Go inside China’s Forbidden City—domain of the emperor and his court for nearly 500 years
Published September 13, 2022
20 min read
In the heart of modern Beijing is the world’s largest palace complex, big enough to hold 50 Buckingham Palaces and covering more than 7. 75 million square feet. Known as the Forbidden City, it served as the symbolic and political center of imperial China between 1420 and 1912. Its name, the Forbidden City, reflects the fact that most subjects of this realm were not allowed to enter its walls. The entire complex is filled palaces, gardens and courtyards. It was built by the Yongle emperor, the third Ming ruler (r. 1403-1424). He declared himself emperor and consolidated his power in Beijing, moving the capital some 620 miles from Nanjing in 1403. Sources say it took 100,000 artisans and a million forced laborers to build the Beijing complex between 1406 and 1420, on the site where Kublai Khan had once built his famous palace. The Forbidden City’s Chinese name, Zijincheng, is a symbol of divinity and immortality in Chinese culture. The Forbidden City would be the home and seat of power for 24 rulers–14 from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and 10 from the Qing (1644-1911). The complex’s importance was not diminished when the Manchu Qing emperors overthrew Ming. They added new structures and gardens.
(A guide to Imperial China’s dynasties. )
The Forbidden City forms a rectangle over half a mile long by almost half a mile wide. Its outer wall is more than 25 feet high and surrounded by a moat with an artificial water source, the Golden River. It follows the principles of Feng Shui (the art of placing buildings and objects to promote positive energy). The alignment of the palace complex is north-south. It is symmetrical to reflect the balance of the universe. Tradition says that its design famously incorporates 9,999.5 rooms. Only the celestial Lord of Heaven, not his imperial son on Earth, could enjoy 10,000. Nonetheless, the number 9,999 is auspicious in Chinese culture, associated with the emperor, and pronounced the same as the Chinese word “eternal.”
The key spaces within the Forbidden City are distributed along a central axis that bisects the grounds. The complex, as seen from the top, forms a shape that corresponds to the ideal cosmic order of Confucian ideology. It refers to the central point between north, east, west, and south. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the main imperial seat, the Dragon Throne, is located at this central point. This was placed at the Forbidden city’s epicenter to symbolically transform the emperor into the center of the universe, the center for all social and natural hierarchy that governed the empire.
A Chinese tradition holds that those who are in the north face the south have a superior position. This is just as those in buildings or higher spaces are superior to those in lower places. These spatial relationships were clearly reflected in the architecture of The Forbidden City. The emperor was always seen in a gateway or in an elevated room that looked toward the south, while his subjects were below in open courtyards that looked north towards the emperor.
The Inner Court is at the north end. Access to the emperor’s private rooms was restricted to women and eunuchs. The Outer Court is to the south. These are the state rooms where the emperor granted audiences or did official work with his ministers. This is where the Chinese imperial court managed contact with the outside world. The Forbidden City’s stunning architecture was used as a stage to show off the emperor’s power.
(Zheng He, sponsored by emperor Yongle, was China’s greatest naval explorer. )
Ceremonies and rituals
Within Chinese imperial tradition, the emperor was considered the only official inhabitant of the Forbidden City; ministers and nobles who represented the people were seen as mere visitors. This distinction was important when organizing ceremonies such the ascension of the emperor to the throne, celebrations of his birthday, and issuing official decrees.
These kinds of ceremonies followed the same ritual organization. The emperor would lead the way to where the ceremony was to be held, with his officials following him through doors and crossing bridges in strict social hierarchy. No one was allowed to stand in front of the emperor.
Historical descriptions of the imperial audiences reflect how the social order was emphasized through strict protocols. The Hall of Supreme Harmony’s exterior courtyard was where attendees would gather at dawn. The steps leading to the hall were populated by relatives of the emperor. They were placed according to their closeness to the emperor. The outer court was arranged in rows according to rank. All walked north towards the emperor, who was dressed in imperial finery with the figure of the dragon and led to the throne via a procession. Once everyone was in place, the procession led them to the throne. The emperor attended the most significant ceremonies in person. Even though he was not there, the Dragon Throne was still revered as his proxy. The imperial document was also treated with great pomp when the emperor issued an order. Each of these rituals emphasized a way to understand the universe in clearly defined hierarchical layers. Each dynasty was strengthened by the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City today
Despite centuries of challenges, from extreme political upheaval and brutal war to major conflagrations, the palace complex still stands. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, lived in the Forbidden City until 1924, when he was finally expelled from the complex by warlord and later Nationalist Party official Feng Yuxiang. The Republic of China declared the site a national museum the following year.
In 1949, while standing atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao ordered Red Guards posted at this gate. In 1987, the Forbidden City was named part of a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties at Beijing and Shenyang. In spring 1989 the world’s attention was riveted by pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public space, in the Forbidden City’s long shadow.
(This religious revolt nearly toppled China’s last imperial dynasty. )
Entering the Meridian Gate
Wufeng Lou (Five-Phoenix Tower) is the imposing southern entrance to the Forbidden City. It is also known by the Meridian Gate, as it was believed that the meridian lines passed through the palace complex. This was the most auspicious spot where the emperor issued his imperial orders. The gate is located in the center of the external wall and has a lateral wings that extend out to either side. Its design follows the tower style used to decorate entrances of palaces, temples, and tombs in the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd centuries B.C.).
