The Forbidden City – Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing (Peking)

1. Outstanding Universal Value (What does the UNESCO say about the property? Why is it worth your visit?)

2. Practical Information

2.1 How to get there?
2.2 How to buy ticket?
2.3 Opening hours and suggested length of visit
2.4 Audio guide
2.5 Other tips

3. Highlights (What you should absolutely not miss during your visit?)

3.1 General introduction to the Palace Museum
3.2 Tian’anmen
3.3 Meridian Gate (Wumen)
3.4 Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihe men)
3.5 Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian)
3.6 Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe dian)
3.7 Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian)
3.8 Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cining gong)
3.9 Six Western Palaces (Xi liugong)
3.10 Six Eastern Palaces (Dong liugong)
3.11 The Treasure Gallery, Gallery of Qing Imperial Opera
3.12 Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong)
3.13 Hall of Union (Jiaotai dian)
3.14 Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (Kunning gong)
3.15 Imperial Garden (Yu huayuan)
3.16 Gate of Divine Might (Shenwu men)

4. Jingshan Park (The best viewpoint to overlook the Imperial Palace.)

1. Outstanding Universal Value of the Forbidden City

This is my first post about China and I choose to introduce to you the Imperial Palace. Why? Let’s see what the UNESCO says about it.

  • Seat of supreme power for over five centuries (1416-1911), the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its landscaped gardens and many buildings (whose nearly 10,000 rooms contain furniture and works of art), constitutes a priceless testimony to Chinese civilization during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
  • It was constructed between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Zhu Di and witnessed the enthronement of 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors over the following 505 years.
  • Located in the centre of Beijing, it is the supreme model in the development of ancient Chinese palaces, providing insight into the social development of late dynastic China, especially the ritual and court culture.
  • The layout and spatial arrangement inherits and embodies the traditional characteristic of urban planning and palace construction in ancient China, featuring a central axis, symmetrical design and layout of outer court at the front and inner court at the rear and the inclusion of additional landscaped courtyards deriving from the Yuan city layout. As the exemplar of ancient architectural hierarchy, construction techniques and architectural art, it influenced official buildings of the subsequent Qing dynasty over a span of 300 years.
  • The religious buildings, particularly a series of royal Buddhist chambers within the palace, absorbing abundant features of ethnic cultures, are a testimony of the integration and exchange in architecture among the Manchu, Han, Mongolian and Tibetan since the 14th century.
  • More than a million precious royal collections, articles used by the royal family and a large number of archival materials on ancient engineering techniques, including written records, drawings and models, are evidence of the court culture and law and regulations of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

According to Wikipedia, the title of “world’s largest palace by area enclosed within the palace’s fortified walls” is held by China’s Forbidden City complex in Beijing, which covers an area of 728,000 square meters (180 acres). The 980 buildings of the Forbidden City have a combined floor space of 150,001 square meters and contain 9,999 rooms.

According to the Guinness World Records, the Forbidden City in Beijing, China is the “largest palace in the world“.

2. Practical Information

2.1 How to get there?

As one of the most popular tourist attractions in the centre of Beijing, the Imperial Palace is very conveniently accessible. The easiest way is to take Metro Line 1 and get off at stop “Tian’anmen East” or “Tian’anmen West”. Please note, the entrance to the palace is the Meridian Gate (Wumen) while the exit is the Gate of Divine Might (Shenwu Men). You can’t enter from the exit or exit from the entrance. After exiting the palace, there’s no nearby metro stop. The closest one is “National Art Museum of China” of Line 6 which is 18 mins away by foot. Alternatively, you can take bus Tourist Line 1, 2 or 3 at the exit to go your next destination.

2.2 How to buy ticket?

The most convenient way is to book your ticket online in advance. The official website is: but it’s only in Chinese so I guess you need to use Google Translate to translate the page. Please note, you need your ID card (or passport if you’re not a Chinese citizen) to buy the ticket and to enter the palace. If you have Alipay or WechatPay, you can scan the QR code at the entrance and buy your ticket on site immediately providing there are still tickets left. Remember to get your ID card or passport ready. If you don’t know how to book tickets online and don’t have Alipay or WechatPay, there is a small ticket office close to the entrance. Do expect long lines in the high season.

  • 1st April – 31st October: 60 yuan
  • 1st November – 31st March: 40 yuan
  • For information about discounted and free tickets please click here.

