The Forbidden City

A journey to Imperial China

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The Forbidden City, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Dongcheng, Beijing 100009, China

GPS: 39.917567237547, 116.39177340993

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The Forbidden City is in the heart of Beijing, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square. Its construction was planned by Ming Yongle who came to power in 1402 at the expense of his nephew Jianwen, who was deposed after only four years of reign. Yongle, whose real name was Zhu Di, was the son of Zhu Yuanzhang, one of the leaders of the Red Turbans Rebellions. Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as Hongwu, was the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty following a series of revolts that precipitated the fall of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty in 1368. Proclaimed emperor, Ming Yongle decided to transfer the capital from Nanjing to Beijing to protect the northern border of the country from Mongol invasions. He wanted to make this vast palace complex the centre of the world. At the time, his territory was divided into several fiefs and extended from Vietnam to Mongolia. The last ruler to reside inside the Forbidden City was Puyi, under the Qing dynasty. Forced to abdicate in 1911 at the age of six, he was kept prisoner on the premises before being permanently expelled in 1924. Transformed into a national museum the following year by the new republican regime, the Forbidden City site was then subject to major renovation work by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Forbidden City is the symbol of the royal residences and imperial palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties. A total of 24 emperors succeeded each other in the space of five centuries. Probably using hundreds of thousands of slaves and craftsmen, about 15 years were enough to build this large city: 1 kilometre long, 750 metres wide, nearly a thousand buildings and about 9,000 rooms, a series of palaces covering 720,000 square meters, a massive wall surrounded by a moat 50 metres wide… to transport the various materials (wood, stones, bricks, earth, glazed tiles. …) and to supply the workers with cereals, a 1,800km-canal was built under the aegis of emperor Yongle between the cities of Hangzhou and Beijing. It remains the oldest and longest canal in the world.

The Forbidden City is a showcase of Chinese culture both in terms of architecture and the quality of its artworks. It is one of the most important palaces in the world. Today, this palatial complex attracts more than 17 million visitors a year and is the second most visited Chinese site, after the Great Wall of China. The richness of the royal collections on display to the public testifies to the importance of Chinese civilization during the reign of emperors.

