Go inside China's Forbidden City—domain of the emperor and his court for nearly 500 years

Access to this vast complex of grand palaces, abundant gardens, and sacred pavilions was off limits to most of imperial China's people, who could only imagine the grandeur beyond the gates.

By Verónica Walker
Published 14 Sept 2022, 16:25 BST
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Raised some 100 feet above the central great courtyard, the Forbidden City’s grandest structure houses only the Dragon Throne, ceremonial seat of the Ming and Qing emperors’ imperial power for five centuries.
Photograph by Age Fotostock

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 centre of imperial China between 1420 and 1912. Its forbidding moniker reflected how most subjects of the realm were never allowed to enter its walls.

The entire complex is filled with palaces, gardens, courtyards, and living quarters. 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 labourers to build the Beijing complex between 1406 and 1420, on the site where Kublai Khan had once built his famous palace.

These Chinese characters say Zijincheng, “purple forbidden city,” the full name of the imperial complex in Beijing.
Photograph by Age Fotostock

The Forbidden City’s name in Chinese, Zijincheng, literally means “purple forbidden city.” The colour purple is considered auspicious in Chinese culture and symbolises divinity and immortality, as well as the North Star. 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). When the Manchu Qing emperors overthrew the Ming, they added new structures and gardens, but the complex’s importance remained undiminished.

Sacred geometry

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. The layout follows the principles of feng shui (the art of placing objects and buildings to promote positive energy). The palace complex is aligned north-south and is symmetrical to emulate 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.”

This 15th-century tempera on silk painting depicts the many palaces, pavilions, and courtyards of the Forbidden City.
Photograph by Fine Art, Album

The key spaces within the Forbidden City are distributed along a central axis that bisects the grounds. Seen from above, the complex forms a shape that aligns with the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology, referring to the centre point between north, south, east, and west. At this central point stands the Hall of Supreme Harmony housing the main imperial seat, known as the Dragon Throne. By placing this at the Forbidden City’s epicentre, the emperor was symbolically transformed into the very centre of the universe, the focus for all social and natural hierarchy around which the entire empire revolved.

A Chinese tradition held that those who are located in the north, facing the south, have a superior position, just as those inside a building or in an elevated space are superior to those outside or in a lower space. These spatial relationships were reflected explicitly in the architecture of the Forbidden City. The emperor always stood inside a gateway or in an elevated room looking toward the south from above, while his subjects stood below in open courtyards looking north toward the emperor.

Third ruler of the Ming dynasty, the Yongle emperor moved the Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1403.
Photograph by Album, Pictures from History, Universal Images Group

The emperor’s private rooms are located in the Inner Court, at the north end; besides himself, only women and eunuchs were permitted access. State rooms, where the emperor granted audiences and did official work with his ministers, are to the south in the Outer Court. It was here that the Chinese imperial court managed its contact with the outside world, using the Forbidden City’s magnificent architecture as a stage to showcase the emperor’s power.

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 significant when organizing ceremonies such as the emperor’s ascension to the throne, the great audiences that he held, celebrations of his birthday, and issuing government decrees.

These kinds of ceremonies followed the same ritual organization. The emperor would lead the way to the place where the ceremony was to take place, with his officials and nobles following through doors and crossing bridges in strict order of social hierarchy. At no point was anyone allowed to stand to the north of the emperor.

Historical descriptions of the imperial audiences reflect how the social order was emphasized through strict protocols. Attendees would gather at dawn in the exterior courtyard of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Relatives of the emperor stood on the steps leading up to the hall, placed according to the closeness of their blood ties with the emperor. Military and civil officers formed rows in the outer court, again according to their rank. All faced north toward the emperor who, dressed in imperial finery decorated with the figure of a dragon, was led to the throne by a procession. Once all were in place, at the shouted signal “Kowtow!” the attendees knelt down and paid homage to the emperor by touching their heads to the ground three times in three sequences of three prostrations.

Bronze incense burners were lit during celebrations in the courtyard of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Photograph by AKG, Album

The emperor attended the most important ceremonies in person. Even when he was absent, the Dragon Throne was still revered and treated as his proxy. Similarly, when the emperor issued a decree, the imperial document itself was treated with great pomp. Each of these ceremonies emphasised, through ritual, a way of understanding the universe in clearly defined hierarchical strata. The Forbidden City reinforced each dynasty’s power and control.

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 next year, the Republic of China made the site a national museum.

