The Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing is an enormous Imperial Palace that was the home of 24 Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors from 1420 to 1912. With spectacular architecture and grounds on a scale hard to imagine, the Forbidden City is stunning to see and walk through.
A trip to the Forbidden City will give you an incredible experience into Chinese culture and history. Without exaggeration, visiting the Forbidden City is a must for everyone travelling in China and the Forbidden City should be ranked high on every traveller’s wish list.
Names for the Forbidden City
The name Forbidden City comes from the rule that people were forbidden from entering the Forbidden City without the emperor’s permission and permission was rarely granted.
The Forbidden City is also called the Palace Museum because back in 1925 it was established as a museum by the warlords cliché who controlled Beijing at the time. The Forbidden City is still classed as museum and often still referred to as the Palace Museum.
The Chinese name for the Forbidden City is Gugong (故宫) which means old or ancient palace.
The history of the Forbidden City can be traced back to 1368 when Zhu Yuanzhang defeated the Yuan Dynasty and established the Ming Dynasty. Zhu’s first act as emperor was to move the capital of China from Dadu (modern day Beijing) to Nanjing and burn the Yuan palaces in Dadu to the ground. In 1413 Emperor Yongle named Dadu Beijing and made Beijing co-capital of China. Emperor Yongle then commissioned the building of the Forbidden City that took 15 years, required over a million workers and was finished in 1420. After the Forbidden City was finished, Emperor Yongle packed his bags and moved the home of the imperial family to the Forbidden City and made Beijing the primary capital of China.
The Forbidden City was the home of the Ming Dynasty from 1621 to 1644 until the Ming emperor was sent packing by rebels. Soon afterward the Manchus kicked the rebels out of Beijing, made themselves at home in the Forbidden City and established the Qing Dynasty that occupied the Forbidden City until the abdication of last Ming Emperor Puyi in 1912.
From 1912 to the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, Beijing and the Forbidden City were the focus of numerous struggles for power in China and changed hands many times. Luckily during this period of chaos, the Forbidden City escaped relatively unscathed and only suffered a minimal loss of national treasures.
After 1949 the Forbidden City was less fortunate and was damaged by revolutionary activities during the years that followed such as the Great Leap Forward. Luckily Zhou Enlai saved the Forbidden City from further damage during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong made up for political ground lost at the end of the not so successful Great Leap Forward.
Later in 1987 UNESCO declared the Forbidden City a World Heritage site and the Forbidden City went through a number of restorations to return it back to it’s pre 1912 condition.
Size and Structure
The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world and covers 720,000 square meters and holds over 980 buildings. The compound that houses the Forbidden City is a 961 meter by 753 meter rectangle that is enormous and you need at least a day to cover all the main areas.
Wall & Moat – The massive walls surrounding the Forbidden City that you can see from the outside are 7.9 meters high, 8.62 meters wide at the base and 6.66 meters wide at the top. The walls are also guarded by a moat that circles the Forbidden City that is 6 meters deep, 52 meters wide and 3,800 meters long.
The moat is so large that the earth excavated to make it was moved to Jingshan Park just north of the Forbidden City to make a large hill. The water in the moat is from the Tongzi River which enters the moat from the North West and drains out of the moat in the South East. During the peak tourist season, you can hire boats to paddle around the moat which gives a very interesting perspective of the Forbidden City.
Yellow – Yellow is the color representing the royal family so yellow is a dominant color in the Forbidden City. You can see this in the roofs that are made of glazed yellow tiles, yellow palace decorations and many of the ground tiles that are yellow. The only two buildings in the Forbidden City that do not have yellow tiles are the Crown Prince’s residence which has green tiles (green for growth) and the Imperial library. The library’s tiles where black which is symbolic of water and fire prevention.
Beijing’s North-South Axis – Back in 1403 when Emperor Yongle was preparing Bejing to be China’s new capital, he started an enormous construction program that completely redesigned Beijing. The new design of Beijing was based on a north-south axis that went from the Temple of Agriculture and the Temple of Heaven in the south, to the Drum Tower in the North and directly through the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City is built on this axis that goes through the Forbidden City’s southern Meridian Gate, through the key buildings and through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess.
Inner and Outer Courts
The Forbidden City is divided into two parts, the Outer Court and the Inner Court. Each of the courts is very different in nature, function and visual impact.
The Outer Court
The Outer Court was used for ceremonial purposes to impress and/or intimidate guests and visiting dignitaries. The focus point of the Outer Court is three main buildings, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserved Harmony. When you pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony and enter the Tianhedian Square, the view of the Forbidden City with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in front of you is incredible.
