eastern palaces and six western palaces,  which were the living quarters of expresses and concubines.

Mentioned the concubines, I will tell you a story about the well of Concubine Zhen, which would show you another aspect of the palace life.  Zhen was the beloved concubine of Emperor Guangxu. And she supported the Emperor’s views on constitutional reform and modernization, thus evoking the hatred of Empress Dowager Cixi. Once placed house arrest, she was denied access to the emperor. In 1900, when empress Dowager Cixi fled to Xian with Guangxu, she ordered the head eunuch to dispose of Concubine Zhen by throwing her down the well. The well with a small mouth and only stone brim is on the west corridor of Jingqige Pavilion and inside Zhenshun Gate.

On the left side of the inner court, you will find the Mental Cultivation Hall (Yangxindian), the second most important building except for the Hall of Supreme Harmony. From the time of the third emperor, Yongzheng, all the Qing emperors, 8 in total resided in this hall.

Since yellow is the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant color in the Forbidden City. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace are painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground are made yellow by a special process. However, there is one exception. Wenyuange, the royal library, has a black roof. The reason is that it was believed black represented water then and it could extinguish fire.

The palace, the most magnificent and splendid palace complex exemplifying traditional Chinese palatial architecture, was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Building in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The palace complex has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. Without seeing the magnificence of the royal palace, you can never sense the dignity of the emperor!