The entire Forbidden City is surrounded by a wall more than 25 feet high. At each of the four corners stands an elaborate tower like this one at the northwest corner.
Photograph by Mirko Kuzmanovic, Alamy, ACI

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.

Wufeng Lou (Five-Phoenix Tower) is the imposing southern entrance to the Forbidden City. It is also known as the Meridian Gate because it was believed that the meridian line passed through the palace complex. The emperor issued his imperial decrees in this most auspicious place. The gate is set in the external wall’s centre and has a lateral wing extending out on 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.). 

The Meridian Gate is the main entrance to the Forbidden City at its most southern point. Here the wall surrounding the complex reaches a height of more than 40 feet.
Photograph by Xiaolei Wu, Alamy, ACI

Five doors open through the Meridian Gate’s tower for access to the complex. The centre door was solely the emperor’s. The only exceptions were for the empress on her wedding day and for the top three national exam scholars. Standing almost 125 feet high, the central structure is almost 200 feet long and has a double roof of glazed tiles. At each end are stands of bells and drums. Whenever the emperor left the Forbidden City to go to the sacrificial Altar of Heaven, bells would ring. When the most important ceremonies were celebrated in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, drumming would join the bell ringing.

Crossing the Golden River

According to the principles of feng shui, every mountain must have water flowing before it. The area that lies beyond the Meridian Gate adheres to this principle. The courtyard there is divided from west to east by the Golden River, which flows in front of the monumental Gate of Supreme Harmony. The artificial river enters the city from the northwest and flows out into the moat at 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 was a reservoir in case of fire, a serious threat for a city made largely 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 symbolising one of the five Confucian virtues expected of the emperor’s subjects: benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), wisdom (zhi), trustworthiness (xin), and ritual propriety (li). The five bridges are like five arrows that cause these virtues to emanate from the imperial centre, out into the world. In addition to their symbolic value, the bridges were used to underscore the culture’s strict social hierarchy: the central bridge could only be crossed by the emperor, the two flanking it were used by the royal family, and the outermost two were for the court officials.

Scared Halls of Harmony

In the centre 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. All three halls in the Outer Court are roofed with yellow glazed tiles—yellow being the imperial colour. Each hall has a throne from which the emperor presided over ceremonies and celebrations. The most important was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which housed the Dragon Throne. Auspicious public rituals took place here, including enthronements and royal weddings. 

The smaller, brighter Hall of Central Harmony, to the north, was used for imperial acts such as receiving obeisance or examining government documents. Farther north is the Hall of Preserving Harmony—a name that alluded to the imperial function of sharing harmony under heaven. It was used under the Ming as the emperor’s place to don ceremonial clothes. Under the Qing, it was the setting for banquets with 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 relationship between emperors and dragons is made plain inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the Dragon Throne sits. 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. Five coiled dragons appear on the back, representing the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth). Behind it is a carved panel depicting nine dragons. Just above, the image of a coiled dragon adorns the intricately coffered ceiling. When an emperor, clad in ceremonial robes decorated with the dragon emblem, took his place on the throne, he was seen as being at the epicenter not just of China but of the civilised world. 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 four gardens in the palace complex and has four pavilions in its corners, representing the four seasons. 

One of them, the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Springs, is dedicated to spring. Its square base represents the earth, while its rounded roof is heaven adorned by dragons and phoenixes. In the centre of this tranquil setting stands the Hall of Imperial Peace, a Taoist temple where the Ming emperors practiced alchemy and divination. The main hall was dedicated to Xuanwu (also westernized as Zhenwu), a powerful Taoist warrior-god associated with the north and with water. This hall is the only Taoist temple located on the main axis of 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 favourite place to compose poetry.

Approaching the gate

Built in 1420, the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shen­wumen) is the northern entrance to the Forbid­den City. It opened into the emperor’s private residence and was used by palace workers, the emperor’s concubines, and members of 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. Naming anything sounding too much like the emperor’s name was taboo. 

Behind the Imperial Garden stands the monumental gateway known as the Gate of Divine Prowess. This auspicious structure led into the emperor’s private quarters at the north end of the Forbidden City.
Photograph by Shutterstock

The Gate of Divine Prowess is rectangular, stands 102 feet high, and has three doors. It has a Xumi base made of white jade for a Buddhist tower. A tower tops the gate, with a roof of brightly glazed yellow tiles. A bell and a drum were kept in the tower. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the bell would be struck 108 times at dusk. Then, the bell and the drum would sound once every two hours from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. At dawn, the bell would be struck again. But when the emperor was home, only the drum would be beaten. 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.


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