World Travel GuidesForbidden City, China

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The Forbidden City, in Beijing, China, was the Chinese Imperial Palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Covering an area of 720,000 square meters, it is the largest imperial palace complex in the world.

The Forbidden City was inscribed as a World Heritage Site during the 11th session of the World Heritage Committee which met in UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, on 7-11 December, 1987.

The inscription was entitled Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang, and includes also the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang, comprising 114 buildings built from 1625 to 1783. In the inscription, the Forbidden City was lauded for being the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

World Heritage Site Inscription Details

Location: N 39 54 58.8 E 116 23 27.2 in Beijing and Shenyang
Inscription Year: 1987 with extension in 2004
Type of Site: Cultural
Inscription Criteria: I, II, III, IV

Forbidden City is located at the heart of Beijing. Indeed all places in Beijing radiates out from it. Other tourist attractions such as the Tiananmen Square, Great Hall of the People, and the newly built National Centre of the Performing Arts are located within the vicinity. The Temple of Heaven is located further south while the Beijing Olympic Complex is located directly to the north.

The English name, Forbidden City, is a translation of the Chinese name of the place, Zijin Cheng, which literally means Purple Forbidden City. It is also often translated as Forbidden Palace, after the Manchu name of it, Dabkuri dorgi hoton, which literally means Layered Inner City. Today, the Chinese calls it Gugong, meaning Former Palace, and the museum based within it is called Gugong Bowuyuan, or Palace Museum.

The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420, during the reign of Emperor Yong Le, third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. At the time when it was built, Emperor Yong Le (or perhaps Zhu Di), had his capital in Nanjing. He usurped the throne from his nephew, and moved the capital to Beijing.

Beijing was the site of the Mongul imperial city during the Yuan Dynasty. When the Hongwu Emperor founded Ming Dynasty, he moved the capital south to Nanjing. The earlier Mongol palaces were ordered razed. His son Emperor Yong Le, moved the capital back to Beijing.

The Forbidden City was the powerbase of the Ming Dynasty court from 1420 until 1644, when rebels under Li Zicheng captured it, and ushered in the shortlive Shun Dynasty. It only lasted one month, from April to May of 1644. General Wu Sangui of the former Ming Dynasty, with Manchu forces, ejected Li Zicheng out of the Forbidden City, causing some parts of the complex to be damaged in the processs. General Wu Sangui then set up the Qing Dynasty, under the young Shunzhi Emperor. The Qing Dynasty was to last until the last emperor of China at the beginning of the 20th century. During the period lasting 500 years, a total of 24 emperors were to make it their home.

Under the reign of the Qing rulers, some names of the buildings within the complex were changed, from "Supremacy" to "Harmony", and name plates installed bearing the names written in Chinese as well as Manchu.

Today the Forbidden City comprises 980 buildings. Originally it has 8707 bays of rooms - indeed the architecture called for 9,999 rooms, covering an area of 1,829,000 sq ft (170,000 sq m) although today the floor area totals only 1,614,600 sq ft (150,000 sq m). The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 171 ft (52m) wide, 6m deep moat and a 33ft (10m) high wall. The wall served both as a defensive walls as well as retaining walls. They are surfaced on both sides with three layers of specially baked bricks.

At each corner stands a Watch Tower (12 on Map 1). They are replicas of the Pavilion of Prince Teng and the Yellow Crane Pavilion, from Sung Dynasty paintings. As the Forbidden City was out of bounds to commoners, these watch towers are the only thing they could see from the retaining walls.

There are gates on each side of the wall. The main gate, Meridien Gate (1 on Map 1) is at the south. On the northern side is the Gate of Divine Might, facing Jinshan Park (M of Map 2). On the east side is the Donghua Gate, or East Glorious Gate (11 on Map 1) and on the west side is the Xihua Gate, or West Glorious Gate (10 on Map 1).

The Imperial Way is a stone path that forms the central axis of the Forbidden City. It runs north-south through the ancient city of Beijing, from the Gate of China to the south, right through the Forbidden City, and out at Jingshan Park in the north. During ancient times, only the Emperor may use the Imperior Way. The only exceptions are for the Empresses, during her wedding, and students that have graduated from the Imperial Examinations.

The Forbidden Palace is divided into two parts: the Outer Court, on the southern part of the complex, and the Inner Court (shaded opaque red in Map 2). The Outer Court is a place for ceremonies. Entering from the Meridian Gate (1 in Map 1), visitors arrive at a large square. The Inner Golden Water River, crossed by five bridges are located here. In front of it is the Gate of Supreme Harmony (2 in Map 1). Passing through it, visitors arrive at the Hall of Supreme Harmony Square. On this square is a three-tier white marble terrace. Standing on this terrace are the main palace complex. Lined up in a row from south to north, they are the Hall of Supreme Harmony (3 in Map 1), Hall of Central Harmony (4 in Map 1), and Hall of Preserving Harmony (5 in Map 1).

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It rises to 30 meters from the square. At the ceiling is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon. From its mouth is a chandeliar-let ornament of metal balls, called the Xuanyuan Mirror. According to legend, the metal balls will drop on any emperor not worthy to sit on the throne. It was created in the Ming Dynasty. One of the emperors in the Qing dynasty is said to have moved the throne slightly backwards, to avoid having the metal balls right above him.

