The imposing Wu Gate marks the formal southern entrance. Beyond it, palace courtyards reveal three lesser halls that comprised the emperor’s living quarters.
Today, these self-contained abodes have been transformed into a museum that aims to inspire cultural confidence in China’s new generation of visitors. As part of this effort, the appearance and furnishings of some palace buildings have been restored to what they might have looked like when in use.
Why is the Forbidden City in China called forbidden?
In Chinese, the name for this palace complex is Zijin Cheng (, pinyin: z jn chéng), meaning “Forbidden City”. The phrase comes from a rule that only the emperor and select family members, government ministers, and servants could enter. Those caught trespassing would be executed.
The Forbidden City was the center of power for 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It sits on Beijing’s north-south municipal axis and is surrounded by a moat. The complex is made up of 980 buildings with nearly 10,000 rooms. It’s so large that visitors will probably never see all of it in one visit. Many of the buildings are decorated with glorious yellow glazed tiles, the imperial color. The roofs have unique designs that were meant to make them a sight to behold. They also feature double eaves to keep birds from landing on them. These structures are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to its beauty, the Forbidden City is a fascinating place to learn about Chinese history and culture.
The Forbidden City was a palace
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace of China for 500 years from 1406 to 1911. Emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties lived here. There are 98 buildings within the precinct. They are made of brick and glazed tile. Their roofs are yellow, symbolizing the emperor’s supremacy. The buildings are arranged so that they face south, representing holiness and away from the north, which symbolizes enemies and cold winds.
The northern Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) led into the emperor’s private quarters. The gate’s name was changed from Xuanwumen in the 1600s to avoid confusion with the emperor’s birth name, Xuanye. Naming anything that sounded too much like the emperor was taboo.
Many stories and legends are associated with the Forbidden City. A common one involves a narrow walkway called the dong tong zi jia dao. This walkway was believed to be used for transporting dead bodies in the night. This added to the Forbidden City’s mystical reputation.
The Forbidden City was a temple
The emperor was considered the only official inhabitant of the Forbidden City, so visitors and those who entered on his behalf (ministers, nobles, etc.) were seen as just guests. This helped him maintain strict order during important ritual activities, such as ascending to the throne, holding great audiences, celebrating his birthday, and issuing government decrees.
The palaces in the northern section of the Forbidden City aligned on a central axis, with the emperor’s residence, known as the Palace of Heavenly Purity, to the south and the empress’s residence, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, to the north. This mirrored the idealized cosmic order of Confucian doctrine and reinforced their position of supremacy.
The Forbidden City served as the Chinese capital for 492 years, until 1912. It was home to 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, including fourteen Ming and 10 Qing emperors. Today, it houses the Palace Museum. It is a time capsule of China’s past and a place to learn about Chinese culture and history.
The Forbidden City was a garden
One of the most critical structures in the Forbidden City is the 125-foot-high Wu Gate, whose auxiliary wings outstretched on either side of the entrance resemble the forepaws of a lion or sphinx. This was an official entryway to the complex, where the emperor would appear at public events and issue imperial proclamations.
This was also the entrance to the Outer Court, where the emperor attended grand state ceremonies and other official functions. Here, bronze incense burners burned, and emperor edicts were signed.
In the Inner Court, meanwhile, palace servants went about their daily tasks. The emperor only ever entered here in person, or via his servants.
Observant visitors will note that some footpaths are paved with varied patterns of colored pebbles. These are meant to bring good luck. Also, along the walkways, you’ll find pictures of shrews punishing their husbands—a stark reminder that this was a male-dominated culture.