Forbidden City Introduction, History & Facts

Forbidden City Introduction

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the 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 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.

The site of the Forbidden City was situated on 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 Yuan palaces be burnt down. When his son Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he moved the capital back to Beijing, and construction began in 1406 of what would become the Forbidden City.

The construction of the Forbidden City started in 1406 and took 14 years and an estimated 200,000 men. The principal axis of the new palace sits to the east of the Yuan Dynasty palace, a design intended to place the Yuan palace in the western or “kill” position in feng shui. Soil excavated during construction of the moat was piled up to the north of the palace to create an artificial hill, the Jingshan hill


In 1961 the Palace Museum was listed as one of the important historical monuments under the special preservation by the Chinese central government and in 1987, it was nominated as the world cultural heritage by the UNESCO.

The Forbidden City is the best preserved imperial palace in China and the largest ancient palatial structure in the world. The Forbidden City covers an area of about 72 hectares with a total floor space of approximately 150, 000 square meters. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms. To represent the supreme power of the emperor from the God and the place where the he lived being the center of the world, all the gates, palace and other structures of the Forbidden City were arranged on both sides of the south-north central axis.

History of the Forbidden City

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 on some of the principal buildings, to emphasise “Harmony” rather than “Supremacy”.

Imperial Palace

The layout of the Forbidden City is based on a Chinese cosmic diagram of the universe that clearly defines the north-south and east-west axes. The buildings represent the largest and best-preserved examples of Chinese traditional architecture found today. The overall layout is centered on the three primary Halls of State: The Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), The Hall of Middle Harmony (Zhonghedian) and The Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian). State ceremonies were held in the Outer Court (Wai Chao) of the Forbidden City. Here the emperors governed from their thrones, holding court sessions with their ministers, issuing imperial edicts and initiating military expeditions. The Outer Court was also the site for important ceremonies: the accession of a new emperor to the throne, birthdays and weddings. The Inner Court (Nei Ting) was the residential area of the emperor and the imperial household, as well as the place where the emperor dealt with routine state affairs.

Amazing Facts About the Forbidden City

1. The Forbidden City occupies 720,000 square meters (7,747,200 square feet / 180 acres). The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul measures 700,000 square meters; the Vatican measures 440,000 square meters; and the Kremlin measures 275,000 square meters.

2. There are 9,999 rooms in this series of exquisite palaces inside the City. Nine is a lucky number for the Chinese. (Some books quote 8,704 rooms — but this does not include antechambers.)

3. The walls are 32 feet high (10 meters). The surrounding drainage moat is 165 feet wide (50 meters). The main part of the city was constructed over 14 years (1407-1420) using 200,000 laborers. Building materials were shipped over thousands of miles from all parts of China using the network of canals constructed in the 6th and 7th centuries.

4. All of the buildings are made from painted wood. To deal with the fire risk, giant bronze cauldrons filled with water were placed at intervals throughout the Palace.

5. At the end of the 18th century approximately 9000 people lived within the Forbidden City, composed of guards, servants, eunuchs, concubines, civil servants and the Royal Family.

6. The inner sanctum rooms were forbidden to women except to the Empress on her wedding day.

7. The tradition of castrating male servants dates back over two thousand years. The Qing Dynasty started with 9000 eunuchs, reducing to about 1500 in 1908. Their testicles were mummified and stored in jars, to be buried with them after their death. Many eunuchs were harshly treated, or executed at whim. Corruption, power struggles and personal vendettas flourished.

8. Emperors were entitled to several wives and many concubines. (Qianlong had two official wives and 29 concubines). Concubines were well-educated women selected from the best Manchu families. Nightly, the Emperor would decide which concubine would visit him that evening. She would then be stripped, bathed and depilated before being carried to his chamber. The number of times a concubine was chosen secured her social standing.

9. Depending upon status, each rank would dine from “color-coded” plates, cups and bowls. Only the Emperor and Empress were entitled to use real gold or “radiant yellow” porcelain. Over 3000 pieces of gold and silver plate were held in Qing kitchens during the 18th century.

10. The Emperor’s choice of successor was usually kept secret until after his death, when it was verified by bringing together a document held by the emperor with a document previously concealed in a sealed box.

11. Ministers and officials had to prostrate themselves on the floor before reporting to the Emperor.

12. Manchu women did not bind their feet, but wore shoes mounted on six- to eight-inch platforms, giving them the tottering gait considered seductive.

13. Instead of jousting with lances, Chinese courtiers took part in the competitive sport of poetry composition.

14. Portraits have a special significance in China because of the widespread practice of ancestor worship.

15. “The Last Emperor”, familiarly known as Puyi, succeeded to the throne at the age of three. He was forced to abdicate in February 1912, but was held in the Forbidden City until 1924. During those years he had a British tutor, Reginald Johnston, who gave him his first bicycle.

A Magnificent Dynasty

Kangxi (1662-1722), whose portrait can be seen in the exhibition, was an enlightened Emperor, often compared to his contemporary, Louis XIV of France. He secured the borders of his country, improved agriculture, built up the textile industry, developed the civil service, encouraged learned and literary publishing, and fostered great art and craftsmanship. He was a skilled calligrapher and poet himself. His successors, Yongzheng, his eleventh son, and Qianlong, his grandson, continued to strengthen the country and encourage superb artistry.

Qianlong (1736-1795) is the image chosen to adorn the banners and publicity material for the exhibition. He is seen seated on a fine horse, confirming his great prowess as a military man and tactician. But this was not his only achievement. During his reign Chinese arts truly flourished. Painting and calligraphy reached new heights. Enamel and inlay work achieved astonishing levels of skill. At times, Western influences blended with Chinese traditions to create new styles and forms. The exhibition presents some of the best items from this period.

Foreigners at Court

A few privileged European scholars — Jesuit priests — were admitted to court life. At times they were forbidden from practicing as missionaries, but were always valued for their scientific and artistic knowledge. As master of the calendar, the Emperor was responsible for deciding dates of planting and harvesting — of vital importance in China — so a succession of Emperors relied upon the astronomical knowledge of a handful of western scholars.

A Life of Ceremony

Court life was strictly organized into routines, protocols and ceremonies. The rules were elaborate. Some doorways were restricted for the use of certain ranks, and penalties for forgetting were severe. Formal ceremonies were heralded by drumrolls and music, and had required forms of dress and behavior. Every architectural feature and ornament had significance to the history and traditions of China. Everything was symbolic in nature. Imagine a closed world of brightly painted wood; stone floors covered by brilliant yellow carpets; incense burners perfuming the air; kingfisher feathers and painted scenes decorating the walls; flower arrangements adorning the rooms; and numerous courtiers, eunuchs and concubines dressed in swishing silks and heavy embroideries. Everyone had their part to play in this hidden city of power and intrigue.