2.3 Opening hours and suggested length of visit

  • Open from Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays (except for national holidays).
  • 1st April – 31st October: 8:30 – 17:00
  • 1st November – 31st March: 8:30 – 16:30
  • The last ticket is sold one hour before the palace closes and the last entry is 50 mins before it closes.

About the length of your visit, I’d say you can easily spend a whole day there. In the past, the palace was called the Forbidden City so you can imagine how big it is. On the official website, there are recommended tours (routes) varying from two hours to a whole day. If you can, I strongly recommend you to leave a whole day for your visit because first of all, the Imperial Palace is much more than the main buildings on the central axis. Secondly, you can have a relaxing trip. There are restaurants and authentic souvenir shops inside so you don’t need to worry about getting hungry. Thirdly, as one of the world’s most famous palaces and museums, large crowds are common. Do expect long lines when you want to see the interior of certain halls and galleries, which will slow down your visit. If you like photography, you will need even more time.

2.4 Audio guide

Some people ask me if it’s worth hiring a guide. Honestly, if you don’t mind paying the money (an official guide costs 350 yuan for 2.5 hours), I think it’s a practical idea. The complex is like a maze, and a human guide can orient you better. What’s more, a human guide is more interactive and he/she can tell you some interesting stories which won’t be told by the official audio guide. Despite all the advantages, I opted for renting an audio guide and planning the visit by myself. As an enthusiastic traveller, I always like to organise my own trips when possible because it gives me more freedom. Now, I’ll tell you how to achieve a great experience on your own. Firstly, the Recommended Tours on the official website are a useful reference for designing your route. You can choose one of them depending on how much time you have and add some extra spots which you have particular interest in. After passing the ticket control, you will see two audio guide renting offices.

  • Audio guide in Chinese: 20 yuan
  • Audio guide in 35 foreign languages (English, French, German, Spanish etc.): 40 yuan

It’s an automatic audio guide so you don’t need to press any button to listen to the introductions. When you are in certain areas, the guide will play by itself. According to my experience, the connection wasn’t so perfect all the time but the stories told were quite interesting. I recommend you to rent one because otherwise you can only learn about the buildings and other objects from the info boards close to them, whose information is rather short and boring. After your visit, don’t forget to return the guide at the exit.

2.5 Other tips

  • One very important thing is to not get lost in the complex. If you can understand (or at least recognise) Chinese characters, it will be easy to locate yourself because the names of the gates and halls are usually written on them. If not, I’m afraid you’ll have to read the English translation on the info boards in front of them.
  • Admissions to the “Hall of Clocks” (10 yuan) and “The Treasure Gallery, Gallery of Qing Imperial Opera” (10 yuan) are not included in the general ticket to the Imperial Palace. You can buy tickets at their entrances separately. In the next chapter, I’ll tell you about my experience and you can decide if you wanna visit them or not.
  • Besides admiring the palace’s architecture, the treasures displayed in the exhibition halls are also worth your attention.
  • What’s the best time to visit the palace? To be honest, I don’t really know. As told by my friends, it’s busy all the time. I visited it in February and it was quite cold. One suggestion for you is to avoid the Chinese New Year as it will certainly be packed.
  • The Jingshan Park offers the best viewpoint overlooking the Imperial Palace as well as the city of Beijing. In the last chapter, I’ll introduce it and show you some pictures.

3. Highlights

Starting from the Meridian Gate (Wumen) and ending at the Gate of Divine Might (Shenwu Men), in this chapter, I’ll introduce the attractions (buildings, halls, exhibition spaces and gardens) that you shouldn’t miss. Most of the information is based on what I read from the info boards on site and what I heard from the audio guide and additionally, some is from Wikipedia.

3.1 General introduction to the Palace Museum

Nowadays, the complex is not called the Forbidden City or Imperial Palace anymore but the Palace Museum (or Gugong Museum). Established on the site of the imperial palace of the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties, it presents the civilisation of China in many ways: through its magnificent Ming and Qing imperial architecture, through the original furnishing of the palace, and through galleries of Chinese calligraphy and paintings, bronzes, ceramics, jewellery, clocks and other artworks from ancient times.

Encircled by 10-meter-high walls and a 52-meter-wide moat, the Forbidden City stands as the largest and best-preserved imperial palace complex extant in China. It is divided into an Outer Court and Inner Court.

