The Forbidden City, also known as Former Palace’ 故宫 (Gugong) or ‘Former Palace’ in Chinese, served as China’s imperial palace and political center for centuries. Located in Beijing, China, it was the imperial residence under the Ming and Qing periods (1368–1922).
Grand halls and walls, befitting the capital city of the world’s greatest nation, boldly display the essence and climax of traditional Chinese architecture, earning the palace a place among the world’s five most important palaces.
Why is it called Forbidden City?
The emperor was thought to be a son of Heaven in ancient times, and therefore Heaven’s highest power was bestowed on him. The emperor’s dwelling was built facing north, as an earthly counterpart to the celestial Purple Palace, i.e. the North Star, but to house the Celestial Emperor.
As a divine location, it was obviously banned by regular people, hence the moniker “Forbidden City.” (紫禁城)
In China, it is now known as the “Former Palace” 故宫(Gugong).
Forbidden City History
In the year 2023, the Forbidden City will be 603 years old. On the command of Zhu Di, also known as Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle (reign 1402–24), it was constructed between the years 1406 and 1420.
He was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty and was known as Emperor Yongle. He usurped the throne from his nephew and assumed control. He made the decision to relocate the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, which was already under his control, so that he could strengthen his grip on imperial power and ensure his personal safety. As a consequence, Emperor Yongle gave Kuai Xiang the commission to plan the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The majority of the Forbidden City’s current residences were rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty as a result of three fires.
During the Second Opium War, which took place between 1856 and 1860, Anglo-French soldiers invaded the Forbidden City and maintained control of it until the conflict was resolved.
The last Emperor of China, Puyi, resided in the Forbidden City up until 1924, when he was forced to leave. After then, what is now known as the Palace Museum was established inside the Forbidden City and made accessible to the general public.
Forbidden City Layout
The complex consists of 980 structures, 9,999 rooms, and 720,000 m2 (72 ha)/178 acres. UNESCO has designated it as the world’s largest collection of surviving old wooden constructions. Since 2012, the Forbidden City has had an average of 14 million visitors each year, with over 19 million visits in 2019.
The market value of the Forbidden City was projected to be 70 billion USD in 2018, making it both the world’s most valuable palace and the most valuable piece of real estate anyplace in the world.The Forbidden City in Beijing is one of the world’s largest and best-preserved wooden constructions. In 1961, it was included in the first batch of national significant cultural treasures.
There are three distinct areas that make up the Forbidden City: the fortifications (which consist of a moat and wall), the Outer Court, and the Inner Court.
Gates and Walls of the Forbidden City — for Defense
The Meridian Gate (Wumen in Chinese) is the Forbidden City’s principal entrance. It had three entrances. The emperor was the only one who could pass through the middle one. The emperor issued imperial edicts and war orders from here.
The Meridian Gate serves as the entryway to the Forbidden City. To access the Meridian Gate, visitors must first pass through Tian’anmen (the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”).
The Outer Court—Ceremonial Purposes
The outer court is comprised of three major structures where emperors attended large occasions. Emperors held court in the Hall of Supreme Harmony during the Ming Dynasty to conduct state issues.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), the most important and largest edifice in the Forbidden City, awaits you. This hall houses the Emperors’ Dragon Throne (Longyi). It was mostly utilized for ceremonial events during the Qing Dynasty, such as coronations, investitures, and imperial weddings.
The Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian), located behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is the emperor’s resting area before presiding over big events hosted in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Before traveling to the Temple of Heaven for the sacrifice ceremonies, Emperors would practice their speeches and presentations here.
The final hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian), which was originally used for feasts and was later utilized for imperial examinations.
There are a few side gardens to explore with intriguing halls. If you want to see them and have more time to explore the palace, please consult with your local guide.
The Inner Court — The Emperor and His Family’s Residence
The emperors spent the majority of their time in the Inner Court throughout the Qing Dynasty.
A large layer of marble sculpted with cloud and dragon motifs may be found outside the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Continue straight till you reach the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingmen). This is the primary entrance to the inner living court.
At the northern end of the Forbidden City, the inner court has three primary structures:
- The Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong) is the first structure inside the inner court. It was the emperor’s home prior to Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1722–35). It afterwards served as the Emperor’s audience hall.
- The second structure is the Palace of Union and Peace (Jiaotaidian), which houses the imperial seals.
- The Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility (Kunninggong) is the third hall. It was the empress’s house during the Ming Dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, it was used for shamanist worship. On the emperor’s wedding night, it was also used.
Architecture of Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is remarkable not just because of its size but also because of the extraordinary architectural design it possesses. The following are five primary characteristics:
1. South-North Orientation and Axial Symmetry
All of the most significant gates and halls of the Forbidden City were designed to be symmetrically situated on the central axis of old Beijing, which runs north to south. The emperor’s great power, which Heaven had granted him, and the fact that the city in which he resided was the globe’s center were both represented by this action.
