A palace for over 500 years: Journey through China’s ’Forbidden City’, the heart of imperial majesty

By Théophile Niyitegeka
On 27 April 2024 at 04:50

Welcome to the Forbidden City, a marvel of architectural splendor and historical richness that has stood at the epicenter of Chinese power for over five centuries. Known today as the Palace Museum, this awe-inspiring complex not only echoes the whispers of emperors but also invites explorers and history enthusiasts to delve into its vast expanse and storied past. Each gate and corridor offers a gateway to the intrigues of imperial rule, remaining a testament to the heights of cultural and architectural mastery achieved under the ‘celestial empire’.

Constructed between 1406 and 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City functioned as the imperial palace for over five centuries, serving 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The construction was a monumental endeavor, taking 14 years to complete. The palace complex covers an area of 720,000 square meters (about 180 acres), with a construction area of 150,000 square meters, consisting of 980 surviving buildings with over 70 halls and palaces. It is the largest palace and wooden structure complex in the world.

The architectural brilliance is showcased through its symmetrical design and vibrant hues, emblematic of traditional Chinese architecture. The complex is divided into two primary areas: the Outer Court, which includes three grand halls used for ceremonies, and the Inner Court, for the emperor and his family.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the centerpiece, historically used for significant state ceremonies and imperial coronations, is flanked by the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which hosted preparations for significant events and various imperial activities, including banquets and examinations.

The Palace Museum today houses an impressive collection of over 1.8 million cultural artifacts, including paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jade, and imperial treasures.

The collection of imperial robes and accessories is particularly renowned, offering a window into the imperial court’s splendor through intricate embroidery and symbols of power.

These artifacts, along with an extensive collection of ancient books, manuscripts, and historical documents, provide invaluable insights into China’s storied past.

The design principles of the Forbidden City, deeply rooted in the ancient Chinese concepts of yin and yang, feng shui, and symbolic motifs like dragons and phoenixes, reflect the cultural importance of balance, harmony, and auspiciousness.

Efforts to preserve this iconic heritage site include extensive restoration projects and international collaborations, facilitating cultural exchanges and exhibitions with museums worldwide. Daily visits by an average of 40,000 people underscore the Forbidden City’s role as a bridge to the rich cultural diversity and historical significance of ancient China, further cementing its status as a remarkable United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

Why was it called the Forbidden City?

In ancient times, the Chinese, diligent observers of the heavens, meticulously charted the skies and identified constellations and celestial bodies, finding patterns and meanings in the vast expanse above them.

They discovered a particularly luminous star—the Pole Star—which they believed marked the center of the sky. This central position led them to conceive of it as the heavenly abode of an emperor, a divine counterpart to their earthly sovereign.

Surrounding the Pole Star, they identified constellations of stars which they interpreted as the celestial court of this emperor.

This area was designated the "Purple Palace," a name derived from the color purple, which in Chinese culture symbolizes auspice, honor, and the highest status. The Pole Star itself was sometimes referred to as the "Purple Star," further emphasizing its supreme importance.

The ancient Chinese held a belief in the harmonious alignment of heaven, earth, and humanity. Just as there existed a Purple Palace in the celestial realm, they reasoned that a corresponding palace should exist on earth.

This led to the construction of a grand imperial residence at the heart of Beijing, which was seen as the terrestrial counterpart to the central point of heaven.

Thus, the imperial palace on earth was also named the "Purple Palace," though it is more commonly known in English as the Forbidden City.

The term "forbidden" in its name stems from the stringent restrictions placed on entry to the palace. Only the emperor, his family, and selected dignitaries were permitted within its walls.

The common people and lower-ranking officials were strictly barred from entering without permission from emperors, a rule that reinforced the sacred and exclusive nature of the site.

The emperors of the time, considering themselves the sons of the Jade Emperor—the supreme deity in Chinese mythology—proclaimed their divine right to rule, further justifying the palace’s exalted and restrictive status.

The Palace Museum actively engages in international partnerships, facilitating exhibitions and cultural exchanges with various global museums.
The construction of the Forbidden City was a monumental effort, spanning from 1406 to 1420.
The palace complex spans over 720,000 square meters.
The layout of the Forbidden City, aligned along a central axis, represents the balance between heaven and earth.
The Chinese government is dedicated to preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Forbidden City to a global audience.
The Palace Museum fosters international collaborations, enhancing cultural interactions and hosting exhibitions with numerous international museums.
The intricate details in the architecture and decorations of the Forbidden City exemplify the Chinese pursuit of harmony and balance.
The Inner Golden River flows through the Forbidden City in Beijing, China's capital.
For nearly 600 years, the Inner Golden Water River has meandered through the Forbidden City like a vast serpent.
The Golden River, encircling the Forbidden City, spans 3.5 kilometers with a width of 52 meters and a depth of 4.1 meters.
Exploring the Forbidden City offers visitors insight into the cultural diversity and historical importance of this extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site.
The complex is segmented into the Outer Court, featuring three grand halls for ceremonies, and the Inner Court, which was the private domain of the emperor and his family.
Situated in Beijing, the Forbidden City draws approximately 40,000 visitors daily.
The dragon, a central cultural totem in China, epitomizes prosperity and good fortune.
Golden vases placed throughout the Forbidden City served to hold water for fire emergencies.
The design of the Forbidden City reflects ancient Chinese cultural values.
The walls and roofs of the palace are embellished with dragons, phoenixes, and other mythical figures, symbolizing power, prosperity, and good fortune.
For over 500 years, the Forbidden City served as the imperial residence, housing 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Dragons in the Forbidden City symbolize imperial majesty and power, reflecting its deep historical and cultural significance.
Lion statues, a common sight in the Forbidden City, symbolize protection and authority.
The Forbidden City was established during the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century.
Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony considered a symbol of imperial authority. It is the largest and most significant structure in the complex, that hosted major state events and imperial coronations.
Known as the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City stands as a beacon of China's extensive history and cultural legacy.
The rich carvings, vivid colors, and symbolic motifs throughout the Forbidden City highlight the significance of symbolism in ancient Chinese culture.
Significant restoration efforts have been implemented to maintain the structural integrity of the Forbidden City.
The Imperial Garden lies just beyond the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility.
Visitors wander through the vast courtyards of the Forbidden City, captivated by the historical richness and architectural splendor of this ancient palace.

Photos: Théophile Niyitegeka / Beijing, China