Listed below are the main buildings features in the Outer Court
Meridian Gate (Wu Men) – The Meridian Gate is the formal entrance to the Forbidden City just north of Tiananmen Square and your entry point into the Forbidden City. It is a combination of fortress, palace and gateway and is 38 meters high, making it the tallest structure in the Forbidden City.
There are three passages/tunnels through the Meridian Gate. The western passage was used by princes of the imperial family, the center passage was used by the emperor and the eastern passage was used by civil and military officials. I’m guessing that the empress and other female members of the imperial family used the eastern passage.
Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tai He Men) – Is the entrance to the main area of the Outer Courtyard and faces the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Gate of Supreme Harmony was used by the Ming Dynasty emperors for morning court.
Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tai He Dian) – The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the first of the three halls that dominate the Outer Courtyard and is the main building and the focus point in the Forbidden City. The hall is built on an imposing three tier marble base and has a height of 30 meters above the surrounding Tianhedian Square.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was used for coronation and wedding ceremonies and frequently used by the Ming Dynasty emperors for holding court. The hall had a string of bad luck over the years and was destroyed seven times by fire.
Hall of Central Harmony (Zhong He Dan) – Is the second of the Outer Courtyards’s three halls. It was mainly used as a resting place by the emperor on the way to ceremonies and during ceremonies.
Hall of Preserved Harmony (Bao He Dian) – The Hall of Preserved Harmony is the last of three halls and similar to the Hall of Supreme Harmony but smaller in size. This hall had many different functions and was used as a VIP banquet hall, living quarters for the emperor, a changing room for the emperor, a wedding hall and as an examination hall for the Imperial examination.
Sundial (Ri Gui) – This is a round marble structure at the front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The sundial symbolizes that the Emperor had the highest power to grant time to all people in the country.
Copper and Iron Vats – These were a part of the Forbidden City’s fire fighting system and held water to douse fires. In winter the vats were covered with quilts to stop the water from freezing and heated on very cold days. With the Hall of Supreme Harmony being burnt down seven times, the vats could not have been very effective.
The Inner Court was basically the living quarters of the Imperial family and used for the day to day running of China. Not as stunning as the Outer Court but gives a more intimate view of how the Imperial family lived and played. Much of the Inner Court is made up of many small buildings accessed by small lanes which give a feeling of walking through a maze.
Most of the Forbidden City’s 980 buildings are contained in the Inner Courtyard. Far too many to describe so only a few of the key structures are covered here.
Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qian Qing Gong) – This is the palace where the emperor lived and worked and held the largest throne in the Forbidden City. When an emperor died, their coffin was kept in this palace to prove they were dead.
Hill of Accumulated Elegance – This is a small 10 meter high artificial hill in the imperial garden made from a pile of rocks with the Pavilion of Imperial Scenery on the top.
Nine Dragon Wall Screen – A 3.5 meters high 29.4 meters wide screen made out of 270 glazed bricks. The dragons on the screen are a symbol of the Emperor in ancient China and only three Nine Dragon Wall Screens were made. The other two are in Beihai Park to the west of the Forbidden City and in Datong in Shanxi province.
Pavilion of Reading – This is a three level pavilion with stages used by the emperor, royal family and high ranking officials for watching operas. Very similar to the Grand Stage in the Summer Palace.
Tips to Visitors to the Forbidden City
When to visit – If possible, try to visit the Forbidden City from March to early June and from the end of August to the end of November so you can miss the peak season crowds. Also try to avoid going on weekends or domestic holidays when the Forbidden City is packed with domestic tourists.
How long – Make sure you have at least 4 to 6 hours to relax and see the Forbidden City properly and pack a lunch. The gardens in the Inner Court are ideal for relaxing and having something to eat and drink.
Jingshan Park – After you finish visiting the Forbidden City and leave through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess, visit Jingshan Park which is just across the road. The views of the Forbidden City from the top of the hill in Jingshan Park are spectacular.
The easiest way to get to the Forbidden City is by subway. On subway line one you can get off at either the Tiananmen West station or Tiananmen East station and the Forbidden City will be to the North. On subway line two you can get off at Qianmen station and walk north through Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City.
Tickets and Opening Hours
The Forbidden City is open from 8:30am to 4:30pm and tickets are no longer sold after 3:30pm. With so much to see, visiting the Forbidden City after 2:30pm is not recommended.
The tickets for the main parts of the Forbidden City are 40rmb from November to March and 60rmb from April to October. Tickets to the Clock and Watch Gallery and the Treasure Gallery that holds the Nine Dragon Wall Screen are 10rmb all year round.
Forbidden City Links
More Forbidden City Photos – My entire Forbidden City Photo collection
Wikipedia on Forbidden City – Dry and dull but with one or two facts that I left out