Heaven was believed to be Polaris, also known as the North Star, which is the only star in the northern sky that appears to remain in the same position. The arrangement of the Forbidden City directs visitors directly toward “Heaven.“
2. Nailless Wooden Structures
The Forbidden City is the world’s largest and most complete complex of ancient wooden constructions.
The primary frames of all structures were constructed with high-quality hardwood beams and columns, including entire trunks of priceless Phoebe zhennan wood from southwest China’s jungles.
Carpenters in the Forbidden City employed interlocking mortise and tenon connections to build the huge palace buildings “harmoniously,” without nails. Nails were thought to be violent and harmful.
3. Yellow-Red Color Scheme
Yellow and crimson red are the primary hues found throughout the Forbidden City. The majority of the building’s surfaces, including walls, pillars, doors, and windows, were painted red. In Chinese culture, the color red is regarded as a symbol of good fortune and pleasure.
Only members of the imperial family were permitted to wear yellow during the Ming and Qing dynasties because it was considered a sign of absolute power. When you reach the summit of “Scenery Hill” at Jingshan Park and look out over the Forbidden City, you will notice that the roofs of the surrounding buildings are covered with a vast expanse of yellow-glazed tile.
4. Rooftop Celestial Animal Statuettes
A row of celestial animal statuettes borders the ridge line of hallways that were exclusively used for official purposes.
In Chinese tradition, creatures such as dragons, phoenixes, and lions have tremendous symbolism.
The roof ridge statuettes in the Hall of Supreme Harmony are as follows: ‘Series Ten’ (行什), unique to this roof, an anti-thunder monkey deity, dragon, phoenix, lion, sea horse, Heavenly Steed, a fish dragon, a Haetae (sheep-like dragon), a lion-like dragon, and a bull-like dragon.
The number of celestial animals varies according to the value of the buildings. There are ten animals on the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important structure in the Forbidden City, and seven on the Empress’s house, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.
5. Stone/Bronze Lions
The lion is considered to be the most powerful of all creatures in Chinese culture, and as such, it serves as a symbol of both power and strength.
Stone and bronze lions are commonly used as symbolic protectors, and you may see them standing next to the gates of numerous palace complexes within the Forbidden City. The lions are always found in pairs, with the female lion always standing to the left of the male lion and the male lion always standing to the right.
15 Interesting Facts
1. The Forbidden City is the world’s largest imperial palace
The Forbidden City is bigger than the Louvre Palace in France by more than three times. It is 720,000 sq m (7,750,000 sq ft) big. An estimated one million people worked to finish the building.
It has more than 90 palace quarters and gardens, 980 buildings, and more than 8,728 rooms. (A popular myth says there are 9,999.5 rooms, but surveys don’t back up this claim.)
The Vatican is 440,000 square meters big, while the Kremlin is only 275,000 square meters big. The size and scale of this old palace with a wall around it are very stunning.
2. The Forbidden City has European and Arabic architecture
An unusual building with a strong Arabic style stands to the west of the Forbidden City. It was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and is called Yude Hall (浴德堂). A Persian builder created the bathroom in Arabic style.
Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Yongle Emperor, also known as Zhu Di, built the Forbidden City on the site of the Yuan Dynasty’s main city. A lot of the buildings were torn down, but Yude Hall was saved, which is good.
The other building is Lingzhao Xuan in Yanxi Palace. It looks like it was built in Europe. Since there had been several fires at Yanxi Palace, the Qing court wanted to build a fireproof building with a pool at the bottom out of steel and stone. Since most Chinese buildings were made of wood, this used some European building techniques. But it was stopped in the middle of the building because there wasn’t enough money, and there was a revolution at the end of the Qing Dynasty.
3. The beautiful Outer Court is treeless
The Forbidden City has an Outer Court for ceremonies and an Inner Court for living. In the Inner Court, there are many trees, but there are none in the Outer Court.
No one can say for sure why there aren’t any trees in the Outer Court. There are, however, two main theories:
- Since the Outer Court was where solemn public events were held and the “supreme godly power” and imperial dignity of the emperors were shown, trees were not allowed because they would block the view or ruin the atmosphere of majesty.
- If there were no plants, there would be nowhere for attackers to hide, and there would be a clear line of sight for defense.
4. 24 emperors of China lived in the Forbidden City
Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, started building it in 1406. It was done in 1420. 14 Ming rulers ruled there until the Manchus took over in 1644. For a few months, the capital was moved to Shenyang.
Soon after, the Qing Dynasty moved the capital back to Beijing, where the Forbidden City was located. From there, 10 Qing rulers ruled until the last one gave up power in 1912, when the Republic of China was formed.
5. The Forbidden City is a Chinese architectural marvel
The Forbidden City has more well-preserved wooden buildings from the Middle Ages than any other place in the world.
Aside from how big the complex is, the design of the building is also amazing. Every part of the building shows elements of traditional Chinese design and the rich culture of China. For instance:
- Except for the “East Glory” Gate (Donghua Gate), all of the gates in the Forbidden City have a nine-by-nine grid of golden door-studs. In Chinese tradition, the number nine means power and eternity.