Five doors lead to the complex through the tower of the Meridian Gate. The emperor was the only person who could use the center door. Only the emperor’s center door was allowed for the empress on the wedding day and the top three national exam scholar. Standing almost 125 feet high, the central structure is almost 200 feet long and has a double roof of glazed tiles. There are stands with drums and bells at each end. Bells rang whenever the Emperor left the Forbidden city to go to the Sacrifice Altar of Heaven. Drumming was used to accompany the bell ringing during the Hall of Supreme Harmony’s most important ceremonies.
(Ice sledges carried monumental stones to the Forbidden City in the 15th century. )
Crossing the Golden River
According to the principles of feng shui, every mountain must have water flowing before it. This principle is observed in the area beyond the Meridian Gate. The Golden River flows in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, dividing the courtyard from west to west. The artificial river flows into the city from the northeast and out into the moat to the southeast. Measuring about 15 feet wide, the Golden River is shallow, but its waters had a practical as well as a symbolic purpose. The river served as a reservoir in the event of fire, which was a serious threat to a city that is largely made of wood.
Where the Golden River passes in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, it is shaped like a Mongol arch. There are five bridges across the river, each symbolizing one of the five Confucian virtues expected of the emperor’s subjects: benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), wisdom (zhi), trustworthiness (xin), and ritual propriety (li). These virtues emanate from the imperial centre, out into the world, and the five bridges act as five arrows. The bridges had symbolic meaning and were used to emphasize the culture’s strict social hierarchy. The central bridge could only have been crossed by the Emperor, while the two flanking it could only be used by the royal family. The two adjacent bridges could only be used by the emperor. The two flanking it could only have been used by the royals, while the two to the left were reserved for the court officials.
Scared Halls of Harmony
In the center of the Forbidden City, raised on a three-tiered white marble terrace, stand the complex’s three most important buildings: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Outer Court’s three halls are topped with yellow glazed tiles, the imperial color. Each hall has its own throne, from which the emperor preside over ceremonies and celebrations. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the most important, and it housed the Dragon Throne. Here were held auspicious public rituals, such as enthronements or royal weddings.
The smaller, brighter Hall of Central Harmony was to the north and was used for imperial acts like receiving obeisance, or examining government documents. Further north is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, a name that refers to the imperial function of sharing harmony in the underworld. It was used by the Ming to allow the emperor to wear ceremonial clothes. It was used by the Qing to host banquets attended by heads of state, nobles and ministers.
Realm of the dragon
Dragons in many cultures are seen as fire-breathing monsters, but Chinese dragons are powerful, benevolent bringers of life–supreme creatures who control the waters and rains. Throughout Chinese history, the dragon has also been associated with imperial power, going back to the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 B.C.). The Hall of Supreme Harmony is where the Dragon Throne is located, and it makes clear the relationship between emperors & dragons. The Ming dynasty’s Jiajing emperor (r. 1521-1567) is believed to have been the first ruler to use it.
Surrounded by dragons, the elevated throne is ornately decorated with gold and precious stones. The back of the throne features five coiled dragons, which represent the five elements metal, wood, fire, water, and earth. It is flanked by a panel carved with nine dragons. The intricately coffered ceiling is adorned with an image of a coiled Dragon. The emperor was dressed in ceremonial robes with the dragon emblem and took his place at the throne. This reflects the fact that China is called Zhongguo, “central state” or “middle kingdom.”
Strolling in the Imperial Garden
To the north of the palace complex is an ornamental garden of bamboos, cypresses, and pines, dotted with structures including small pavilions. The Imperial Garden was originally built in the 15th century during the reign of the Yongle emperor to be enjoyed by the supreme ruler and his royal wife. Designed to be a peaceful space to connect with nature, the garden was later expanded to cover almost 10 acres. It is one of the four gardens in the palace complex. It has four pavilions at its corners that represent the four seasons.
One, the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Springs is dedicated to spring. Its square base is the earth, and its rounded roof heaven, adorned with dragons or phoenixes, is heaven. The Hall of Imperial Peace, a Taoist temple in the middle of this peaceful setting, is where the Ming emperors practiced divination and alchemy. The main hall was dedicated in honor of Xuanwu, also known as Zhenwu, a powerful Taoist warrior god associated with the north. This is the only Taoist temple on the main axis in the Forbidden city.
Another notable building in the garden is the Bower of Crimson Snow, named for blossoms of the flowering crab-apple trees that once grew there; their falling blossoms are said to resemble reddish snowflakes (today, mock oranges [Philadelphus pekinensis], whose flowers are white, are planted there). Two Qing emperors in particular, Kangxi (r. 1661-1722) and Qianlong (r. 1735-1796), appreciated the beauty of the pergola so keenly that they considered it their favorite place to compose poetry.
(A palace was abandoned 3,700 years ago and archaeologists finally know why. )
Approaching the gate
Built in 1420, the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) is the northern entrance to the Forbidden City. It was the northern entrance to the Forbidden City. It opened into the private residence of the emperor and was used by palace workers, concubines, and members the royal family. Originally named the Black Tortoise Gate (Xuanwumen), the gate received a name change in the 1600s because the birth name of the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi emperor was Xuanye. Anything that sounded too similar to the emperor’s name was forbidden.
The Gate of Divine Prowess is rectangular, stands 102 feet high, and has three doors. It is equipped with a Xumi base of white jade, which can be used as a Buddhist tower. The gate is topped by a tower with a roof made of brightly glazed yellow tile. The tower housed a bell and a drum. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the bell would be struck 108 times at dusk. The bell and drum would then sound twice an hour, from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. at dawn. Only the drum would be beat when the emperor was at home. In 1924 the last Qing emperor, Puyi, was finally expelled through this gate. When the complex became a museum in 1925, a “Palace Museum” sign was hung above it.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.