  • The Outer Court, where the emperor held grand ceremonies, chiefly consists of three major halls, that is to say, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe dian), and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian). The Hall of Literary Brilliance (Wenhua dian) and the Hall of Martial Valour (Wuying dian) are on their sides.
  • The Inner Court, where the emperor dealt with routine government affairs and lived with his empress and concubines, contains the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong), the Hall of Union (Jiaotai dian), and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning gong). The Six Eastern Palaces (Dong liugong) and Six Western Palaces (Xi liugong) are on their sides.
  • Beyond these, in the outer eastern section are the Southern Three Abodes (Nan sansuo) for the princes and the palace for the retired emperor, and in the outer western section is the empress dowager’s palace.

Since its completion, the Forbidden City served as residence for a total of 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors. After the Qing dynasty was overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, the Forbidden City’s history as a feudal imperial palace came to an end. However, the last emperor Puyi and his family continued to live in the Inner Court. In 1914, the Gallery of Antiquities (Guwu chenliesuo) was established in the Outer Court and opened to the public. In 1924, Puyi moved out of the Forbidden City and in 1925, the Inner Court was converted into the Palace Museum. In 1948, both the Gallery of Antiquities and the Palace Museum were incorporated into one, keeping the name “Palace Museum”. In 1961, China’s State Council listed the Palace Museum among the first group of state priority protected sites, and in 1987, it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

3.2 Tian’anmen

Before entering the Palace Museum, let’s first take a look at the famous Tian’anmen and Tian’anmen Square. Literally translated as Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tian’anmen is a monumental gate widely used as a national symbol of China. First built during the Ming dynasty in 1420, it was the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located. On 1st October, 1949, Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao) proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the gate and since then, his portrait has been hung there. The western and eastern walls have giant placards. The left one reads “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” while the right one reads “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples”. Two stone columns, called huabiao (you can see it in the 1st picture in Chapter 2), each with an animal (hou) on top, stand in front of the gate. Traditionally erected in front of palaces and tombs, it is a type of ceremonial column used in traditional Chinese architecture. When placed outside palaces, they can also be called bangmu and when placed outside a tomb, they can also be called shendaozhu.

Tian’anmen is located to the north of Tian’anmen Square, separated from the plaza by Chang’an Avenue. As one of the largest city squares in the world, it has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes (which you can see in the 2nd picture above), which is a ten-story obelisk erected as a national monument of the People’s Republic of China to the martyrs of revolutionary struggle during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Great Hall of the People, which is used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the government of the People’s Republic of China and the ruling Communist Party of China, the National Museum of China, which is one of the largest museums and one of the most visited art museums in the world, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the final resting place of Chairman Mao.

3.3 Meridian Gate (Wumen)

the front of Wumen

the back of Wumen

The main gate of the Forbidden City, the Meridian Gate, was built in 1420, the 18th year of the Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor’s reign. With an overall height of 38 meters, it is the highest of the four city gates. In front of it are the entrance to the Palace Museum and the audio guide renting offices.

As you can see in the 3rd picture above, five passages lead through the gate: three central passages and two side passages. The central passage was reserved for the emperor and the only exceptions were the empress, who would enter through it once in her life time on the day of her wedding, and the Zhuangyuan (Principle Graduate), Bangyan (Second Graduate) and Tanhua (Third Graduate), the top three graduates of the Palace Examination, who could exit from the imperial palace through the central passage after the results of the examination were announced. The gate on the eastern side was used by civil and military officials while members of the imperial family, princes and dukes used the western gate. The two side gates were opened only during grand celebrations.

In times of war, the ceremony of presenting captives to the emperor would be held here to mark the army’s triumphant return. In the Ming dynasty, the Meridian Gate was also the site of the “court flogging” (tingzhang), a punishment imposed by the emperor on high officials.

3.4 Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihe men)

The Gate of Supreme Harmony, the main gate of the Forbidden City’s Outer Court, was built in 1420, the 18th year of the Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor’s reign. It was originally called the Gate of Venerating Heaven and then the Gate of Imperial Supremacy. During the Ming dynasty, the emperor held morning court at this gate to listen to briefings from his officials. In 1644, the first year of Shunzhi Emperor’s reign and the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the emperor held his enthronement ceremony and declared the first general amnesty here, and in the following year, it received its present name. In 1888, the 14th year of the Guangxu Emperor’s reign, it was destroyed in a fire and was rebuilt a year later.

