Forbidden City | Palace of Chinese Emperors | Ming and Qing Dynasties

Forbidden city

Forbidden City

To build the Forbidden City, the Chinese moved blocks of stone weighing more than 100 tons (220 462 lbs) over a distance of 70 km (43 miles), thanks to an ingenious technique: they dug wells every 500 meters (1640 ft) along the route, then waited for the winter to create an icy track.

According to the researchers behind this discovery, the transport of a block of 123 tons (271 169 lbs) would have required only about fifty men for 4 weeks, against 1,500 men on an unfrozen track.

The Forbidden City is the common name for the palace of Chinese emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties who ruled China from the 15th century until the early 20th century.

Palace Museum

The Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum, was the imperial palace of two Chinese dynasties, the Ming and the Qing. Located in the center of Beijing, it was built between 1406 and 1420 and served 24 Chinese emperors until 1911. Currently it is a museum presenting artistic and cultural treasures of Chinese history. Both luxurious and magnificent, the Forbidden City is considered one of the five great palaces in the world, along with the Palace of Versailles (France), Buckingham Palace (Great Britain), the White House (United States) and the Kremlin (Russia). It was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.

Measuring 750 meters from east to west and 960 from north to south, the Forbidden City covers 720,000 square meters, it is the largest palace complex in the ancient world and the most comprehensive existing architectural group in China. The legend says that it has 9999 pieces, but the reality is quite different, in fact it only has a little more than 8700. You should know that 10000 is the number of the Gods, corresponding to infinity, it It was therefore not possible to create a palace with more than 9999 rooms… hence this legend.

A museum of a million works of art on display

Nowadays the forbidden city is a museum called the “Palace Museum”. (“Gugong Bówùyuàn”) The Chinese prefer the name “old palace”, which corresponds better to their history. It is interesting mainly for its buildings, whose state of conservation and restoration are exemplary. The squares, passages, gardens and walls are just as interesting as the living spaces themselves. However, this museum presents pieces of many important Chinese works of art, such as lacquers, bronzes, paintings, but also elements of the imperial family, sometimes very old. Everything is particularly interesting but requires a certain amount of time to visit, time that is rarely compatible with the visits organized for Westerners on site.

It is said that a million works of art are visible in the museum, which is still difficult to verify…

His names

Its official name is “The Forbidden Purple City”. The purple refers to the North Star, considered in the Chinese imagination as the “little purple star”. This star being in the axis of the Earth, it seems never to move and was considered as the center of the World. Suddenly, the emperor himself being considered at the center of everything, the two notions were joined and the palace where the emperor lived was therefore associated with the color purple. This is also the reason for the color of the buildings, which is supposed to be purple (and which is, in fact, red).

The Chinese call this monument “The Old Palace”, referring to the ancient times when it was occupied. But most of the time, in Europe, we call it “The Forbidden City” because it was forbidden to enter it, to approach it, or even to look at it!


When the new Yongle Emperor decided to build a new palace, this time in Beijing, he had a number of requirements linked to Chinese traditions included in the plans. The name was chosen based on astronomical elements. The new imperial palace being the center of power, it had to be named after the central star in the sky. This star is known in the West as the “Polar Star”, but in China it is “the little purple star” (“Ziwei Xing”, in Chinese). The palace was therefore named “the purple city”. Its name of forbidden city came later, the adjective referring to the fact that no one could enter the palace, except the imperial family and the servants.

Another symbol, in Chinese traditions, the number 10,000 represents infinity, and 9 is a symbol of longevity. The palace therefore received 9999 rooms, figures intended to ensure a long life for the emperor while approaching the maximum number of rooms that a palace made by men could contain. (10,000 being the limit, after that only gods could make palaces with more rooms).

Life in the palace in feudal times (social or political system that gave great power to the aristocracy)

When visitors discover this magnificent ensemble, no one can imagine the dismay of the members of the imperial family who lived in these premises. Disarray is the word because although considered as Gods, they were never to leave the palace, except with rare exceptions. The closer one was to the emperor, the stricter this restriction was, down to the emperor himself, virtually assigned to this palace for life. The forbidden city was therefore a prison, a golden prison, but a prison all the same.

Read also: Wan Hu, Ming Dynasty Astronaut | The story of the conquest of outer space

On the other hand, for the eunuchs who were assigned to daily tasks in relation to the royal family, they were among the few people to rub shoulders with them on a daily basis. Their lives were relatively interesting because, apart from their states of eunuchs, they enjoyed many advantages related to the overconsumption of the imperial family. For example, you should know that the emperor never wore the same outfit two days, the latter was for single use. Eunuchs could collect these outfits and resell them, which made them rich. There were of course many confrontations between eunuchs, who lived in a sometimes very heavy atmosphere. But this status was still sought after because the operation to remove the testicles succeeded in 90% of cases (10% mortality, all the same) and ensured an enviable lifestyle.

The servants of the palace, they were members of the common people who enjoyed the privilege of working within the walls of the palace. Being able to circulate as close as possible to power, they quickly enjoyed greater consideration among all the Chinese. Moreover they had, like the eunuchs, certain advantages related to their functions.

During the five centuries of its use, the forbidden city was perceived as a sacred place. As such, no one other than the emperor and his court had the right to enter it. Approaching them significantly was strictly forbidden, and even a glance towards these high walls could be reprehensible.

