The Forbidden City
or Forbidden Palace located at the exact centre of the ancient City of Beijing,
was the imperial palace during the mid-Ming and the Qing dynasties.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming
Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing,
China and now houses the Palace Museum. For almost five centuries, it
served as the home of the Emperor and his household, and the ceremonial and
political centre of Chinese government.
Built from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 surviving buildings with
8,707 bays of rooms and covers
720,000 square metres. The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese
palatial architecture, and
has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and
elsewhere. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987,
and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden
structures in the world.
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Since 1924, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace
Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artefacts were built upon the
imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Part of the museum's former
collection is now located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Both museums
descend from the same institution, but were split after the Chinese Civil War.
The common English name, "the Forbidden City," is a translation of the
Chinese name Zijin Cheng (Chinese: 紫禁城;
pinyin: Zǐjinchéng; literally "Purple
Forbidden City"). Another English name of similar origin is "Forbidden Palace".
In the Manchu language it is called Dabkūri dorgi hoton (Manchu:
which literally means the "Layered Inner City."
The name "Zijin Cheng" is a name imbued with significance on many
levels. Zi, or "Purple", refers to the North Star, which in ancient China
was called the Ziwei Star, and in traditional Chinese astrology was the
abode of the Celestial Emperor. The surrounding celestial region, the Ziwei
Enclosure (Chinese: 紫微垣; pinyin:
Zǐwēiyuán), was the realm of the
Celestial Emperor and his family. The Forbidden City, as the residence of the
terrestrial emperor, was its earthly counterpart. Jin, or "Forbidden",
referred to the fact that no-one could enter or leave the palace without the
emperor's permission. Cheng means a walled city.
Today, the site is most commonly known in Chinese as Gugong (故宫),
which means the "Former Palace." The
museum which is based in these buildings is known as the "Palace Museum"
(Chinese: 故宫博物院; pinyin:
The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming Dynasty painting
The site of the Forbidden City was part of the Imperial city during the
Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Upon the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu
Emperor moved the capital from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the south, and
ordered that the Mongol palaces be razed. When his son Zhu Di became the Yongle
Emperor, he moved the capital to Beijing, and construction began in 1406 of what
would become the Forbidden City.
Construction lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers.
Material used include whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood
(Chinese: 楠木; pinyin:
nánmù) found in the jungles of
south-western China, and large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing.
 The floors of major halls were
paved with "golden bricks" (Chinese: 金砖;
pinyin: jīnzhuān), specially baked paving
bricks from Suzhou.
From 1420 to 1644, the Forbidden City was the seat of the Ming Dynasty. In
April 1644, it was captured by rebel forces led by Li Zicheng, who proclaimed
himself emperor of the Shun Dynasty.
He soon fled before the combined armies of former Ming general Wu Sangui and
Manchu forces, setting fire to parts of the Forbidden City in the process.
By October, the Manchus had achieved supremacy in northern China, and a ceremony
was held at the Forbidden City to proclaim the young Shunzhi Emperor as ruler of
all China under the Qing Dynasty.
The Qing rulers changed the names of the principal buildings, to emphasise
"Harmony" rather than "Supremacy",
made the name plates bilingual (Chinese and Manchu),
and introduced Shamanist elements to the palace.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, Anglo-French forces took control of the
Forbidden City and occupied it until the end of the war.
In 1900 Empress Dowager Cixi fled from the Forbidden City during the Boxer
Rebellion, leaving it to be occupied by forces of the treaty powers until the
In 1912, Puyi, the last Emperor of China, abdicated. Puyi sold many treasures
to finance his expensive lifestyle, while others were stolen by palace eunuchs.
Under an agreement with the new Republic of China government, Puyi remained in
the Inner Court, while the Outer Court was given over to public use,
until he was evicted after a coup in 1924.
The Palace Museum was then established in the Forbidden City.
In 1933, the Japanese invasion of China forced the evacuation of the national
treasures in the Forbidden City.
Part of the collection was returned at the end of World War II,
but the other part was evacuated to Taiwan in 1947 under orders by Chiang
Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang was losing the Chinese Civil War. This relatively
small but high quality collection was kept in storage for many years since the
KMT still hoped to return to the mainland. Finally, in 1965, they again became
public, at the core of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, some
damage was done to the Forbidden City as the country was swept up in
revolutionary zeal. During the
Cultural Revolution, however, further destruction was prevented when Premier
Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the city.
