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The Forbidden City

Forbidden City

Brief Introduction

The Forbidden City, officially known as the Imperial Palace Museum, served as a home for Emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty and their households, as well as the very center for ancient politics. It was originally constructed in the Ming Dynasty by Emperor Yong Le (between 1406 and 1420). As the representation of the world's largest complex still preserved from human activity, the Forbidden City is well-known with the world's five major palaces/ places of leadership (Forbidden City in Beijing, the Palace of Versailles in France, Buckingham Palace in the UK, the White House in the USA, the Kremlin Palace in Russia).

With the total area of more than 720,000 m², there are over 9,000 buildings in the palace, occupying 150,000 square meters. Forbidden CityThe palace has experienced countless building, rebuilding, sacking and renovation, which means the architecture in front of you today can be dated back to the 1700’s or even earlier. Nevertheless, the Forbidden City still retains its original appearance to a large extent.
As the seat of imperial power for 500 years in Chinese history, the Forbidden City accumulated millions of preserved historical and cultural relics; while as the seat of the National Palace Museum, it became a treasure trove where over 1.8 million movable cultural relics were collected and exhibited. In 1987, the UNESCO honored this magnificent complex as the best preserved ancient wooden structure in the world.

Name Origin

The Forbidden City is the direct translation from Zijin Cheng (Purple Forbidden City). There are three theories on the origin of the color Purple in the name. One theory relates to the “Purple Air Coming from the East”. This involves an old legend. A guard on the Hangu Gate was on duty when he witnessed a blast of purple air coming from  the east. A while later, Taoism founder Lao Zi appeared on a black ox. The guard asked  Lao Zi to write the famous “Tao Te Ching”. Since then purple air is commonly considered as a fortunate phenomenon, indicating the arrival of some saint or an extremely good thing would happen. The Purple used for this palace aims to bring luck for the royal families.

The other theory is related to superstition. Golden Roofs The ancient Emperors always referred to themselves as the ‘Son of Heavenly God, who lives in the Heavenly Palace. According to “Guangya Shitian”, the heavenly palace is also called the Purple palace. Therefore, the palace for emperors is referred to as the Purple Palace.

The last theory is linked to the “celestial seat”. In old times, people categorized the stars into three celestial seats, twenty-eight important constellations and other smaller ones. One of the three celestial seats specifically refers to the most important North Star, which is called the Purple Star (紫微星) in Chinese. Hereby the Imperial Palace is also called the Purple Palace.

The other character “禁(Forbidden)” is quite easy to understand. This was the royal palace for Emperors and their families, common subjects were not allowed to enter or even come near without permission. It was the most strictly secured place in the old times.


Based on the Yuan Dynasty Imperial palace, Emperor Zhu Di in the Ming Dynasty ordered the Forbidden City to be built in 1406 before he moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing. Imperial Hall of the Forbidden CityThe construction lasted for 14 years, needed over 1 million workers, covered 780,000 sq meters with 9999.5 rooms and hosted twenty-four Emperors ranging from the third Emperor in Ming Dynasty Zhu Di to the last Emperor Fuyi in the Qing Dynasty. After the revolution in 1911 when the Dr. Sun Yat-sen led people overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the former Emperor FuYi was still allowed to live in the inner palace for 13 years until warlord Feng Yuxiang evicted him. On Oct.10 1925, the Palace Museum was established and opened to the public. Along with the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the palace gradually fell into ruin. The once-splendid halls and yards became a dumpster, many complexes fell apart. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the restoration process began. In 1987, the Forbidden City was listed as a UNESCO site. The latest refurbishment commenced in 2003 and lasted for almost a decade. During the Lantern Festival (Feb.19 - 20) in 2019, for the first time, the Forbidden City was open to the public at night.

Layout of the Forbidden City

The place where the Emperor lived is located in the center, Layout of the Forbidden Cityenclosed by a 10-meter-high defensive wall with a circumference of 3430 meters. Magnificent watchtowers stand at each corner of the wall. The entire construction is enclosed by a moat which is 52 meters in width, 6 meters in depth, and 3800 meters in length winding outside of the wall. There are 4 gates including the Meridian Gate (Wumen) in the south and the Gate of Devine Might (Shenwumen).

