Forbidden City: Things to do in Beijing, China
Locals call the Forbidden City Gu Gong (故宫), which literally translates as ‘former palace’. Considering the Chinese penchant for highly descriptive names, ‘former palace’ is a decidedly unimaginative moniker for what many consider the most marvelous of all China’s ancient buildings.
The Forbidden City holds great appeal for any history enthusiast. Within its walls, you will gain special insights to the life and times, not only of China, but of the million or so who built it, and those who lived and worked within its walls.
Zijincheng (紫禁城) or Purple Forbidden City, as it is also known, most definitely appears to fit the bill as a city. It is the largest palace in the world, covering a total area of 720,000m2, and in 1987, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage site. As the celestially ordained home of the emperor, the palace was a no-go zone for outsiders, hence the term ‘forbidden’. To risk entry was to risk life, however restrictions have eased greatly since empirical occupation and tickets for visitors today range between ¥40 and ¥60.
For a western traveler making their foray into the Forbidden City, it’s quite easy to feel overwhelmed and have no idea of where to start, so with that in mind, we’ve done our best to curate this ‘how to’ guide for a visit to this one-time home of rituals, riches, and often thwarted romance.
Forbidden City: Important facts
Let’s start with some Forbidden City facts.
Clearly, Yongle Emperor, the third Ming dynasty emperor, thought carefully about his decision to locate the palace in Beijing’s heart; auspiciously on the city’s central axis. His safety concerns – something every emperor faced – prompted him to move his court from Nanjing to Beijing and so building commenced in 1406. In keeping with this theme of ‘prevention is best’, the palace was designed to be impenetrable from the outside, with every conceivable eventuality considered in the design.
As with a great many historical projects of scale in China, the Forbidden City absorbed a massive workforce, said to have reached a million laborers and 100,000 artisans during its 14 -year construction. Preparation work that included collection of precious timbers and stone took eleven years, while specifically designed pavers and bricks were made in Suzhou and Linqing. Perhaps in the context of the palace’s longevity these can be seen as reasonable investments. The imperial palace served as the residence and court of 14 Ming dynasty emperors and 10 Qing dynasty emperors between 1420 and 1911. While restoration is a permanent activity at the Forbidden City, the longevity of the buildings and surrounds are a testament to the foresight and technical acumen of those involved in its design and construction.
Exploring the palace complex: Allow at least a day
The palace complex is a rectangle, surrounded by a 10 meter high wall and moat that stretches for a phenomenal 52 meters. From north to south, it extends 961 meters, and from east to west, 753 meters. When a survey of the entire palace complex was undertaken in 1973, it identified over 90 compounds, 980 buildings, and 8,728 rooms. In reality, the Forbidden City was a city within a city.
A large gate dominates each of the rectangle’s four walls.
|South||Meridian Gate (Wu Men)|
|North||Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwu Men)|
|East||East Prosperity Gate (Donghua Men)|
|West||West Prosperity Gate (Xihua Men)|
Each gate was designated to a specific group of people while the palace was inhabited, however since 2011, visitors may enter only via the south gate (Wu Men), but can exit via the north (Shenwu Men) and east (Donghua Men) gates. Each corner of the palace’s perimeter is distinguished by a uniquely designed watchtower or jiao lou.
The Meridian gate (south) was the main entry and is really a complex or superstructure of buildings with arches or doorways. The buildings are referred to as the ‘Five Phoenix Turrets’. Almanacs and announcements were issued from the gatehouse.
Forbidden City: Halls and hallmarks
The palace comprises two main parts; the outer court is south, while the inner court is located in the north. The outer court is where the emperor held court and grand audiences. After stepping through the Meridian Gate, you immediately see a large square with five marble bridges arching over the man-made Golden Water River.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony is fronted by two giant bronze lions. Charged with the task of guarding the palace, the lions stand 4.4 meters high. The lion on the left (as you face it) is a male with its paw placed on an embroidered wall. A female lion guards from the opposite side and has its left paw on a lion cub, a symbol of the royal family’s prosperity.