The Forbidden City of China, a sprawling imperial palace that once housed the China’s powerful emperors, is a marvel of ancient architecture and Chinese history. Spanning an impressive 720,000 square meters, the UNESCO World Heritage listed site contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. With over 800 buildings and nearly 9,000 chambers, it’s easy to get lost in its grandeur.
The Forbidden City in Beijing, China, was constructed during the reign of the Ming Dynasty’s Emperor Yongle, starting in 1406 AD and completed in 1420 AD. It was the imperial palace and residence of the emperors of China for both the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the early 15th century until the early 20th century.
The city was given its name because the palace complex was off-limits to ordinary Chinese people, hence it was “forbidden” to enter without permission. The complex was the exclusive domain of the emperors, their immediate families, and their concubines, as well as a vast entourage of eunuchs, courtiers, and servants.
Access to the Forbidden City was strictly controlled, with a limited number of individuals allowed to enter its walls. Even high-ranking officials could only enter certain areas of the palace complex, depending on their rank and status. Anyone who was caught trespassing in the Forbidden City without permission would face severe punishment, including execution.
The exclusivity of the Forbidden City was meant to emphasize the emperor’s divine and supreme status, as the Son of Heaven. As the center of the Chinese imperial system, it symbolized the emperor’s power and authority over all of China.
Construction of the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was built to replace the Yuan Dynasty’s imperial palace, which had been destroyed. The site was chosen for its auspicious feng shui features, including being situated to the north of the imperial palace of the preceding Yuan Dynasty, and being surrounded by hills to the north and a river to the south.
It was constructed as a replica of the ‘Purple Palace’ in Heaven, as the emperor of China was believed to be the Son of Heaven. Vast numbers of huge stones were mined and transported to the site for its construction, the heaviest of which weigh more than 220 tons and would have weighed more than 330 tons before they fragmented.
Archaeological findings have revealed that the largest blocks used to construct the Forbidden City were sourced from a quarry situated 70 kilometers away. Considering the fact that the wheel was invented in China around 1500 BC, it was initially believed that the massive stones were transported using this technology. However, last year, a 500-year-old document was translated which revealed how the giant stones were slid for miles on specially constructed sledges and dragged over slippery paths of wet ice by a team of men over 28 days. The workers dug wells every 500 meters to get water to pour on the ice to lubricate it, which made it easier to slide the rocks.
An historical document revealed that huge stone blocks were dragged along ice. Photo credit: Daily Mail
A Sprawling Complex
The Forbidden City has 800 buildings and contains close to 9,000 chambers, along with numerous gardens and courtyards. The palace was also home to countless works of art and artifacts, including paintings, sculptures, and calligraphy.
The palace complex is divided into two main parts: the Outer Court and the Inner Court. The Outer Court was where the emperor held court and conducted official business, while the Inner Court was reserved for the emperor and his family’s private residence. The only men allowed into the Inner Court were eunuchs (men who were castrated), so as to ensure the ‘authenticity’ of the emperor’s offspring.
The Forbidden City is a sprawling complex. Source: imlane / Adobe Stock
The Forbidden City was one of the most heavily guarded places in China. The security was elaborate and sophisticated, with numerous layers of defenses and a vast array of guards, officials, and eunuchs tasked with protecting the emperor and his family.
The city was surrounded by a moat, which was over 50 meters wide and filled with water from the nearby rivers. The palace was also surrounded by walls that were over 10 meters high, made of brick and stone. There were four main gates that provided access to the Forbidden City, each guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
The palace also had numerous secret passages, hidden rooms, and traps, designed to prevent intruders from gaining access to the emperor.
The Great Forbidden City has 800 buildings within its walls. Source: BigStockPhoto
Pleasures of the Flesh
The Forbidden City was designed to cater to the emperor’s pleasure, providing a life of luxury, indulgence, and entertainment. As the absolute ruler of China, the emperor was able to command vast resources to satisfy his every whim.
The emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties had numerous concubines to satisfy their sexual desires – historical records state that by the Qing dynasty there were around 20,000 women in the emperor’s harem! The emperor was able to indulge his sexual desires in other ways too, such as visiting brothels or selecting women from the palace staff.
The emperor also had access to a vast array of performers, including acrobats, dancers, and musicians, who would entertain him and his guests with their skills.
The palace hosted grand banquets and feasts, where the emperor and his guests would be served a seemingly endless array of delicacies. It has been claimed that the Empress Dowager Cixi’s meals commonly consisted of 108 dishes, an amount that could have fed several thousand of her impoverished subjects.
Despite the power that the emperor wielded and the opulence he was living in, life in the Forbidden City was very much like living in a gilded cage, as the emperor was not really free to venture beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. Elaborate precautions had to be taken when the emperor travelled outside the Forbidden City so as to ensure his safety. For instance, he would have ridden in a palanquin, escorted by guards, and have the travel route scouted beforehand.
The spectacular temples within the Forbidden City contain ornate designs. Source: BigStockPhoto
A Sneak Peek Inside the Forbidden City
The first Westerner to be allowed into the Forbidden City was the Italian Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci. Although Ricci’s objective was to spread the Christian faith in China, his admission into the Forbidden City in 1601 was not due to his religious beliefs, but because of his scientific knowledge.
Another Westerner who managed to enter the Forbidden City, this time during the Qing Dynasty, was Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, an American citizen. Amazingly, Houckgeest’s account of his visit to the Forbidden City in 1795 has been preserved in his journal. Houckgeest provides his readers with some extraordinary stories about life in the Forbidden City. For example, he wrote that he was served meat that had been gnawed on by the emperor. Apparently, this was a great honor accorded by the emperor.
The Forbidden City surrounded by its moat. Source: BigStockPhoto
Forbidden No More
The Forbidden City was first opened to the public in 1925, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. After the last emperor of China, Puyi, was expelled from the palace in 1924, the new Republican government of China decided to turn the palace into a museum. It was then that the Forbidden City was first opened to the public, providing ordinary citizens with a glimpse into the lives of the imperial family and the grandeur of the Chinese imperial system.
Since then, the Forbidden City has been open to visitors from all over the world, attracting millions of tourists each year. Due to the palace’s age and the number of visitors it receives, restoration efforts have been ongoing to ensure its preservation. In recent years, new regulations have been put in place to manage the number of visitors and preserve the palace’s cultural heritage, with a focus on sustainability and responsible tourism. As we look to the future, preserving and protecting the Forbidden City will ensure that its rich history and cultural legacy can be enjoyed by future generations.
Top image: The Forbidden City of China. Source: Source: ABCDstock / Adobe Stock
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