4 Jingshan Qianjie
HOURS: Daily Apr. 1-Oct. 14 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.,
Oct. 15-Mar. 31 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
COST: ¥60 Apr. 1-Oct. 31, ¥40 Nov. 1-Mar. 31
METRO: Tian’anmen West (Line 1)
Probably the most important historic site in Beijing, the Forbidden City lies right in the center of the modern capital, on a central axis from which the rest of the city fans out. With 980 buildings, it is the largest surviving palace complex in the world, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its great historical importance.
Gugong, as the Forbidden City is known in Mandarin, was home to 24 emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Since the emperor was believed to be descended from gods, his palace was strictly out of bounds to the common people, and thus “forbidden.” It was also known as the Purple Palace to link it with Polaris, which was known as the purple star and considered to be the center of heaven.
The palace complex was built by an estimated one million laborers (many of whom were forced into the work), starting in 1406 and finishing in 1420 during the reign of Yongle, the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Yongle’s father, the Hongwu Emperor, had burned down the palaces of the defeated Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and moved his capital to Nanjing for a fresh start, but Yongle brought it back to Beijing and decreed that a great palace complex be built on the site of the Yuan court.
The Forbidden City’s low roofs and ochre buildings sprawl over 720,000 square meters (7.7 million sq. ft.); their yellow-topped roof tiles symbolize royalty. Only the imperial library has a black roof, signifying the water that would extinguish any fire that threatened the royal books inside.
The Forbidden City is divided into two main sections. The southerly Outer Court contains the rooms from which the emperor ruled, while the northerly Inner Court was where the royal family lived. It is open to the public as the Palace Museum and contains much of its original decoration, although part of the collection was relocated to the National Palace Museum in Taipei after the Communist Revolution.
Enter the palace complex through the Meridien Gate, after crossing the 52-meter-wide (171 ft.) moat that separates it from the rest of the city. The gate is also known as the Five Phoenix Tower, and leads onto the marble Inner Golden Water Bridges that take you over a small stretch of water towards the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The hall is guarded by the Gate of Supreme Harmony with its fearsome bronze lions, and is the first of the three halls in the Outer Court.
The largest of the three, this building has the Hall of Martial Valor to its southwest and the Imperial Library and Hall of Literary Prowess to its southeast, where crown princes studied. Heading north you’ll come to the smaller Hall of Central Harmony where the emperor rested on his way to conduct official business in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Next is the Hall of Preserving Harmony—the final building of the Inner Court—where banquets were held and imperial examinations were supervised by the emperor.
The Inner Court is accessed by the Gate of Heavenly Purity, leading to three halls on a central axis that mirror the trio in the Outer Court but are smaller. The Palace of Heavenly Purity once contained the bedroom of the emperor, and was the place where he held banquets and official meetings. The Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union was where the empress received and greeted the royal concubines, and her bedroom was known as the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.
Behind the palace lies the Imperial Garden, echoing the style of the great classical gardens of south China with pavilions, rock formations, pools, and foliage. Its main structure is the Hall of Imperial Peace.
On either side of the Hall of Imperial Peace are the Six Eastern Palaces and Six Western Palaces that made up the living quarters of the emperor’s concubines. Each palace has its own courtyard, front and rear halls, and annexes for sleeping. Many of the original furnishings remain. The Six Eastern Palaces now contain displays of art and craftwork from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Below the Eastern Palaces are the Hall of Ancestry Worship and the Palace of Abstinence, where the emperor would spend several days before offering sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven and the Temple of the Earth. To the south of the Western Palaces is the Hall of Mental Cultivation where state business was carried out.
Head east from the back of the Hall of Ancestry Worship and you’ll reach the Outer East Wing through the Gate of Great Fortune and Xiqing Gate. This wing was built for the retirement of the Qing emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), and contains some beautiful halls, chambers, and pavilions, as well as the decorative Nine Dragons Screen. Behind the Imperial Garden is the Gate of Spiritual Valor which leads across the moat and out of the palace complex.
The Forbidden City was home to 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors. With the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the Forbidden City stopped being used as a palace. Puyi, the last emperor, abdicated from the throne as the Xinhai Revolution gathered steam, but was allowed to stay in the Inner Court.
The outer part of the Forbidden City was taken over, and the whole of the City was turned into the Palace Museum in 1925 after Puyi was finally evicted. After the Japanese invasion of 1933, much of the palace treasure was removed; some treasure remains in Taiwan, while the rest is part of the Palace Museum collection and can be seen in the Forbidden City today.
The complex suffered minor damage after the Communists came to power in 1949 and was threatened during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) until Premier Zhou Enlai sent guards to protect it. The Forbidden City became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and so has escaped the fate that befell most of Beijing’s old city gates. A Starbucks was opened on the site in 2000, but closed seven years later after complaints of commercialization.
There is a lot to see in the Forbidden City, so it’s a good idea to devote at least a morning or afternoon to visiting (if not more). It’s most sensible to go first thing in the morning so you have the whole day to explore.