> Features > Culture

Enduring appeal of the Forbidden City

YE LANG and ZHU LIANGZHI | 2019-01-10
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Bird's eye view of the Forbidden City, the Palace Museum Photo: 699PIC


The Forbidden City and its magnificent architecture lies at the center of Beijing, once home to 24 emperors that have lived within its walls since the 15th century. It was the very heart of the country for almost 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and it is the best-preserved and the biggest imperial palace complex in the world. The magic pull of the palace complex, together with its collections and history, is hard to resist.


The central axis
As an outstanding example of an architectural complex, the old city of Beijing in which the Forbidden City sits in the center has endured changes of political regimes as well as social turbulence, but its layout has changed little. The earliest settlement in the region dates back over 3,000 years. For the first time Beijing was made a capital when the nomadic Khitans from beyond the Great Wall expanded southward and founded the Liao Dynasty (907–1125). It then served as the seat of power for the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), the Ming Dynasty (1421–1644), the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the early Republic of China (1912–1928) and now the People’s Republic of China (1949–present).

The layout of the old city of Beijing was roughly fixed when the Yongle Emperor (1360–1424) made the city the main capital of the Ming Dynasty in 1421. The whole city was massively reconstructed on the site of Dadu (another name of Beijing given by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty) and was built along a north-south central axis set by the Yuan Dynasty. This eight-kilometer-long central axis runs through the old city of Beijing, around which architecture was arranged symmetrically, creating a beautiful city landscape.

Starting in the south of the city from the Yongding Gate, the central axis runs north with the Temple of Heaven and the Temple for the Divine Cultivator on either side. These two sites for ceremonies of prayer to Heaven and to the Divine Cultivator mark the starting point of the central axis. Then, the axis runs across Zhengyang Gate and Tian’anmen Square (the site where Zhonghua Gate used to stand, which was demolished in 1959 to make way for Tian’anmen Square). The Imperial Ancestral Temple and the Imperial State Shrine were built symmetrically to the east and the west of Tian’anmen, in which sacrificial ceremonies were held in honor of the imperial family’s ancestors and of gods of land and grain (land and grain symbolize the state in traditional culture). Placing the two buildings on an equal footing has something to do with China’s agrarian history, adhering to the ancient principle of “Ancestors on the left with the State on the right.” The central axis leads all the way through the whole complex of the Forbidden City from the Gate of Uprightness and the Meridian Gate in the south to the Gate of Divine Might in the north, reaching Jingshan (Jing Hill), crossing the Gate of Earthly Peace and ending with the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the north.

The Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The southern portion, or the outer court, used to be where official business was carried out and consists of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the largest building), the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the very center of the Forbidden City. In the southwest and southeast of the outer court are the halls of Military Eminence and Literary Glory, representing military and civil administrations respectively.

The northern portion is known as the inner court, serving as the residence of the emperor and his family. The central axis runs through a set of three major halls in the inner court—the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility—with the Eastern Six Palaces and the Western Six Palaces on both sides. Nearly 10,000 rooms in the Forbidden City are arranged in an orderly manner along the central axis.

The central axis that runs through the old city of Beijing from the north to the south is believed to be the longmai (literally the dragon’s artery, a concept of feng shui representing the line carrying the most valuable energy) of Beijing, winding up and down through the city like a dragon. Buildings around the axis were built and designed in a rhythmic manner. A main building in the Meridian Gate complex is flanked by two pavilions on either side, thus resembling a flying phoenix.


Colors of the Forbidden City
The colors of the Forbidden City were meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles.

Yellow and red predominate the color scheme of the city. Yellow is the color of the emperor. Thus the complex is mainly in yellow. Red is considered an auspicious color in traditional Chinese culture. Both yellow and red belong to the warm-toned colors, conveying a passionate and festive mood.

Almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles, together with vermilion walls and pillars, creating a strong visual impact. Under the eaves covered with the yellow glazed tiles, the beams are decorated with cool-toned paintings, of which the main colors are blue and white. The pillars that support the beams, windows and doors are painted vermilion and sit on white stone bases, surrounded by white marble stairs. When observing the Hall of Supreme Harmony at the foot of its marble stairs, the golden roof and vermilion pillars against the giant white marble stairs complete the fairytale feel of an enchanted palace floating above the clouds.


The majesty of imperial power
The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was planned to symbolize the majesty of imperial power. The whole city is designed with a purpose to make people worship, respect and fear the owner of the city—the emperor.

Among the five gates within the Meridian Gate complex, the middle gate is specialized for the emperor. Similarly, there are a lot of bridge complexes containing bridges grouped in odd numbers, with the middle bridge serving as the exclusive method of access for the emperor. For example, only the emperor could walk through on the middle of the five bridges in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, as well as the three bridges in front of the Hall of Military Eminence.
There are six pairs of statues of guardian lions in the Forbidden City. A pair of giant guardian lions stand in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The pair consists of a male standing on the left and a female on the right. The male leans his paw upon an embroidered ball, representing supremacy over the world while the female plays with a cub, symbolizing nurture.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, before being marshaled into the presence of the emperor, a subject had a long way to go. One had to pass across the Zhonghua Gate, Tian’anmen and the Gate of Uprightness, walking a long road lined with guards on both sides. Then came the grand Meridian Gate and the Gate of Supreme Harmony. After crossing numerous gates and bridges and climbing endless steps, the subject finally reached the highest hall in the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, in which the emperor sat on his throne.


The article was edited and translated from Insights into Chinese Culture, published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Ye Lang and Zhu Liangzhi are professors at Peking University.

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)