The Forbidden City in Beijing had served as the center of China’s politics and power for half a millennium, lasting from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty through the 15th century to the early 1900s. Covering a whopping 72 hectares with 980 buildings and over 8,000 rooms, it is the grandest of its kind and served as inspiration to many others during its time, including the citadel of Hue, Vietnam.
Refer to as the Former Palace (故宮) by the Chinese, not all of the Forbidden City is open to the public. Hence, it is called the Palace Museum, where cultural artwork and artefacts from the Forbidden City itself as well as other collection are also on display.
Because it’s so convinient from Hong Kong – we’ve opted for a weekend trip there. Here’s a highlight video:
Brief History of Forbidden City
The original capital of the Chinese Emperors had always been in Nanjing. However, when the Yongle Emperor (永樂), fourth son of the Ming dynasty’s first emperor, claimed the throne after the Jingnan rebellion (靖難之役) which displaced his nephew the Jianwen Emperor (建文), it was moved to Beijing. Beijing, which was called Beiping (北平) at the time, was the princedom of the Yongle Emperor. He commissioned the building of the Forbidden City, which started 4 years after his ascension in 1406 and lasted 14 years.
Architectural style of Forbidden City
Forbidden City Layout:
The Chinese architecture style focus heavily on balance and harmony, and as a place where the emperor lived and worked, the Forbidden City, in its perfect bilateral symmetry, with the most important building laying on the central axial. It can be separated into the Outer Court and Inner Court. The former lay south of Heavenly Purity Gate, and it is where the Emperor held court and perform ceremonial rituals. North of the gate is the Inner Court, where the living quarters for the concubines and children of the emperor were.
Protective structures around Forbidden City:
The rectangular planned palace is surrounded by a 7.9m high city wall and a 6m deep moat, with four corner towers.
The number of figures and creatures on the roof eaves signifies the importance of the inhabitants and the building itself. The highest in existence is 10 on the Hall of Supreme Harmony
Chinese architecture uses mainly wood, marble, and bricks. Precious zhennan woods were imported from southwest China, marble was quarried near Beijing and special golden bricks were baked from Suzhou as well as glass glazed tiles.
Good to know
A few key points for your visit:
-You can only enter from the southern Meridian Gate (午門)and exit in the north via the Gate of Divine Prowess (神武門).
-The cluster of palaces on the east wing of Inner Court is home to various exhibitions, including Jade, Gold, and Silver items.
-Visit to the Treasure Gallery requires an extra fee.
Notable sight in Forbidden City
In honesty, unless you are a huge fan of Chinese Architecture style or history, chances are you will be a bit overwhelmed by the huge space and confuse about what is what (because admittedly, they do look very similar). So here, I have handpicked some notable sights that stood out during my visit as well as a snippet of their history:
Meridian Gate 午門
The imposing front entrance to the Forbidden City, the Meridian Gate has three arches, the center is reserved only for the Emperor, and the Empress on her wedding day. Which explains why it is permanently closed and tourists enter through either side.
Golden Water Bridges 金水橋
The 5 bridges that crossed the Golden Water River and link the Meridian Gate to the Gate of Supreme Harmony – there isn’t much information on them.
Gate of Supreme Harmony 太和門
The Gate into the Outer Court, it was renamed so in 1562. The gate was burned down in 1888 and rebuilt the year after. In the Ming Dynasty, this was where the morning court was held, and it certainly conveys a sense of grandeur and induces awe for those who walk through en-route to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿
Undoubtedly the center of court, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is where the biggest celebration was held in the Ming and Qing Dynasty. It was burned down several times in history, and the current hall was built in 1695.
Also called the Hall of Golden Bells, the hall is 26.92m tall spanning over 2,377 square meters and three marble terraces. Personally, I found the intricately carved staircase particularly eye catching.
Hall of Central Harmony 中和殿
The name of the halls had undergone two changes before being settle on Central Harmony in 1645 by the Jianjing Emperor (清順治). A small hall at the back of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, it is where officials pay homage to the emperors before ceremonies. It is also the place where the emperor spends the night before big celebrations.
Hall of Preserving Harmony 保和殿
A hall of 1,240 square meters in size, the current structure date back the Ming Dynasty after several fires. It was named Preserving Harmony in 1526 by Jiajing Emperor (清順治). Ceremonies, palace examinations and banquets were held here, and two emperors had even made this their bedchamber.
Gate of Heavenly Purity 乾清門
This marks the beginning of the Inner Court.
Palace of Heavenly Purity 乾清宮
Built in 1420, the Palace of Heavenly Purity has been the place where the Emperor sleep and work until the Yongzheng Emperor (雍正), who moved into Hall of Mental Cultivation. Funny enough, this was also the place where the coffin of the deceased emperor would be placed before his burial.
Imperial Garden 御花園:
There are two pavilions and one hall in the Imperial Garden, along with ponds and man-made mountains. Not as large as I expected, it was, again, planned with a bilateral symmetry.
Mountain of Accumulated Elegance 堆秀山
Situated in the North East corner of the Imperial Garden, this man made mountain leans on the Forbidden Palace City Wall to the north. It is 10m high with inbuilt caves as well as a water system. There’s even a pavilion on top. Although I couldn’t see where the staircase going up could possibly be!
The east and west wings of Inner Court:
A blur of halls and corridors that look similar, it was difficult to keep track of which hall was which and exactly where we were. But the Inner Courts, reserved for the emperor’s household is laid out in a different way than the Outer Court. But what it lacks in grandeur, it makes up for in the elegance in the simpler designs. Here are some photos:
Some pretty corridors and gates:
Palace of Prolonging Happiness 延禧宮
One of the six halls of the Inner Court East Wing, it was originally built in 1420 under a different name. however, a fire in 1845 destroyed it and a western style hall was commissioned by the Xuantong Emperor (宣統) in 1909, but it was never completed due to lack of funds. It is the most different hall in the entire Inner Court.
Treasure Gallery 珍寶館
The most eastern wing has now been group into the Treasure Gallery, with five building complex housing artifacts and collection of the Inner Court’s treasures.
The Nine Dragon Scenes 九龍壁
A wall relief that depicts nine Chinese dragons, it is common in imperial Chinese palaces and garden.
Hall of Imperial Supremacy 皇極殿
Renamed so by the Qianlong Emperor in 1776, it was originally built by Kangxi Emperor (康熙) in 1689. When Qianlong Emperor refurbished it, he had planned this hall to hold not only his retirement but for ceremonies and to receive ministers. Later, the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) celebrated her 60th and 70th birthday here.
Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds 暢音閣
A building meant for music and drama, it was originally built by Qianlong (乾隆) Emperor in 1776, but expanded with a backstage and round ridge roof by Jiaqing (嘉慶) Emperor in 1817. It has a stage with a T design, and this later inspire the drama stages in the Summer Palace.
Well of Concubine Zhen 珍妃井
One of the last Qing Emperor’s favourite concubines, Concubine Zhen was supportive of the emperor’s push on constitutional reform and modernization. However, the Empress Dowager Cixi was against it, confining her under guards. The Dowager Empress went on to order Eunuch Cui Yugui to shove Zhen into this well when the Eight-Power Allied Forces attacked in 1900. She wasn’t buried until the year after. The well is now not in use.
The Gate of Divine Prowess 神武門
Guarding the northern entrance of the palace, the gate had witness five centuries of emperors. Originally called Gate of Mysterious Warrior (玄武門), it was renamed by Kangxi Emperor when it undergo reconstruction in Qing Dynasty.
It is the gate used by the Emperor’s harem.