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The Forbidden City

The Gugong (故宫, gùgōng), or Imperial Palace, is much better known by its unofficial title, the Forbidden City, a reference to its exclusivity. Indeed, for the five centuries of its operation, through the reigns of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace. The complex, with its maze of eight hundred buildings and reputed nine thousand chambers, was the symbolic and literal heart of the capital, and of the empire, too. From within, the emperors, the Sons of Heaven, issued commands with absolute authority to their millions of subjects.

Although the earliest structures on the Forbidden City site began with Kublai Khan during the Mongol dynasty, the plan of the palace buildings is essentially Ming. Most date to the fifteenth century and the ambitions of the Emperor Yongle, the monarch responsible for switching the capital back to Beijing in 1403. The halls were laid out according to geomantic theories – in accordance to the yin and yang, the balance of negative and positive – and since they stood at the exact centre of Beijing, and Beijing was considered the centre of the universe, the harmony was supreme. The palace complex constantly reiterates such references, alongside personal symbols of imperial power such as the dragon and phoenix (emperor and empress) and the crane and turtle (longevity of reign).

After the Manchu dynasty fell in 1911, the Forbidden City began to fall into disrepair, exacerbated by looting of artefacts and jewels by the Japanese in the 1930s and again by the Nationalists, prior to their flight to Taiwan, in 1949. A programme of restoration has been underway for decades, and today the complex is in better shape than it was for most of the last century.

To do it justice, you should plan to spend a day here, though you can wander the complex for a week and keep discovering new aspects. The central halls, with their wealth of imperial pomp, may be the most magnificent buildings, but for many visitors it’s the side rooms, with their displays of the more intimate accoutrements of court life, that bring home the realities of life for the inhabitants of this, the most gilded of cages.

Visiting the Forbidden City

The complex is open to visitors daily, but note that the entrance is quite a way after Tian’anmen; just keep on past the souvenir stalls till you can’t go any further. You have the freedom of most of the hundred-hectare site, though not all of the buildings, which are labelled in English. The ticket has a map on the back, which also shows where the exhibitions are. If you want detailed explanation of everything you see, you can tag on to one of the numerous tour groups or buy one of the many specialist books on sale. The audio tour, available by the main gate, is also worth considering – though if you do this, it’s worth retracing your steps afterwards for an untutored view.

From Wumen to Taiheman

The Wumen (Meridian Gate) itself is the largest and grandest of the Forbidden City gates and was reserved for the emperor’s sole use. From its vantage point, the Sons of Heaven would announce the new year’s calendar to their court and inspect the army in times of war. It was customary for victorious generals returning from battle to present their prisoners here for the emperor to decide their fate. He would be flanked, on all such imperial occasions, by a guard of elephants, the gift of Burmese subjects.

Passing through the Wumen you find yourself in a vast paved court, cut east–west by the Jinshui He, the Golden Water Stream, with its five marble bridges, decorated with carved torches, a symbol of masculinity. Beyond is a further ceremonial gate, the Taihemen, Gate of Supreme Harmony, its entrance guarded by a magisterial row of lions, and beyond this a still greater courtyard where the principal imperial audiences were held. Within this space the entire court, up to one hundred thousand people, could be accommodated. They would have made their way in through the lesser side gates – military men from the west, civilian officials from the east – and waited in total silence as the emperor ascended his throne. Then, with only the Imperial Guard remaining standing, they kowtowed nine times.

The ceremonial halls

The main ceremonial halls stand directly ahead, dominating the court. Raised on a three-tiered marble terrace is the first and most spectacular of the three, the Taihedian, Hall of Supreme Harmony. This was used for the most important state occasions, such as the emperor’s coronation or birthdays and the nomination of generals at the outset of a campaign, and last saw action in an armistice ceremony in 1918. A marble pavement ramp, intricately carved with dragons and flanked by bronze incense burners, marks the path along which the emperor’s chair was carried. His golden dragon throne stands within.

Moving on, you enter the Zhonghedian, Hall of Middle Harmony, another throne room, where the emperor performed ceremonies of greeting to foreigners and addressed the imperial offspring (the product of several wives and numerous concubines). The hall was used, too, as a dressing room for the major Taihedian events, and it was here that the emperor examined the seed for each year’s crop.

The third of the great halls, the Baohedian, Hall of Preserving Harmony, was used for state banquets and imperial examinations, graduates from which were appointed to positions of power in what was the first recognizably bureaucratic civil service. Its galleries, originally treasure houses, display various finds from the site, though the most spectacular, a vast block carved with dragons and clouds, stands at the rear of the hall. This is a Ming creation, reworked in the eighteenth century, and it’s among the finest carvings in the palace. It’s certainly the largest – a 250-tonne chunk of marble transported here from well outside the city by flooding the roads in winter to form sheets of ice.

The imperial living quarters

To the north, paralleling the structure of the ceremonial halls, are the three principal palaces of the imperial living quarters. Again, the first chamber, the Qianqinggong, Palace of Heavenly Purity, is the most extravagant. It was originally the imperial bedroom – its terrace is surmounted by incense burners in the form of cranes and turtles (symbols of immortality) – though it later became a conventional state room. Beyond, echoing the Zhonghedian in the ceremonial complex, is the Jiaotaidian, Hall of Union, the empress’s throne room; and finally the Kunninggong, Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, where the emperor and empress traditionally spent their wedding night. By law the emperor had to spend the first three nights of his marriage, and the first day of Chinese New Year, with his wife. This last palace is a bizarre building, partitioned in two. On the left is a large sacrificial room with its vats ready to receive offerings (1300 pigs a year under the Ming). The wedding chamber is a small room, off to one side, painted entirely in red, and covered with decorative emblems symbolizing fertility and joy. It was last pressed into operation in 1922 for the child wedding of Pu Yi, the last emperor, who, finding it “like a melted red wax candle”, decided that he preferred the Yangxindiang and went back there.

The Yangxindiang, or Mind Nurture Palace, is one of a group of palaces to the west where emperors spent most of their time. Several of the palaces retain their furniture from the Manchu times, most of it eighteenth-century; in one, the Changchungong (Palace of Eternal Spring), is a series of paintings illustrating the Ming novel, The Story of the Stone. To the east is a similarly arranged group of palaces, adapted as museum galleries for displays of bronzes, ceramics, paintings, jewellery and Ming and Qing arts and crafts. The atmosphere here is much more intimate, and you can peer into well-appointed chambers full of elegant furniture and ornaments, including English clocks decorated with images of English gentlefolk, which look very odd among the jade trees and ornate fly whisks.

Leading you away from the palace chambers – and offering, by this stage, something of a respite – the Kunningmen heads out from the Inner Court to the Imperial Garden. There are a couple of cafés here (and toilets) amid a pleasing network of ponds, walkways and pavilions, the classic elements of a Chinese garden. At the centre is the Qinandian, Hall of Imperial Peace, dedicated to the Taoist god of fire, Xuan Wu. You can exit here into Jingshan Park, which provides an overview of the complex.