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  • The splendor and gigantic size of the site that houses the largest number of palaces in the world; the state of conservation of the Forbidden City; the many buildings representing the grandeur of the Chinese emperors in medieval China
  • The largest wooden architectural complex in the world; the profusion of gold and gold leaf covering the interior of the buildings; the symmetrical layout of the temples, palaces, courtyards, corridors, and gardens according to a checkerboard plan and the principle of feng shui (a thousand-year-old Chinese art form aiming to optimize the vital energies of the earth)
  • The impressive defensive wall of about 10-metres-high; the four access gates to the fortress: the Meridian Gate (main gate on the south side overlooking Tiananmen Square), the Gate of Divine Might (on the north side), the East Glorious Gate (on the east side) and the West Glorious Gate (on the west side)
  • The dragon statue (five-clawed animal symbol of the emperor) in the central square representing Emperor Yongle; the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the sculptures and the grand marble staircase leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the place where the emperor ruled from the Dragon Throne, and which has long remained the tallest building in Beijing)
  • The superb royal collections (furniture, paintings, ceramics, bronzes, art objects…); the brilliance of the buildings, pavilions, and ancient imperial palaces (Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Palace of Tranquil Longevity…)
  • The landscaped and geometrical gardens; the imperial garden and the vast paved courtyards; the Golden Water River (Nei Jin Shui Qiao), an artificial watercourse running through the interior of the site in the outer courtyard where official ceremonies were held
  • The succession and superposition of clay roofs; the refined decoration of the roofs with yellow glazed tiles (imperial colour) contrasting with the imposing red walls of the buildings, the walls and the arched wooden doors; the wooden dougongs (elements of the framework supporting the enormous roofs of the buildings); the alignment of chimeras at the end of the roofs of the buildings; the statues of mythological animals in bronze charged to push back the bad spirits (storks, turtle doves, elephants, turtles, ducks mandarins, tigers, phœnix dragons. …); the huge pots in which incense was burned
  • The genius and know-how of the craftsmen of the time (carpenters, sculptors…); the respect for traditional techniques in the renovation works; the ingenious water drainage system: the inclination of the ground, drain holes, underground canals, the network of rain ditches, water reservoir to fight fires, moat system connecting with the golden river
  • The dragon statue (five-clawed animal symbol of the emperor) in the central square representing Emperor Yongle; the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the sculptures and the grand marble staircase leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony
  • Also known as the Purple Forbidden City (the full translation of its Chinese name), the Palace Museum (the contemporary name given to the site since this palatial city became a museum) or the Ancient Palace by the Chinese, the Forbidden City celebrated 600 years of its construction in 2020. Its name originated from the fact that it was previously inaccessible to foreigners at the time of the great emperors of China. According to legend, it was even not allowed to look at the walls protecting the Forbidden City buildings from the outside. This palace complex was in the centre of the imperial capital, which itself was protected by a system of fortifications and access to which was regulated.
  • Its wooden buildings, unlike those of previous dynasties when they were systematically razed to make way for new buildings, survived the various changes of imperial dynasties. Only the foundations are of stone. An estimated 12 million bricks were used to build the Forbidden City (1406-1420), which was to embody the divine power of Emperor Yongle down to the finest detail.
  • Of all the emperors who resided in the Forbidden City, Yongle was undoubtedly the most feared. As the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), he put an end to the attacks of the last Mongol forces two centuries after the end of Genghis Khan’s reign. In particular, he had nearly 3,000 people who made up his imperial harem executed to keep information related to his reign secret. At his death, in accordance with his last wishes, his concubines and favourites were killed at the emperor’s funeral to prevent them from rebuilding their lives with other men.
  • The Inner Court of the Forbidden City was the private sanctuary of the palace. Only the emperor and his servants had access to it. According to Luca Gabbiani (lecturer at the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient), these could be domestic workers (mainly women), wives (empresses) and concubines (secondary wives) as well as eunuchs (close advisors and officials of the emperor). The latter had to enforce the numerous rituals that governed the daily life of the Forbidden City. Their number could reach several thousand individuals during the Ming dynasty. To take up these strategic functions, the eunuchs had to undergo a surgical operation to remove their testicles to prevent them from having children with one of the emperor’s many concubines and to minimize the risk of overthrowing power by ruling at the head of a new dynasty.
  • The removal of Puyi, the twelfth and last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, led to the proclamation of the Republic of China in 1912 and the end of the imperial era. According to experts, the Forbidden City has survived more than 200 earthquakes and about 50 fires (none of the palaces or buildings in the Forbidden City are original). It was also plundered and sacked several times by foreign armies (Mongolian, Japanese, Franco-British…).
  • In 1947, following the Second Sino-Japanese War that precipitated the arrival of the Communists to power, a large part of the art collections of the Forbidden City were transferred to Taiwan by the Chinese nationalists. They can now be viewed at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
  • About 200 cats have taken over the Forbidden City and are living inside the buildings or in the courtyards.
  • The least popular areas with tourists are located in the eastern parts of the Forbidden City, which contain the dazzling Opera House. Keep in mind that tens of thousands of visitors come to the Palace Museum every day.
  • If possible, avoid the busiest times of the year, namely summer and Chinese school vacations. The maximum number of visitors – to protect the site and the safety of visitors – is 80,000 people per day.
  • To deepen your knowledge, ask for the services of an audio guide available in several languages.
  • You can continue your journey to the time of imperial China by visiting the remains of the Old Summer Palace based 15 kilometres northwest of the Forbidden City of Beijing (Yuanmingyuan Park). This annexe was built in the 18th century by the Manchu emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong before being plundered and demolished by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War.

Where to eat

  • BeiJing Haidilao Hot Pot
    (popular with locals)
  • Siji Minfu Restaurant Peking...
    (Peking duck specialist)
  • Black Sesame Kitchen
    (generous Chinese cuisine)

Where to go

  • National Museum of China
    (fantasy art collections)
  • Beihai Park
    (a breath of fresh air)
  • National Centre for the...
    (cultural centre)

Where to stay

  • Kellys Courtyard
    (typically local and central)
  • Siheju Courtyard Hostel
    (pleasant setting)
  • The Ritz-Carlton Beijing...
    (modern and luxurious)