The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO as
the "Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties",
due to its significant place in the development of Chinese architecture and
culture. It is currently administered by the Palace Museum, which is currently
carrying out a sixteen-year restoration project to repair and restore all
buildings in the Forbidden City to their pre-1912 state.
In recent years, the presence of commercial enterprises in the Forbidden City
has become controversial. A
Starbucks store, which opened in
2000, sparked objections
 and eventually closed on July 13,
2007. Chinese media also took notice of a pair of souvenir shops that refused to
admit Chinese citizens in order to price-gouge foreign customers in 2006.
The Forbidden City is the world's largest surviving palace complex and covers
72 ha. It is a rectangle 961 metres from north to south and 753 metres from east
to west. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms.
The Forbidden City was designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of
Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The
Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the
The Forbidden City remains important in the civic scheme of Beijing. The
central north-south axis remains the central axis of Beijing. This axis extends
to the south through Tiananmen gate to Tiananmen Square, the ceremonial centre
of the People's Republic of China. To the north, it extends through the Bell and
Drum Towers to Yongdingmen.
Interestingly, this axis is not exactly aligned north-south, but is tilted by
slightly more than two degrees. Researchers now believe that the axis was
designed in the Yuan Dynasty to be aligned with Xanadu, the other capital of the
The throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity
Walls and gates
The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 7.9-metre high city wall
and a six-metre deep, 52-metre wide moat. The walls are 8.62 metres wide at the
base, tapering to 6.66 metres at the top.
These walls served as both defensive walls and retaining walls for the palace.
They were constructed with a rammed earth core, and surfaced with three layers
of specially baked bricks on both sides, with the interstices filled with
At the four corners of the wall sit towers ("E") with intricate roofs
boasting 72 ridges, reproducing the Pavilion of Prince Teng and the Yellow Crane
Pavilion as they appeared in Song Dynasty paintings.
These towers are the most visible parts of the palace to commoners outside the
walls, and much folklore is attached to them. According to one legend, artisans
could not put a corner tower back together after it was dismantled for
renovations in the early Qing Dynasty, and it was only rebuilt after the
intervention of carpenter-immortal Lu Ban.
The wall is pierced by a gate on each side. At the southern end is the main
Meridian Gate ("A"). To the north
is the Gate of Divine Might ("B"), which faces Jingshan Park. The east and west
gates are called the "East Glorious Gate" ("D") and "West Glorious Gate" ("C").
All gates in the Forbidden City are decorated with a nine-by-nine array of
golden door nails, except for the East Glorious Gate, which has only eight rows.
The Meridian Gate has two protruding wings forming three sides of a square (Wumen,
or Meridian Gate, Square) before it.
The gate has five gateways. The central gateway is part of the Imperial Way, a
stone flagged path that forms the central axis of the Forbidden City and the
ancient city of Beijing itself, and leads all the way from the Gate of China in
the south to Jingshan in the north. Only the Emperor may walk or ride on the
Imperial Way, except for the Empress on the occasion of her wedding, and
successful students after the Imperial Examination.
Traditionally, the Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The Outer Court
(外朝) or Front Court (前朝) includes the southern sections, and was used for
ceremonial purposes. The Inner Court (内廷) or Back Palace (后宫) includes the
northern sections, and was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was
used for day-to-day affairs of state. (The approximate dividing line shown as
red dash in the plan above). Generally, the Forbidden City has three vertical
axes. The most important buildings are situated on the central north-south axis.
Entering from the Meridian Gate, one encounters a large square, pierced by
the meandering Inner Golden Water River, which is crossed by five bridges.
Beyond the square stands the Gate of Supreme Harmony ("F"). Behind that is the
Hall of Supreme Harmony Square.
A three-tiered white marble terrace rises from this square. Three halls stand on
top of this terrace, the focus of the palace complex. From the south, these are
the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿), the Hall of Central Harmony (中和殿), and the
Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿).
The Hall of Supreme Harmony ("G") is the largest, and rises some 30 metres
above the level of the surrounding square. It is the ceremonial centre of
imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It is nine
bays wide and five bays deep, the numbers nine and five being symbolically
connected to the majesty of the Emperor.
Set into the ceiling at the centre of the hall is an intricate caisson decorated
with a coiled dragon, from the mouth of which issues a chandelier-like set of
metal balls, called the "Xuanyuan Mirror".
In the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor held court here to discuss affairs of state.
During the Qing Dynasty, as Emperors held court far more frequently, the Hall of
Supreme Harmony was only used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations,
investitures, and imperial weddings.
The Hall of Central Harmony is a smaller, square hall, used by the Emperor to
prepare and rest before and during ceremonies.
