History of the Forbidden City
The Purple Forbidden City
YongLe's home became known as 'Zi Jin Ch'eng'. This has the meaning : 'the purple city (Ch'eng) of the polestar (Tzu), where one cannot enter (jin)'. The literal meaning of China (ChungHua) is 'the country at the centre' or 'middle kingdom', leading to the idea that the Forbidden City is at the very centre of the world.
The Forbidden City was constructed in accordance with ancient rules of spatial design, first used during the Han dynasty in building the city of Chang'An (modern XiAn), between 206 BC and AD 220 . Among other things, these rules specified that the principal buildings should be aligned along a straight axis from south to north, flanked by a symmetrical arrangement of minor structures on parallel axes. This architectural convention was favourable to YungLo's claim that his city had symbolic importance. He believed that a centralized configuration of buildings would also serve as a reflection of the ordered heavens.
The chilling north was regarded as a harmful direction. Because all invasions of China had originated from the north, it came to represent evil spirits, cold winds and the wicked warriors from the Steppes. Hence, nearly all the buildings in the Forbidden City face south, the direction of holiness, giving protection from icy winds and also permitting subtle decoration based on catching infinite variations of sunlight. In fact, the only pavilions facing north were for the emperor's rejected concubines.
The enclosing wall (being synonymous with the word for 'city' in China) was a major component in city planning, with huge towers over the gates and watchtowers at the four corners.
In part, the chinese philosophy of Taoism seeks harmony with nature. The mysterious art of Feng-Shui (literally, 'wind-water') was used to help harmonize buildings with natural forces. The chinese architectural tradition for placing major buildings along an axis also allowed asymmetrical elements to be introduced, such as the natural release of trees, lakes and canals.
All of the five elemental colors (as specified by chinese philosophers) were introduced in the design of the city : white marble terraces, (almost) black paving of the courtyards, red columns, with yellow roofs, all on a sky blue background as reflected in the moat. The majesty of this purple walled city with its golden yellow rooftops standing tall among all the uniformly grey and far smaller hutongs must have been an extraordinary sight. The high, vermilion palace walls, by keeping the emperor hidden, enhanced his mystique and glory.
Construction of the Forbidden City started in 1406, the 5th year of YongLo's reign. The construction took 14 years - and an estimated one million workers, and 100,000 artisans, were involved.
Stones needed were quarried from FangShan, a suburb of Beijing. It is said that a well was dug every 50 meters in order to pour water onto the road in winter to slide the huge stones along ice into the city. In the summer, logs were used to roll the rocks along.
Huge amounts of timbers and other materials were also freighted in, many from faraway provinces.
From its completion in 1420 to 1644, when a peasant revolt invaded it, the Forbidden City served as the seat of the Ming Dynasty. The following Qing Dynasty also resided in the Forbidden City. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 9000 people were estimated to reside there.
After being the home of 24 emperors - fourteen of the Ming dynasty and the ten of the Qing - the Forbidden City ceased being the political center of China in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China. He was, however, allowed (in fact, required) to live within the walls of the Forbidden City, until a coup launched by a local general (Feng YuXiang) in 1924 expelled him.
Having been the imperial palace for some five centuries, it houses numerous rare treasures and curiosities. In 1947, after they had been moved from one location to another inside mainland China for many years (most recently to be hidden from the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese war), Chiang Kai-Shek ordered many of the artifacts within the Forbidden City to be moved to Taiwan where they later formed the core of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Just a few of the many golden yellow rooftops,
with the White Dagoba in Beihai Park visible in the distance.
This action has been extremely controversial, with some regarding it as looting with others regarding it as safekeeping, especially given the events of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland. However, many treasures (about 1 million) are now housed within the Forbidden City - and many of these are on display to visitors, including gifts of state, military campaign treasures, and the furnishings and possessions of members of the imperial household. Many others (about 650,000 objects) remain in the National Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
If we look at a map of Beijing from around 1600, we can see it is quite familiar in many ways. Some of the roads familiar today existed then - such as the shopping streets of WanFuJing and XiDan. We can also see that the subway loop line (line 2) follows the path of the old city wall and that the second ring road follows it too - following the extended city wall to the south. The old city walls are shown in red.
A part of the old city wall can be seen at ChongWenMen ('men' means gate in chinese). An old gate still exists at DeShengMen. Parts of the moat / canal also still exist, at least in location, including most of the canal that could transport the emperor to the Summer Palace (YiHeYuan).
An important thing to note is the importance of the north-south axis in the imperial city, extending from the drum and bell towers in the north to the Temple of Heaven in the south. Today, the primary axis is east - west with the creation of the grand boulevard ChangAn. On the map, the location of ChangAn is shown in pale grey/green; it hardly existed in the days of the Ming Dynasty.
In the southern part of the outer city is the Temple of Heaven (TianTan). To the north of the inner city is Ditan (terrace), to the east Ritan and west Yuetan, forming the four perpheral key points, clustered around the imperial city. The Imperial Ancestral Temple (TaiMiao) and the altar for worshipping the god of the land and the god of grain (SheJiTan) were located on the left and right sides in front of Wumen, the front gate of the Forbidden City (now called ZhongShan park and the Working People's Cultural park respectively).
On the annual Winter Solstice (22nd solar term), the Summer Solstice (10th solar term), the Spring Equinox (4th solar term), and Autumnal Equinox (16th solar term), the emperor went to TianTan, DiTan, RiTan and YueTan respectively to perform sacrificial rites. The correspondence of TianTan, DiTan, RiTan and YueTan to winter, summer, spring and autumn, and also to south, north, east and west, demonstrated the ancient chinese world outlook on the integration of man and heaven.
Share this page
Top travel guides
Great Wall Beijing
Next : Layout of the Forbidden City
China Travel and Culture Videos Home
BeiJing Travel Guide Home