Building Principle

The Forbidden City is built strictly based on the Imperial palace building protocol recorded in the “Zhou Li Kao Gong”. It requires that the Imperial court be located in the front, social and commercial market sites at the back, while on the left there are temples in remembrance of ancestors and on the right there are temples for emperors to pray for a good harvest. The whole complex reflects the regal hierarchy, while achieving beautiful symmetry. The Chinese-style roofs are quite interesting. In the Forbidden City, there are over 10 kinds of roof form. Take the Three Great Halls as example, their roofs are all distinctive from each other. The vitreous tiles are featured too. The major halls used mainly yellow tiles. Green vitreous tiles were used on the residences of princes. Other colors like blue, purple, and black were generally used for the gardens. On the end of the ridges, there are animal-shaped carvings like dragons, lions, seahorses, phoenixes, etc. both as emblems and decorations.

Four Gates

There are four magnificent gates, each side has a gate. The one in the south, also the main gate is called the Meridian Gate. The other three main gates are the East Glorious Gate, West Glorious Gate, and the Gate of Divine Might in the north. Each corner of the complex has a small tower with a height of 27.5m.

The Meridian Gate is also called the Three-Phoenix Tower, connecting with Meridian Gatea 12-meter-high platform from the east, west and north side, making a square plaza. This gate was the place where emperors issued imperial proclamations and give orders for military expeditions. All the officials and ministers were congregated in the plaza to receive the Imperial proclamations. Only Emperors could use the middle door in the Meridian Gate. There were other occasions when this gate could be used. The Empresses could only enter once on their wedding day, and the top three scholars ranked in the palace examinations could exit this door once. The kinsmen of Emperors are allowed to walk through the west side door, whilst the ordinary officials and ministers could only use the east side door.

The Gate of Divine Might was also called the Gate of Xuanwu. Gate of Divine MightXuanwu was one of the divine beasts in ancient times. Its position on the north side has led to the north gates of many other palaces being called Xuanwu. Since Emperor Kangxi’s real name was Xuanye, to avoid the confusion, the Gate of Xuanwu was renamed as the Gate of Divine Might. This is the back gate of the palace where only concubines and Imperial families were allowed access. It’s also the only gate that used both Mandarin and Manchu Script.

The East Glorious Gate is on the opposite side of the West Glorious Gate. One of the most mysterious differences between these two gates is that each door of the East Glorious Gate East Glorious Gatehas an arrangement of nine-rows-by-eight of golden door nails, which is one row less than on the West Glorious Gate. There are three versions of explanations offered for this. Some people say that it was through the East Glorious Gate that Emperor Chongzhen in the Ming Dynasty escaped to hang himself in Jingshan Park when Li Zicheng attacked Beijing. One column of door nails were removed during the later restoration for its failure in fending off the enemies. The truth is he would have had to make a detour to get to Jingshan park from this gate. Some people say it’s because several coffins of Emperors and Empresses were carried out from this gate and even numbers referred to Yin (the Nether World). Others believe that the East Glorious Gate is mainly for ministers and officials which gives it a lower status.

West Glorious Gate
The West Glorious Gate leads to the western gardens (Beihai, Zhonghai, Nanhai) where Emperors and Imperial families escaped the Summer heat to go hunting. This is the only door unavailable to visitors.


Most travelers enter the Forbidden City through Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which will lead you to the main entrance to the palace, Meridian Gate. Entering the Meridian Gate, you will see the Outer Palace first. The Forbidden City is divided into two parts - the "Outer Palace" and "Inner Court". Buildings are very different between these two parts.

The Outer Palace

The "Outer Palace", with the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian) Hall of Supreme Harmonyas the center, is located on the central axis of the entire palace. There were places where Emperors exercised powers and attended important events. The Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian) is where Emperors rehearsed their speeches and presentations before departing to the Temple of Heaven for the sacrificial rites. The last hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which was used for banquets and later for Imperial examinations.