Behind it, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was used for rehearsing ceremonies,
and was also the site of the final stage of the Imperial examination.
All three halls feature imperial thrones, the largest and most elaborate one
being that in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
At the centre of the ramps leading up to the terraces from the northern and
southern sides are ceremonial ramps, part of the Imperial Way, featuring
elaborate and symbolic bas-relief carvings. The northern ramp, behind the Hall
of Preserving Harmony, is carved from a single piece of stone 16.57 metres long,
3.07 metres wide, and 1.7 metres thick. It weighs some 200 tonnes and is the
largest such carving in China.
The southern ramp, in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is even longer, but
is made from two stone slabs joined together — the joint was ingeniously hidden
using overlapping bas-relief carvings, and was only discovered when weathering
widened the gap in the 20th century.
In the south west and south east of the Outer Court are the halls of Military
Eminence ("H") and Literary Glory ("J"). The former was used at various times
for the Emperor to receive ministers and hold court, and later housed the
Palace's own printing house. The latter was used for ceremonial lectures by
highly regarded Confucian scholars, and later became the office of the Grand
Secretariat. A copy of the Siku Quanshu was stored there. To the
north-east are the Southern Three Places (南三所) ("K"), which was the residence of
the Crown Prince.
A gilded bronze lion in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity.
The Inner Court is separated from the Outer Court by an oblong courtyard
lying orthogonal to the City's main axis. It is the home of the Emperor and his
family. In the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor lived and worked almost exclusively in
the Inner Court, with the Outer Court used only for ceremonial purposes.
At the centre of the Inner Court is another set of three halls ("L"). From
the south, these are the Palace of Heavenly Purity(乾清宮), Hall of Union, and the
Palace of Earthly Tranquility. Smaller than the Outer Court halls, the three
halls of the Inner Court were the official residences of the Emperor and the
Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, would occupy the Palace
of Heavenly Purity. The Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, would occupy
the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. In between them was the Hall of Union, where
the Yin and Yang mixed to produce harmony.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity is a double-eaved building, and set on a
single-level white marble platform. It is connected to the Gate of Heavenly
Purity to its south by a raised walkway. In the Ming Dynasty, it was the
residence of the Emperor. However, beginning from the Yongzheng Emperor of the
Qing Dynasty, the Emperor lived instead at the smaller Hall of Mental
Cultivation to the west, out of respect to the memory of the Kangxi Emperor.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity then became the Emperor's audience hall.
A caisson is set into the roof, featuring a coiled dragon. Above the throne
hangs a tablet reading "Justice and Honour" (Chinese:
The Palace of Earthly Tranquility(乾清宮) is a double-eaved building, 9 bays
wide and 3 bays deep. In the Ming Dynasty, it was the residence of the Empress.
In the Qing Dynasty, large portions of the Palace were converted for Shamanist
worship by the new Manchu rulers. From the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, the
Empress moved out of the Palace. However, two rooms in the Palace of Earthly
Harmony were retained for use on the Emperor's wedding night.
garden of the Forbidden City
Between these two palaces is the Hall of Union, which is square in shape with
a pyramidal roof. Stored here are the twenty-five Imperial Seals of the Qing
Dynasty, as well as other ceremonial items.
Behind these three halls lies the Imperial Garden ("M"). Relatively small,
and compact in design, the garden nevertheless contains several elaborate
landscaping features. To the
north of the garden is the Gate of Divine Might, the north gate of the palace.
Distributed to the east and west of the three main halls are a series of
self-contained courtyards and minor palaces, where the Emperor's concubines and
children lived. Directly to the west is the Hall of Mental Cultivation ("N").
Originally a minor palace, this became the de facto residence and office
of the Emperor starting from Yongzheng. In the last decades of the Qing Dynasty,
empresses dowager, including Cixi, held court from the eastern partition of the
hall. Located around the Hall of Mental Cultivation are the offices of the Grand
Council and other key government bodies.
The north-eastern section of the Inner Court is taken up by the Palace of
Tranquil Longevity ("O"), a complex built by the Qianlong Emperor in
anticipation of his retirement. It mirrors the set-up of the Forbidden City
proper and features an "outer court", an "inner court", and gardens and temples.