- Along the ridges of the roofs of the important rooms were rows of statues of celestial animals like dragons, phoenixes, and lions. This was done to bring about wealth and good fortunes.
6. The Palace Museum is one of the largest cultural museums in the world
The Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, houses the world’s best collection of Chinese historical treasures. It is regarded as one of the top museums in the world, with collections spanning thousands of years of Chinese history.
While viewing the complex, visitors can see a beautiful collection of historical relics and buildings. Gardens, courtyards, and treasures of historical value to China and the world are extensively exhibited.
7. Birds cannot settle on Forbidden City roofs
When touring the Forbidden City, you may notice that there are no birds perched on the roofs. This is due to the unique design of the roofing.
To prevent birds from landing on the roofs and maintain the cleanliness and magnificence of the Forbidden City, the clever craftsmen devised a solution: they raised the slope of each roof and made the roof spine wider than the width between a bird’s claws, preventing birds from landing on the roofs.
The roofs are also built of glazed tile. Because these tiles are so slippery, birds cannot land on them.
8. The hues of the Forbidden City are based on Feng Shui principles
The Forbidden City’s primary colors are red and yellow.
Yellow is the color of the rooftops. Yellow is associated with the earth element in Chinese five elements philosophy, and its orientation in the five elements diagram indicates the center, indicating the emperor’s (on Earth) sovereignty.
The walls and pillars were painted red. Because red denotes fire and earth, the royal family believed that red pillars would provide a sturdy foundation and strong support.
Because of their intended use, several buildings were constructed in a variety of hues. For example, the Wenyuan Pavilion, which is used for book collection, has black tiles and black walls. Because black indicates water and water can resist fire, it was thought to be a good means to keep the collections safe through geomancy.
9. 40% of the Forbidden City remains inaccessible
The Palace Museum is already large enough to keep you busy for an entire day. Can you believe that’s only 60% of what’s now available to the public?
Work zones, areas that have not been fixed, and areas utilized for particular purposes, such as storing cultural artifacts, are examples of closed areas.
10. The Forbidden City has ‘gold bricks’ floor tiles
The hall floor tiles are really precious. They’re not made of gold, but they’re the same price! As a result, they were dubbed ‘gold bricks’. A ‘gold brick’ required 29 operations to create.
According to a current artisan who creates such floor tiles, it takes a year to replicate the ancient method of brick production, with a yield of just 20% usability.
Two authentic Forbidden City floor tiles from the Yongle period (1402-24) sold for 800,000 yuan in a collectors’ market.
11. The Forbidden City has cat guardians
In the Forbidden City, there are now over 100 cats. Some of these may be encountered when visiting the Forbidden City.
Why are there cats in the Forbidden City? It’s because many concubines in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1922) regimes owned cats.
Despite the collapse of the dynasties, those cats stayed in the Forbidden City for generations. As a result, some of the cats in the Forbidden City are descended from those royal cats.
Others are stray cats who have entered the Forbidden City from outside.
These cats will circle a specific area, patrol every corner, and catch mice. They use their strength to protect the Forbidden City.
12. Taiwan holds some of the museum’s collection
A number of China’s most valuable cultural artifacts were removed from the Forbidden City in 1933 in preparation for the possibility of an invasion by Japan. Following the conclusion of World War II, certain items from the collection were sent back, while others were transferred to the National Palace Museum, which is located in Taipei.
13. Fire protection is essential in Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is one of the world’s largest and best-preserved ancient timber constructions. There will be irreversible effects if a fire starts.
There are 94 subterranean hydrants, 4,866 fire extinguishers, and 55 preplanned firefighting activities throughout the Forbidden City.
In the Forbidden City, there is a specific fire brigade specializing in fire prevention. Every day, they inspect the fire equipment. Running along the city walls with fire hoses is one of their daily training activities.
Because fire engines cannot enter most of the palaces, firefighters must memorize the whole layout of the Forbidden City. In the event of a fire, they must run as quickly as possible to extinguish it.
14. The Forbidden City is the China attraction with most international tourist visits
Both domestic and international visitors flock to see the Forbidden City for its historical and aesthetic value. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Every year, 14 million people visit the Palace Museum, which is more than any other section of the Great Wall.
Because of the overwhelming number of people, lines can often be rather lengthy, particularly on days that are nationally recognized as holidays and on weekends. The Chinese government is exerting a great deal of effort to ensure that the continuous flow of tourists is well-regulated and to prevent the massive crowds from causing any damage to the historic buildings.
Everyone who has the opportunity to travel to Beijing should make it a point to check out the palace.
15. Jingshan Park is a must-see on a trip to the Forbidden City
Visit the nearby Jingshan Park to get a bird’s-eye perspective of the entire Forbidden City complex from atop a hill. This is a great place to get a sense of how big the Forbidden City really is.
The best way to round up your visit to the Forbidden City is with a stroll around Jingshan Park, which can be reached on foot in just a few minutes.