Beijing Forbidden City: Culmination of Imperial China

The Beijing Forbidden City located at the middle of the Chinese capital represents the culmination of imperial China. It became the political nerve center of China ever since the third Ming ruler built it as a symbol of his power, glory and divine mandate.

The majestic Forbidden City became the epicenter where 24 Ming and Qing emperors rule with grandeur and regal authority. The exclusiveness of the imperial bastion, its royal treasure trove, pompous design and above all historical legacy continue to attract any foreign visitor to China.

Why Named Forbidden City

The imperial palace is known as the Beijing Forbidden City because of its elitist character and status as the exclusive royal household. The emperors, who ruled China with the “Mandate of Heaven” and acquired divine status, restricted entry of common people to the walled city. It led the common citizens to name the royal palace as Zijin Cheng or Forbidden City.

During the period of Yong Le, the third Ming ruler, he conceived the palace complex as a large building which had the purpose of receiving large foreign delegations and also having a religious buildings to accommodate the three major religions of China at that time, namely Buddhism, Lamaism and Taoism. The spiritual aspect of the palace design fell to a monk who was Yong Le’s tutor. Since the royal colour at that time was purple, so the building was called Zijing Cheng which translated literally means the “purple forbidden city”. According to the local folklore, no one could go inside or leave the imperial palace without royal permission.

The History of Forbidden City

Beijing Forbidden City from the air

The equally magnificent Yuan royal palace built by Kublai Khan and visited by Venetian explorer Marco Polo existed at the place where the Beijing Forbidden City now stands. During the Yuan Dynasty (i.e. Kublai Khan’s era), the Mongols when they conquered China wanted to assimilate with the Han Chinese so continued to revamp the Chinese styled palaces. But what is not known to many people, so as not to change the Mongolian way of life, Kublai Khan set up Mongolian type tents behind the walls of the Forbidden Palace and continued to live the Mongolian way of life there.

When Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan ruler, he moved the capital to Nanjing and razed the royal palace in 1369. Third Ming rule Zhu Di moved the capital back to Beijing and began construction of the Forbidden City in 1406. The emperor appointed Cai Xin as the chief architect and Lu Xiang as the chief engineer who led construction activities by a million laborer and 100,000 artisans for the next 15 years.

The Beijing Forbidden City originally had huge stone carvings, interior floors paved with golden bricks and grand terraces. Six-century-old bricks on exterior paving were made of baked clay and resonates metallic sound even today. The emperor inaugurated the palace in 1420.

In October 1644, the young Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was coronated as the sovereign of China at the Forbidden City. The Qing ruler decorated and renovated the palace as per their taste and added many buildings. Foreign troops occupied the city twice, in 1860 during the first Opium War and again in 1900 when the Boxer Rebellion forced Empress Dowager to leave it. The Beijing Forbidden City lost its political importance in 1912 with the abdication of the last Qing ruler. The Republican government established a museum comprising the outer court while the ex-royal lived in the inner court. In 1987, it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Extent of Beijing Forbidden City

Spread over 723, 633 square meters, the Beijing Forbidden City has 900 halls and 8,886 bays of rooms. Designed in a rectangular shape, the palace was protected by a 10-meter-high wall and 52-meter-wide moat. The fortified wall measuring 6.6 meters at the top has gates on each side, including the Tiananmen Gate on the southern side.

Each gate is decorated with nine arrays of golden door nails. The king resided in the inner court or the northern sector while all prominent royal offices were on the northern section called the outer court. A number of temples, shrines and altars adorn the courtyard. It was surrounded by huge gardens and the Jingshan Park. The roofs of buildings are highly decorated and have fireproof tiles.

The roof of the Beijing Forbidden City is of particular interest. In Ancient China an illiterate eunuch/ palace maid visiting the wrong building could be put to death. So if you look at ancient Chinese buildings today, the Emperors residence would have the most number of animals on the roof while the lower ranked officials would have fewer animals on the roof.

Another interesting fact that most people do not realize, in Chinese when we refer a tap (i.e. the valve that you turn to release water to wash your hands) we refer to it as “Shui Long Tou” or literally Water Dragon’s Head. This may have origins in Beijing’s Royal Palace where if you look up at the roof you would realize that water from the roof runs off from Dragon Heads (the sign of the Chinese emperor).

A third fact is one of size of the palace grounds. As China for many years was the centre of trade for the world and had many vassal states giving tribute to it, the coffers of China were huge as evidenced by the large size of the palace. If you compare the King’s palace in Seoul, South Korea or the tombs of the Pharoh or Karnark Temple you would understand what I mean as the royal palace in Beijing dwarfs all these ancient palaces in terms of size and architecture wonder.

The Treasure House

The royal palace was culmination of 3,000 years of cultural development in the Chinese history. The Palace Museum located inside the Beijing Forbidden City houses 1,807,558 artifacts of cultural importance. All these artifacts were moved to Sichuan in 1933 just before the Japanese army occupied the palace. The Kuomintang government moved many artifacts to Taiwan when the communists captured Beijing in 1949 and stored them at the Taipei National Palace Museum.

The 600-year-old Forbidden City meticulously designed with all intricate details, right from the layout to small artifacts on rooftops considering philosophical and religious values of the time. The specimen of imperial enterprise was decorated in exotic stone and wood. The yellow glazed tiles on the building roofs represent the imperial color. The larger structures are patterned according to the Qian triagram, in groups of three, which reflects the map of heaven. The royal rooms follow the Kun triagram format, six in each group, reflecting the earth. This design followed ancient rules of spatial architecture which was first used in the palace in the han dynasty in Chang’an (Modern Xi’An).

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