The entrance to the Palace of Tranquil Longevity is marked by a glazed-tile Nine
Religion was an important part of life for the imperial court. In the Qing
Dynasty, the Palace of Earthly Harmony became a place of Manchu Shamanist
ceremony. At the same time, the native Chinese Taoist religion continued to have
an important role throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. There were two Taoist
shrines, one in the imperial garden and another in the central area of the Inner
A prevalent form of religion in the Qing Dynasty palace was Tibetan Buddhism,
or Lamaism. A number of temples and shrines were scattered throughout the Inner
Court. Buddhist iconography also proliferated in the interior decorations of
many buildings. Of these,
the Pavilion of the Rain of Flowers is one of the most important. It housed a
large number of Buddhist statues, icons, and mandalas, placed in ritualistic
Sunset at the Forbidden City, Beijing (Northwest
The Forbidden City is surrounded on three sides by imperial gardens. To the
north is Jingshan Park, also known as Coal Hill, an artificial hill created from
the soil excavated to build the moat and from nearby lakes.
To the west lies Zhongnanhai, a former garden centred on two connected lakes,
which now serves as the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China
and the State Council of the People's Republic of China. To the north-west lies
Beihai Park, also centred on a lake connected to the southern two, and a popular
To the south of the Forbidden City were two important shrines — the Imperial
Shrine of Family (Chinese: 太庙; pinyin:
Tàimiào) and the Imperial Shrine of State
(Chinese: 太社稷; pinyin:
Tàishèjì), where the Emperor would
venerate the spirits of his ancestors and the spirit of the nation,
respectively. Today, these are the Beijing Labouring People's Cultural Hall
and Zhongshan Park (commemorating Sun Yat-sen) respectively.
To the south, two nearly identical gatehouses stand along the main axis. They
are the Upright Gate (Chinese: 端门; pinyin:
Duānmén) and the more famous Tiananmen
Gate, which is decorated with a portrait of Mao Zedong in the centre and two
placards to the left and right: "Long Live the People's Republic of China" and
"Long live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples". The Tiananmen Gate connects
the Forbidden City precinct with the modern, symbolic centre of the Chinese
state, Tiananmen Square.
While development is now tightly controlled in the vicinity of the Forbidden
City, throughout the past century uncontrolled and sometimes politically
motivated demolition and reconstruction has changed the character of the areas
surrounding the Forbidden City. Since 2000, the Beijing municipal government has
worked to evict governmental and military institutions occupying some historical
buildings, and has established a park around the remaining parts of the Imperial
City wall. In 2004, an ordinance relating to building height and planning
restriction was renewed to establish the Imperial City area and the northern
city area as a buffer zone for the Forbidden City.
In 2005, the Imperial City and Beihai (as an extension item to the Summer
Palace) were included in the shortlist for the next World Heritage Site in
The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest
detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious
principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. Some noted
examples of symbolic designs include:
- Yellow is the colour of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the
Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions. The
library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity (文渊阁) had black tiles because
black was associated with water, and thus fire-prevention. Similarly, the
Crown Prince's residences have green tiles because green was associated with
wood, and thus growth.
- The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups
of three — the shape of the Qian triagram, representing Heaven. The
residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of
six — the shape of the Kun triagram, representing the Earth.
- The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of
statuettes. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building —
a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the
only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times. As a
result, its 10th statuette (called a "Hangshi", or "ranked tenth"
Chinese: 行什; pinyin:
is also unique in pre-modern buildings.
- The layout of buildings follows ancient customs laid down in the
Classic of Rites. Thus, ancestral temples are in front of the palace.
Storage areas are placed in the front part of the palace complex, and
residences in the back.
court yard Wall
The collections of the Palace Museum are based on the Qing imperial
collection. According to the results of a 1925 audit,
some 1.17 million items were stored in the Forbidden City. In addition, the
imperial libraries housed one of the country's largest collections of ancient
books and various documents, including government documents of the Ming and Qing
From 1933, the threat of Japanese invasion forced the evacuation of the most
important parts of the Museum's collection. After the end of World War II, this
collection was returned to Nanjing. However, with the Communists' victory
imminent in the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist government decided to ship
the pick of this collection to Taiwan. Of the 13,427 boxes of evacuated
artefacts , 2,972 boxes are now housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Almost ten thousand boxes were returned to Beijing, but 2,221 boxes remain today
in storage under the charge of the Nanjing Museum.
After 1949, the Museum conducted a new audit as well as a thorough search of
the Forbidden City, uncovering a number of important items. In addition, the
government moved items from other museums around the country to replenish the
Palace Museum's collection. It also purchased and received donations from the
The Palace Museum holds 340,000 pieces of ceramics and porcelain. These
include imperial collections from the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, as well
as pieces commissioned by the Palace, and, sometimes, by the Emperor personally.
