For tourists, sometimes the beauty of the Forbidden city may be overshadowed by other landmarks of China – think about the Great Wall of China, the lights and the skyline of Shanghai, the terracotta army of the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum…
Yes, the Forbidden City now is not in its best condition (some parts are crying for a restauration), now it’s strongly associated with the communist present of China (just think about the famous Mao portrait above its entrance), and the crowds of domestic tourists flooding the Tiananmen Square might look endless (if you travel with a guide like we did who buys the tickets and knows how all the security checks work, it might save you plenty of time and nerves). Nevertheless, the Forbidden city gave me one of the most powerful impressions from my trip to China – and that’s why I’m writing a blog solely about it!
A bit of history
The Forbidden City was built under the rule of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when Emperor Yongle decided to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Its construction took 14 years: the palace was finished in 1420. Thus, this year the Forbidden city celebrates its 600th’s anniversary!
It served as an imperial palace to 14 emperors from the Ming Dynasty and 10 emperors from the following Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The second part of the 19th century was turbulent for China, and there was the Anglo-French occupation of the Palace and the Boxer’s rebellion took place too. The Nationalist party of China took control over the country, the last emperor of China Puyi abdicated in 1912 – however, the palace stayed as an emperor’s residence till the moment when left this place. After that, in 1925, the palace was declared the Museum.
Many treasures and historical artefacts were lost and destroyed, some are still exhibited inside the palace, and many were transferred to Taiwan and saved – read about the magnificent National Palace Museum in Taipei in my other blog!
In 1987 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Important: don’t forget your passport to enter the Forbidden city – you’ll need that for the tickets!
What is the Forbidden City exactly?
The Forbidden city is a palatial complex with about 980 buildings. Commoners couldn’t enter it and all of the higher rank also couldn’t enter or leave it without a permission from the Emperor as it was the residence of an Emperor. Thus, it became known as ‘forbidden’ and ‘city’, or ‘palace’, – well, because it’s like a proper city with various infrastructure occupying much space! But here we enter the world of the complicated and multilayered translations from Chinese in which I’m not an expert.
The first thing you learn about it is that it’s huge – make sure you have at least 2-3 hours to explore it (the more the better!). In total, the Forbidden City covers 72 hectares and is about 960 meters long. According to the legend, there are 9999 rooms (according to some versions, even 9999,5!) in total which makes only one room less than in the Jade Emperor’s Palace in heaven! In reality there are about 8700 rooms, but believe me you won’t notice the difference.
The inner structure unrolls in front of you along with your route starting from behind the walls and all the way down to the inner court and the Imperial landscape garden. It was used by the Emperor and his family only in contrast to the space of the Outer court. You exit the palace through the Gate of Divine Might behind the garden.
What’s the structure of the Forbidden City?
Credit: Map of the Forbidden City, ChinaHighlights.com
The general axis of the Forbidden City is strictly accorded with feng shui, so it follows a north-south line. You can divide the Forbidden City in a few parts according to the hierarchy and the accessibility (some parts were reserved to the use of an Emperor, his family and concubines and eunuchs only). First one is the defensive structures that are seen from everywhere.
You enter the palace from the South through the Meridian Gate, then you walk and walk and walk, cross gates and courtyards…
Possibly, the most recognizable part of the palace is the courtyard behind the Wu Gate which is crossed by the so-called Golden River which you can cross at any of five marble bridges approaching the Gate of Supreme Harmony.
Finally you approach the Outer Court where all the major ceremonies and grand meetings took place. There are a few buildings such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important building of the whole palace, where the emperors’ Dragon Throne stays; the Hall of Preserving Harmony and the Hall of Central (or Middle) Harmony.
And finally, you reach the Inner Court, the domestic and possibly the most sacred part of the Forbidden City. There are also a few halls such as the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Union and Peace and the Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility.
After that, the structure of the Forbidden city changes, everything becomes more compact, grand courtyards disappear and you have to walk through lots of narrow passages. Don’t miss the garden there too and the Nine-Dragon Wall! The landscape garden is small but lovely, and there are lots of the stones of special forms that were really treasured at the time.
If you’re attentive enough, you’ll spot the small mosaics on the floor of the Puyi, the Last Emperor of China, on a bike! Actually, Puyi was very well educated and, having a British tutor Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, was well informed about the Western traditions and innovations.
Credit: The Stewart Lockhart Photographic Archive,
on loan from George Watson’s College to the Scottish National Photography Collection;
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
If you’re interested in the matter, I highly recommend you to see Bertolucci’s Last Emperor (1987) movie – it’s not all historically correct but still is a masterpiece of the cinematograph and allows you to feel the greatness and the sacredness of the Forbidden city which might be a little obscured today.
And you leave through the Gate of Divine Might, or the North gate, behind the Garden.
Why is it yellow and red?
You might be really surprised by the abundance of the red colour – but traditionally this color symbolizes everything good in China like fortune, happiness, fertility etc. Even Chinese brides who opt for a more traditional wedding choose red bridal dresses! As for the palace, Chinese people prefer to call it purple, the color of the polar star, not red, which is considered the traditional colour of the Heavenly palace. Actually, the first character of the traditional old name of the Forbidden Palace, means purple and refers to the North Star.
On the other hand, yellow signifies the Imperial family. The Emperor was frequently symbolised as a Yellow Dragon, and you can spot the yellow dragon embroidering on the robes belonging to Emperors.
What are these figurines on the roofs?
If you travelled along Asia, you’d have noticed that on some buildings in some countries there is a row of small glazed figures on the sloping roofs. The number of the roof charms corresponds with the rank of the building.
The maximum number of the ridge statuettes ever is 12: on the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important building of the whole Forbidden City and, thus, in the whole China. These 12 statuettes are as the following: a prince riding a bird, nine beasts, an immortal guardian and a dragon. The animals, as some resources indicate, are the following: a phoenix, a lion, a celestial horse and an auspicious seahorse, a dragon-lion, a dragon-fish, a unicorn, a bull, and a monkey. One can never exceed this number – usually the number of beasts is lower but remains odd. Even other roofs of the Forbidden city have a lower number of the roof charms.
What are they? They are guardians and protect the building from evil – and even the form of the roof itself, according to the chinese tradition, let evil spirits slip along the roof without entering the house. There are a few legends that describe the story behind these statuettes – for instance, a man riding a bird used to be a real prince greedy for power.
Why are there so many statues of animals?
You can also spot many bronze or stone animals inside the palace: lions, dragons, unicorns, herons, turtles etc. They all have a symbolic meaning too such as longevity, vitality, wisdom, power, fertility etc and are placed exactly on the places where they should be, according to a tradition. For instance, there are always a pair of lions: with a lioness with a cub on the left and a male lion on the right.
Things not to miss?
Numbers of course were symbolic too, and number nine (such as 9 rows of 9 nails each on the gates) corresponded to imperial supremacy. Also pay attention to the grain measure jialiang and the sundial before the Hall of Supreme Harmony dating back to the 18th century.
The best view?
For the best view climb the Scenery Hill in Jingshan Park – isn’t the view splendid?
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