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony, a private quarters for the emperor to prepare and rest in between ceremonies. Behind it, the Hall of Preserving Harmony is used rehearsing ceremonies. It is also where the final stage of the Imperial Examination is held. The imperial throne is located in all three halls.

The Inner Court is located beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony. It is entered through the Gate of Heavenly Purity (between 5 and 6 on Map 1) This is the private quarters of the Emperor and his family. It also comprises three halls on a north-south axis. The southernmost is the Palace of Heavenly Purity (6 in Map 1). This is the residence of the emperor. However, during the Qing Dynasty, the Yongzheng Emperor decided to live in the smaller Hall of Mental Cultivation (14 in Map 1), to the west, as respect to the memory of the Kangzi Emperor. During that time, it became the emperor's audience hall.

The Hall of Union (7 in Map 1) is a square structure with a pyramidal roof. It houses the 24 imperial seals of the Qing Dynasty, and other ceremonial items.

The Palace of Earthly Tranquility (8 in Map 1) is the residence of the empress. During the Qing Dynastry, a large part of it was converted for shamanist worship. Since the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, the empress moved out of the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, though the Emperor retained two chambers here for use on the wedding night.

To the east and west of the three main halls of the Inner Court are the residential quarters of the emperors' concubines and children. The Hall of Mental Cultivation because the residence of the emperor starting from Yongzheng. Offices of the mandarins and other key government bodies are located around the Hall.

To the northeast of the Inner Court is the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (15 in Map 1). It is a scaled-down version of the Forbidden City, complete with Outer Court, Inner Court, gardens and temples. It was built by the Qianlong Emperor for his own retirement. The entrance to it is at the Nine Dragon Screen.

The Imperial Garden is located north of the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, before the retaining wall. The Gate of Diving Might (13 in Map 1) leads northwards out of the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was turned into the Palace Museum in 1924, allowing commoners to enter for the first time, and glimpse a fraction of its extensive collection of treasures and artwork. During the Japanese invasion of China, the treasures were spirited for safekeeping in different parts of China. While the majority of it was brought back to Beijing after the war, a big portion is still residing at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The National Palace Museum of Taipei and the Palace Museum of Beijing were offshoots of the same institution was split following the Chinese Civil War.

A Starbucks cafe opened within the Forbidden City in 2000, sparking protests. It eventually closed in July, 2007. IBM Corporation is working on a website to present a virtual model of the Forbidden City. The project is expected to be ready some time in 2008.

Map 1: Forbidden City Location Map

View WorldGreatestSites: Forbidden City in a larger map The above map shows the different places within the Forbidden City. Places within the Forbidden City is labelled as shown below.

1: Meridian Gate
2: Gate of Supreme Harmony
3: Hall of Supreme Harmony
4: Hall of Central Harmony
5: Hall of Preserving Harmony
6: Palace of Heavenly Purity
7: Hall of Union
8: Palace of Earthly Tranquility
9: Imperial Garden
10: Xihua Gate
11: Donghua Gate
12: Watch Tower

13: Gate of Divine Might
14: Hall of Mental Cultivation
15: Palace of Tranquil Longevity

Map 2: Forbidden City Environs

View WorldGreatestSites: Forbidden City Complex in a larger map The above map shows the places around the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is shaded red.

Shaded Red: Forbidden City
1: Mausoleum of Mao Zedong
2: Tiananmen Square
3: Great Hall of the People
4: National Centre of the Performing Arts
5: Yingtai Island
6: Zhongnanhai
7: Temple of Imperial Ancestors
8: Beihai Park
9: Jingshan Park
10: Songzhu Temple and Zhizhu Temple

Forbidden City - Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Harmony Square, as seen from the Gate of Supreme Harmony
Author: Allen Timothy Chang (GNU Free Documentation License)

Tiananmen Gate, with the portrait of Mao Zedong
Author: Raimond Spekking (GNU Free Documentation License)

Forbidden City, inside the Palace Hall
Author: Wikipedian (GNU Free Documentation License)

Bronze guardian lion at the Forbidden City
Author: Allen Timothy Chang (GNU Free Documentation License)

Shenwumen Gate, Forbidden City
Author: Kallgan (GNU Free Documentation License)

Author: Sputnikcccp (GNU Free Documentation License)

Roof architecture
Author: Saad Akhtar (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Inner Golden Water River, crossed Author: bridges
Author: Sven Llinder (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Forbidden City Watch Tower
Author: Seebeer (public domain)

Forbidden City Starbucks
Author: Migual A. Monjas (GNU Free Documentation License)

Dragon tortoise
Author: Jacob Ehnmark (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Northwest tower and moat of the Forbidden City
Author: Kallgan (GNU Free Documentation License)

Northwest Tower of the Forbidden City at night
Author: Snowyowls (Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5)

The Nine Dragon Screen, entrance to the Palace of Tranquil Longevity
Author: Seebeer (public domain)

Roof ornamentation at the Hall of Supreme Harmony
Author: Leonard G. (Creative Commons Attribution 1.0)

Visiting Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is open daily from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm from April to October, and from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm from November to March.

Local Tours of the Forbidden City

You can join any of these tours to view the Forbidden City:
  1. Full Day Tour including the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
  2. Full Day Tour of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven
  3. Beijing Historical Tour of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven

Getting a Private Tour Guide

You can also book a private guided tour, customized to your needs for a full day tour of Beijing. Find out more about getting a Private Custom Tour.

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