Outside the Hall of the Preserving Harmony, there is a huge block of marble carved with cloud and dragon designs, which shows the way to the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Qianqingmen). This is the main gateway to the inner court.

The Inner Court

The Inner Court housed the three main Imperial harems. Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly TranquilityThe Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Palace) was the Emperors' sleeping quarters. The Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning Palace) was where the Imperial seals were stored. The Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility was the Emperors' wedding room.

This area also consisted of the Hall of Mental Cultivation, Six Eastern Palaces, Six Western Palaces and Imperial Garden for residence and entertainment of the Emperors, Empresses and concubines. Those palaces have been changed into exhibition halls, where many spectacular Imperial collections are displayed.


The Gate of Divine Might which is behind the Imperial Garden served as the main exit gate of the Forbidden City.

Interesting Facts

Cold Palace

To understand ‘Cold Palace’, we have to understand ‘Three palaces and six yards’. ‘Three palaces’ refers to the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union and Palace of Earthly Tranquility, while the ‘Six yards’ refer to the Western Six Palaces (Palace of Eternal Longevity, Hall of the Supreme Principle, Palace of Eternal Spring, Palace of Earthly Honour, Palace of Gathering Elegance, Palace of Universal Happiness, Palace of Ci Ning and Eastern Six Palaces (Palace of Great Benevolence, Palace of Heavenly Grace, Palace of Accumulated Purity, Palace of Prolonged Happiness, Palace of Great Brilliance, Palace of Eternal Harmony). The feudal Emperors had the absolute supreme power, and could choose as many as concubines as they wanted. Those who were disgraced in court would be left in a prohibited yard and anywhere that housed these disfavored princes or concubines would be called the Cold Palace.

Who designed the Forbidden City?

The designer of this magnificent palace complex remains a mystery. There are many records left on the buildings stating who had done such an amazing job. There have been many guesses, but the most reliable quote came from superior engineer Yu Zhaoyun, who believed it was a unknown designer, Cai Xin.

Dragon Ridges

Why there are so many Dragons in the Forbidden City?

You may wonder why there are countless dragon carvings in this grand palace. In feudal society, Emperors were referred to as ‘The true son of heaven (dragon), the ultimate ruler of the earth’. That’s why dragon carvings are so common inside the palace, on the Imperial seals, or even daily necessities like cups or clothing.

Why there are no trees in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony?

These three halls were the most important sites for Emperors to Hall of Central Harmonyattend state affairs or ceremonial events. To stress the majestic atmosphere, there were no trees planted in yards linking the entrance of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the Gate of Supreme Harmony. When ministers went to court every morning, they would have to walk a long way through various buildings, which was very stressful so that when they arrived at the Towering Hall, they would be under the highest mental stress. In precisely this way, the supremacy of Imperial power was presented. If there were trees outside the halls, the majestic mood would be affected. There is another explanation: no assassins would find cover.

Nine-dragon Screen

The Nine-dragon Screen in the Forbidden City is assembled Nine-Dragon Screenfrom top-notch glazed bricks. However, the third dragon’s abdomen is actually wood. It was very difficult to make glazed bricks back then. The craftsmen accidentally broke one piece and there wasn’t enough time to start over. One craftsman replaced the glazed brick with a piece of carved wood painted the same color. The inspector didn’t notice the difference.

Other information

Location: Chang'an Street in Dongcheng District, Beijing (the center of Beijing city)


1961 - registered in the first batch of China's key, national, cultural relics’ protection units;

1987 - World Heritage Site;

2013 - registered as the world's largest, existing and most complete ancient buildings made of wood.Exquisite Gate

Time needed for a Visit: 2.5 - 3 hours

Opening Hours:

April to October: 8:30-16:00

November to March: 8:30-15:30

Closed every Monday

Entrance Tickets:

Peak Season: April 1 - Oct.31, 60 RMB;

Low Season: Nov. 1 - Next Mar.31, 40 RMB;

Treasure House (entrance to Palace of Tranquil Longevity, including Opera House and Stone-drum House): 10 RMB;

Clock House (enter Hall of Fengxian): 10 RMB.

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