Origin of the Forbidden City

The Middle Kingdom was not always ruled by Chinese emperors. In the 13th century almost all of present-day China was dominated by the Mongols, who installed an administration there mainly held by the Persians, the Syrians and the Turks. The current capital is then designated as the city of the Great Khan (Khânbalika). The Mongol empire is experiencing rapid growth but is very soon confronted with uprisings from the Chinese. Mongol power collapses and a Chinese dynasty, that of the Ming (Word which means “clear”, “brilliant”, “resplendent”) takes its place. She very quickly began to raze the palace of the great Khan to replace it with buildings inspired by the purest tradition of the Han and Tan dynasties.

Architecture of the forbidden city

Chinese souvenirs do not need massive castles with high walls to demonstrate their powers: they prefer generous surfaces with low buildings arranged in a square to symbolize the Earth – Indeed, in Chinese genesis, the Earth is a square-shaped slice. The organization of this extraordinary site, around which the rest of the city must be organized, demonstrates the intentions of the powerful to highlight the Middle, the fifth cardinal point and the most important. Even if Beijing is not the geographical center of the Empire, the capital is the symbolic center, at the center of which in turn stands this city, the heart of the Empire and of power.

The Forbidden City is divided into two parts:

– The outer courtyard: it is the official part of the palace where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation. The courtyard is composed of the Pavilion of Supreme Harmony, the Pavilion of Perfect Harmony, the Pavilion of Literary Glory and the Pavilion of Military Prowess. The outer courtyard received high personalities for official ceremonies.

– The inner courtyard: the northern part, or the inner courtyard was considered the private space of the royal family. The emperor’s office and apartments for his family and associates, the inner courtyard is made up of the Pavilion of Heavenly Purity, the Pavilion of Union and the Pavilion of Earthly Tranquility protected by the six Eastern Pavilions and the six Western Pavilions.

A symbol of power and the royal family, the color yellow dominates the City. The roofs of the buildings are built with yellow glazed tiles, the decorations in the palace are painted with a strong dominance of yellow in order to recall the power of the emperor.

Main buildings

The main buildings are located on a perfectly North-South axis, with a parade avenue that once crossed the whole city and connected the gates. Other buildings are organized in groups of two on either side of the axis or along parallel axes. The large courtyards used for ceremonies and receptions are located in the south, in the public part of the city, while the residential palaces are located in the north. This layout of the buildings echoes the Chinese representation of Feng Shui which advocates that man and his home be integrated between wind and water. This is why buildings must be protected to the North and open to light and heat to the South. In the imperial city these conditions are met, since in the North and in the West the city is protected from the winds coming from the Gobi desert, while it can open in the South and in the East on a plain.

Artificial hill

The Imperial City was built according to the principles of Feng Shui with the aim of harmonizing the environmental energy within it. A small artificial hill, Coal Hill, was erected north of the City.

The city is also defended to the north by an artificial hill built from the earth removed to dig the moat. This mound is called in popular language “The coal hill”, because it is there that the fuels essential to the palace are stored. The different buildings are therefore not striking by their height but rather by their width and their compact appearance. All stand on bases of imposing cut stones which can reach 8 meters wide for the reception pavilions and which constitute a good insulation from the humidity of the ground for the buildings constructed of wood. From these stone plinths rise powerful columns carved from a very hard wood, the nanmu, transported for this purpose by canals from the South of China. These columns support very massive roofs covered with glazed clay tiles. The colors were to be decreed by the emperor: In the palace, it is yellow, the imperial color par excellence.

Reception buildings

The reception buildings are topped with two-tiered roofs, which seem very light and elegant despite their two-storey height and imposing area. This effect is obtained thanks to the presence at the four corners of the building of a special wooden frame that soars to the sky. It is populated by fabulous beings in glazed earth who are supposed to protect the City and its inhabitants from all dangers – and not only from the Mongols.

Visiting Forbidden City

Surrounded by ramparts (defensive wall of a castle or walled city) and a moat (defense trench) 52 meters wide, the Forbidden City covers 74 hectares, which ranks it among the largest palaces in the world. Visiting the Forbidden City can take half a day in view of the many palaces, gardens, towers and museums it houses.

How to get to the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is the focal point of Beijing along with Tiananmen Square. This geographical location and its tourist attraction allow it to be easily accessible by bus or metro.

Take subway line 1 and go to Tian An Men Xi or Tian An Men Dong station. Take any exit to find yourself in Tiananmen Square and cross it to the entrance to the Imperial City at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

You can take tourist bus no. 1 or 5 and get off at Qian Men or take one of the local buses that follow the lines:

特1, 特2, 特4, 5, 特7, 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17, 20, 22, 31, 34, 37, 44, 48, 58, 53, 54, 59, 110, 120, 205, 329, 329, 509, 703, 726, 728, 289, 742, 744, 784, 803, 808, 819, 820, 821, 826, 826, 848, 859 and 922. These lines will take you to the Qianmen or Tiananmen stop.

The best times to visit the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is open from April to October from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Tickets are available until 4:00 p.m. and the last entry is allowed until 4:10 p.m.
From November to March, the Forbidden City is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets are available until 3:30 p.m. and the last entry is allowed until 3:40 p.m.

The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays except public holidays and summer holidays from July 1 to August 31.

Chinese holiday periods are strongly discouraged for visiting the Forbidden City. It is taken over by a crowd of Chinese tourists, which prevents you from fully enjoying the grandeur of the place and appreciating all its treasures and history.

Entrance fees to the Forbidden City

April to October: CNY 60
From November to March: CNY 40
An additional CNY 10 will be requested to visit the clock museum.
Self-guide: CNY 40

Annual subscription: CNY 300 for adults, CNY 150 for seniors, students and children.
It allows the visitor to visit the museum 10 times a year. However, some galleries and special exhibitions are excluded from the subscription.

Sources: PinterPandai, Britannica, China Highlights, Smarthistory

Photo credit: Author: Pixelflake (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

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