Forbidden City – Beijing, China

Forbidden City – Beijing, China

Forming the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex, with 980 buildings across 1,614,600 sq ft (150,000 sq m). Completed in 1420, it was the Chinese imperial palace for almost 500 years, housing 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) and the seat of government. As the symbolic center of the Chinese universe, the compound was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries on royal business, but in 1949, it was opened to the public.

DESIGN PRINCIPLES

The harmonious principle of Yin and Yang is central to Chinese design. The Forbidden City is arranged symmetrically on a north-south axis, with hall entrances facing south to avoid the malign Yin effects – cold wind, evil spirits, and barbarian warriors — that come from the north. Odd numbers represent Yang, the masculine element associated with the emperor. Hence the frequent occurrence of three, five, seven, and the highest (and therefore best) single-digit odd number — nine — in architectural details. It is said that the palace has 9,999 rooms, and as nine times nine is especially fortunate, imperial doors usually have 81 golden studs.

SERVING THE EMPEROR

Because of the dual role of the Forbidden City — as the living quarters of the imperial family and the center of administration — eunuchs, the only male servants allowed in the palace, were in a unique position. Allowed access to the emperor’s family, a few influential eunuchs wielded great power, siphoning off vast fortunes from the imperial coffers. The fate of the majority, though, was similar to that of a slave. Higher up the social scale, the emperor’s concubines lived in a series of palaces beside the Inner Court. At night, the emperor would decide which concubine would sleep with him, and the number of times a concubine was chosen determined her social standing.

THE INNER COURT

The structure of the Inner Court mirrors that of the Outer Court, but on a smaller scale. There are three main Inner Court palaces — the Palace of Heavenly Purity was originally used as the imperial sleeping quarters, and later for the reception of imperial officials. Beyond this palace lies the Hall of Union, which was used as a throne room by the empress, as well as a depository for the imperial seals used to sign official documents. Still farther on, the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity served as living quarters for the Ming empresses. Behind the Inner Court is the Imperial Garden. On either side of the state apartments were the residences of the imperial family and their attendants — reputed to number as many as 9,000 by the 1700s.

OUTER COURT

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Despite the name, this forms the very heart of the complex. The surrounding buildings, originally built to service this series of halls, now house a variety of interesting displays.

Gate of Supreme Harmony

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Originally used for receiving visitors, the 78-ft (24m) high, double-eaved hall was later used for banquets during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

Meridian Gate

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From this, the most imposing gate, the emperor would review his armies and issue the calendar for the coming year.

Golden Water

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Five marble bridges, symbolizing the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism, cross the Golden Water, which flows from west to east in a course designed to resemble the jade belt worn by officials.

Bronze Cauldrons

Filled with water, these vessels were a practical precaution against fire.

Gate of Heavenly Purity

This led to the Inner Court, which was reserved for the imperial family.

Hall of Supreme Harmony

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This building served as a place of preparation for the emperor when on official business.

Hall of Middle Harmony

This building served as a place of preparation for the emperor when on official business.

Chinese Lions

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The lion symbolized the power of the emperor, and the splendor of the imperial palace. Males are portrayed with a ball under their paw, while females have a lion cub.

Roof Guardians

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These figures, which are associated with water, were supposed to protect the imperial buildings from fire.

Marble Carriageway

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The central ramp, carved with dragons chasing pearls among clouds, was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor.

FALL OF THE MING DYNASTY

In 1644, as peasant rebels were storming the capital, the last Ming emperor, Chong Zhen, killed his daughter and concubines before fleeing the Forbidden Palace to hang him self on nearby Coal Hill.

THE LAST EMPEROR

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Henry Puyi, the boy emperor

Henry (Aixinjueluo) Puyi ascended the Qing throne in 1908 at the age of three. His brief reign ended on February 12, 1912, when he abdicated in favor of the Republic of China. Puyi remained a virtual prisoner in the palace until 1924, when he fled to the Japanese concession in Tianjin.

He never returned to the Forbidden City and died childless and anonymous in 1967 after working for seven years as a gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

KEY DATES

1406: The Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty commissions the Forbidden City.
1664: The Manchus (later the Qing dynasty) invade, and burn most of the palace to the ground.
1925:
The Forbidden City becomes the Imperial Palace Museum.
1987: The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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