The house of 24 Ming and Qing emperors, the Forbidden City is a fittingly awe-inspiring sight. Enclosed behind its moat and 9.9m-high walls are 980 buildings, vast courtyards and long corridors that occupy a total area of 720,000 square meters. It’s alleged that as many as1,000,000 workers and 100,000 artisans participated in the construction of this imperial palace, which began in 1406 and was completed in 1420 during the reign of Ming dynasty emperor Yongle. Destroyed by fires and other calamities, many of the buildings were rebuilt and expanded during the Qing dynasty. The last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924, 11 years after his abdication and the establishment of the Republic of China. After Puyi’s departure, the Forbidden City, which had long been off-limits to most mortals, was opened to the public, hence its current Chinese name, gugong bowuguan, meaning “The Palace Museum”.
The Forbidden City was built along a meridian line, from the Dragon’s throne and an axis can be drawn directly south through the many gates, right through to Qianmen and further on. From his northern seat, the emperor could symbolically survey his entire kingdom.
The main entry point for the Forbidden City is the Meridian Gate which is a ten-minute walk to the north of Tian’anmen Square. It is important not to confuse Meridian Gate with the Gate of Heavenly Peace, above which hangs Mao’s portrait. The “Son of Heaven”, as the emperor was called, would come to the Meridian Gate to review armies and announce the new calendar. As you walk through Meridian Gate, you should be aware that in imperial times you would have been guilty of a capital offense as only the emperor could use this central archway. Officials and royal family members would have to have used the side passageways.
Emerging from the Meridian Gate is a courtyard bisected by a canal in the shape of a bow that’s spanned by five marble bridges. On the far side of the canal is the Gate of Supreme Harmony, which opens up to a second gigantic courtyard that held audiences of 100,000. On the north end of that courtyard is the first of three great ceremonial halls, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This is where the Emperor read important announcements, celebrated his birthday and appointed military leaders. Inside the hall is an elaborately decorated throne flanked by cloisonné cranes (symbolising longevity) and gorgeous dragon carved columns.
The second ceremonial hall, called the Hall of Middle Harmony, was used by the emperor and his ministers as a staging area to prepare for official ceremonies. Directly behind it is the Hall of Preserving Harmony where New Year’s Eve banquets were held during the Qing dynasty. This edifice was also used as an imperial examination hall for top scholars seeking official positions.
After passing the Hall of Preserving Harmony, some visitors pause over a cappuccino at the Forbidden City’s Starbucks while others meander eastward into an area that served as the quarters for imperial attendants, including, at one point, an estimated 70,000 eunuchs. There are signs pointing towards the Hall of Clocks and Hall of Jewellery where antiques are exhibited. To the north of the Hall of Preserving Harmony is the Inner Palace, a series of elegant buildings and courtyards where the emperor lived with his family and concubines. In addition to a throne room and nuptial chamber, the buildings include libraries, temples and a theatre. At the northern end of the compound is the delightful Imperial Garden with gnarled cypresses, scholars’ rocks and pavilions. Reflecting their separate purposes, the Garden and the Inner Palace were built on a far more human scale than the grandiose ceremonial halls: the former were designed for the emperor’s private life, the latter for his public persona as the embodiment of the state and Son of Heaven. The garden is also the only place in the palace grounds that has trees because of the importance of symbolism to the emperor. The palace grounds are in the shape of a square but the design is meant to represent a box. If a box has the Chinese character for tree inside it, it becomes the character meaning imprisoned, not exactly an auspicious symbol for the emperor.
To the north of the garden is the exit via the north gate. Be sure to take in the spectacular view of the Forbidden City’s moat, outer wall and corner guard towers. If you want a good view of Forbidden City you would need to cross Jingshan Qian Jie and climb to the top of Coal Hill.
You too can explore the Forbidden City on the 15 day Land of Nine Dragons Tour.