What Was The Forbidden City and Why Was It Built?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

21 Nov 2019

The Forbidden City was the imperial palace of China for 492 years: from 1420 until 1912. It was home to 24 emperors: 14 from the Ming dynasty and 10 from the Qing dynasty.

In Chinese culture, the Emperors were the ‘sons of heaven’. Only a palace of unbelievable scale and luxury could possibly compliment such an accolade.

So how did one of the world’s most lavish palaces come to be?

Yong Le’s vision

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In 1402 Yong Le rose to the head of the Ming dynasty. After declaring himself Emperor, he moved his capital to Beijing. His reign was peaceful and prosperous and in 1406, he set out to build a palatial city.

It was be called Zi Jin Cheng, the ‘Heavenly Forbidden City’. It was to be the most extravagant and palatial complex ever built, for exclusive use of the Emperor and his attendees.

Colossal manpower

The palatial complex was built in just 3 years – an achievement dependent on colossal amounts of manpower. Over 1 million workers were brought into Beijing, with an extra 100,000 needed for decorative work.

The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting.

15,500 km away, workers at a kiln site fired 20 million bricks, which were trimmed to size and transported to Beijing. Wood was delivered from tropical forests in the south, and huge pieces of stone came from every corner of Yong Le’s influence.

To enable the delivery of such materials, draft animals and engineers planned out hundreds of miles of new roads.

An earthly paradise

In Ancient China, the Emperor was considered the son of Heaven, and therefore he was bestowed with Heaven’s supreme power. His residence in Beijing was built on a North-South axis. By doing this, the palace would point directly towards the heavenly Purple Palace (the North Star), thought to be the home of the Celestial Emperor.

The Meridian Gate. Image source: Meridian Gate / CC BY 3.0.

The palace has over 980 buildings, in over 70 palace compounds. There are two courtyards, around which cluster an array of palaces, pavilions, plazas, gates, sculptures, waterways and bridges. The most famous are the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace where Heaven and Earth Meet, the Palace of Earthly Peace and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The site covers 72 hectares, and was said to have had 9,999 rooms – Yong Le was careful not to compete with the Celestial Palace, which was believed to have 10,000 rooms. In reality, the complex only has 8,600.

The Gate of Manifest Virtue. Image source: Philipp Hienstorfer / CC BY 4.0.

The palace was exclusively built for the Emperor. The public were barred from ever entering by a huge fortified wall surrounded the complex. It was cannon-proof, 10 m high and 3.4 km long. The four corners were marked by a towered fortress.

As an extra security measure, this enormous wall had just 4 gates, and was surrounded by a 52 m wide moat. There was no chance of sneaking in unnoticed.

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Adorned with symbolism

The Forbidden City is the largest wooden structure of the ancient world. The main frames incorporated whole trunks of precious Phoebe zhennan wood from the jungles of southwest China.

The carpenters used interlocking mortise and tenon joints. They considered nails violent and inharmonious, preferring a ‘harmonious’ fit of specifically designed joints.

Like many Chinese buildings of this period, the Forbidden City was mainly painted in red and yellow. Red was considered a symbol of good fortune and happiness; yellow was a symbol of supreme power, used only by the imperial family.

Imperial roof decoration of the highest status on the roof ridge of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Image source: Louis le Grand / CC SA 1.0.

The palace is dotted with dragons, phoenixes and lions, reflecting their powerful meanings in Chinese culture. The quantity of these animals reflected the importance of a building. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important building, was adorned with 9 animals, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the Empress, had 7.

An end of an era

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, Anglo-French forces took control of the palace complex, which they occupied until the war was over. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi fled the Forbidden City, allowing forces to occupy it until the following year.

The Golden Water River, an artificial stream that runs through the Forbidden City. Image source: 蒋亦炯 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Qing dynasty used the palace as the political centre of China until 1912, when Pu Yi – the last Emperor of China – abdicated. Under an agreement with the new Republic of China government, he remained living in the Inner Court, while the Outer Court was for public use. In 1924, he was evicted from the Inner Court in a coup.

Since then, it has been open to the public as a museum. Despite this, it still retains a status of majesty and is often used for state occasions. In 2017, Donald Trump was the first US President to be granted a state dinner in the Forbidden City since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1912.

Featured Image: Pixelflake/ CC BY-SA 3.0.