The Palace Museum holds about 320,000 pieces of porcelain from the imperial
collection. The rest are almost all held in the National Palace Museum in Taipei
and the Nanjing Museum.
The Palace Museum holds close to 50,000 items of paintings. Of these, more
than 400 date from before the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). This is the largest such
collection in China. The
collection is based on the palace collection in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The
personal interest of Emperors such as Qianlong meant that almost all surviving
paintings from the Yuan Dynasty and before were held by the palace. However, a
significant portion of this collection was lost over the years. After his
abdication, Puyi transferred paintings out of the palace, and many of these were
subsequently lost or destroyed. In 1948, the pick of the remaining collection
were moved to Taiwan. The collection has subsequently been replenished, through
donations, purchases, and transfers from other museums.
The Palace Museum's bronze collection dates from the early Shang Dynasty
(founded c. 1766 BC). Of the almost 10,000 pieces held, about 1600 are inscribed
items from the pre-Qin period (to 221 BC). A significant part of the collection
is ceremonial bronzeware from the imperial court.
The Palace Museum has one of the largest collections of mechanical timepieces
of the 18th and 19th centuries in the world, with more than 1000 pieces. The
collection contains both Chinese- and foreign-made pieces. Chinese pieces came
from the palace's own workships, Guangzhou (Canton) and Suzhou (Suchow). Foreign
pieces came from countries including Britain, France, Switzerland, the United
States and Japan. Of these, the largest portion come from Britain.
Jade has a unique place in Chinese culture.
The Museum's collection, mostly derived from the imperial collection, includes
some 30,000 pieces. The pre-Yuan Dynasty part of the collection includes several
pieces famed throughout history, as well as artefacts from more recent
archaeological discoveries. The earliest pieces date from the Neolithic period.
Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty pieces, on the other hand, include both items for
palace use, as well as tribute items from around the Empire and beyond.
- Palace artefacts
In addition to works of art, a large proportion of the Museum's collection
consists of the artefacts of the imperial court. This includes items used by the
imperial family and the palace in daily life, as well as various ceremonial and
bureaucratic items important to government administration. This comprehensive
collection preserves the daily life and ceremonial protocols of the imperial
Equestrian painting of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) by Giuseppe Castiglione.
The Forbidden City, the culmination of the two-thousand-year development of
classical Chinese and East Asian architecture, has been influential in the
subsequent development of Chinese architecture, as well as providing inspiration
for many modern constructions. Some specific examples of its influences include:
- Emperor Gia Long of Vietnam built a palace and fortress that was
intended to be a smaller copy of the Chinese Forbidden City in the 1800s.
Its ruins are in Huế. In English it is called the "Imperial City". The name
of the inner palace complex in Vietnamese is translated literally as "Purple
Forbidden City", which is the same as the Chinese name for the Forbidden
City in Beijing.
- The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, Washington was designed to
incorporate elements of classical Chinese architecture and interior
decoration. The ceiling of the auditorium features a dragon panel and
chandelier reminiscent of the dragon caisson and Xuanyuan mirror found in
the Forbidden City.
- Depiction in art, film and literature
The Forbidden City has served as the scene to many works of fiction. In
recent years, it has been depicted in films and television series. Some notable
- The Last Emperor (1987), a biographical film about Puyi, was the
first feature film ever authorised by the government of the People's
Republic of China to be filmed in the Forbidden City.
- Marco Polo a joint NBC and RAI TV miniseries broadcast in the
early 1980s, was filmed inside the Forbidden City. Note, however, that the
present Forbidden City did not exist in the Yuan Dynasty, when Marco Polo
met Kublai Khan.
- Kingdom Hearts 2 used the Forbidden City as the site for a
climactic battle within the "Land of the Dragons", inhabited by the
As performance venue
The Forbidden City has also served as a performance venue. However, its use
for this purpose is strictly limited, due to the heavy impact of equipment and
performance on the ancient structures. Almost all performances said to be "in
the Forbidden City" are held outside the palace walls.
- Giacomo Puccini's opera, Turandot, about the story of a Chinese
princess, was performed at the Imperial Shrine just outside the Forbidden
City for the first time in 1998.
- In 2004, the French musician Jean Michel Jarre performed a live concert
in front of the Forbidden City, accompanied by 260 musicians, as part of the
"Year of France in China" festivities.
- In 2006, rock band 30 Seconds to Mars shot the music video for their
song "From Yesterday" in the Forbidden City and the "Emperor Qin palace".
This was claimed to be the first American rock video ever shot in its
entirety in the People's Republic of China.