3.5 Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian)

Commonly known as the Hall of Golden Bells (Jinluan dian), the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the site of grand ceremonies in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was built in the Ming dynasty in 1420 and similar to the Gate of Supreme Harmony, it was initially called the Hall of Venerating Heaven and then the Hall of Imperial Supremacy. In 1645, it got its present name. “Supreme harmony” derives from the ancient book called Book of Changes (I Ching or Yi Jing), in which it refers to the harmonious coexistence of all creatures in heaven and on earth. Important events organised here included celebrations for the New Year and the winter solstice, the emperor’s birthday and enthronement ceremonies, imperial weddings, the coronation of empresses, the announcement of the Palace Examination results, and the launching of major military expeditions.

Standing on three terraces of white marble, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is 26.92 meters high and covers an area of 2,377 square  meters. It is the highest-ranking ancient building extant in China and accordingly, the eaves feature the highest level of decoration, with ten figures on each corner, which is the only example of such decoration. As for the interior, a gold-lacquered throne carved with dragon designs occupies the centre. Above the throne hangs a tablet bearing the Qianlong Emperor’s calligraphy, which reads “jian ji sui you“ meaning “establish the highest principles and bring peace”. Six columns decorated with golden coiled dragons surround the imperial throne and another dragon occupies the recess in the centre of the ceiling, holding a pearl (also called the Xuanyuan Mirror) in its mouth and facing down. The floor is paved with square bricks made of fine dengni clay produced in Suzhou, commonly know as jinzhuan (metal bricks). The hall has burnt down and been rebuilt a few times and the structure we see today was rebuilt in 1695.

The fence was set rather far from the inside of the hall so I didn’t get a good view of the dragon in the ceiling and the pearl in its mouth. Nevertheless, the throne, the tablet, the columns and the floor were clearly visible.

Copper and Iron Vats

What happened when the Forbidden City caught on fire? Considering most of the palaces and halls are made of wood, they could easily burn down if not saved in time. Take a look at the gilt copper vats on both sides of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian), the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing men) and the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong), which are only a small part of the 308 copper, iron and gilt copper vats preserved in the Palace Museum. They were placed there for the purpose of fire fighting. Beijing is in the north of China and in the winter, it can be really cold. For example, during my visit (February), the temperature was between -8 and 0. Between the 10th lunar month and the 2nd lunar month of the following year, the vat would be wrapped with cotton cloth and covered with a lid. When temperatures became too low, charcoal would be burnt underneath to prevent the water from freezing. The earliest vat now preserved in the Forbidden City was cast during the Ming dynasty Hongzhi reign (1488 – 1505). Ming (1368 – 1644) copper vats feature iron rings on the two ears, a wider upper body with a narrower base while Qing (1644 – 1911) copper vats feature copper rings on the two ears with animal mask design and a large body that contracts in the middle.

3.6 Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe dian)

Hall of Central Harmony in front and Hall of Preserving Harmony at the back

At this hall the emperor received homage from officials in charge of ceremonial matters before he proceeded to hold court or lead ceremonies at the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It was built in 1420 and got its present name in 1645. The phrase “central harmony” derives from the Book of Rites (Liji, a collection of texts describing the rites of the Zhou dynasty), in which it refers to impartial and just conduct appropriate to each situation. With a perfectly square floor plan, the hall features a gilt bronze finial in the centre of the roof. Above the imperial throne hangs a tablet bearing the calligraphy of the Qianlong Emperor which reads “yun zhi jue zhong” (earnestly hold the central way).

In this hall, one day before participating in the sacrificial rites, the emperor would review ceremonial addresses. The hall was also used before he went to the Altar of Agriculture (Xiannong tan) to ceremonially plough the earth and sow seeds every spring, as it was here that he inspected the seeds and farming tools to be used in the ceremony. Another ceremony held here involved the Yudie, the Qing genealogy of the imperial family compiled every decade. When the compilation was finished, it would be sent to the emperor for approval and a grand ceremony for its storage would be held in the Hall of Central Harmony.

3.7 Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian)

The Hall of Preserving Harmony was built in 1420, the 18th year of the Yongle Emperor’s reign in the Ming dynasty. It has been destroyed in fire and rebuilt several times. The extant main structure dates back to the Ming dynasty. In 1645, the second year of the Shunzhi Emperor’s reign at the beginning of the Qing dynasty, it received its present name. The phrase “preserving harmony” derives from the Book of Changes (I Ching or Yi Jing) and refers to maintaining harmony between all things.

The hall covers an area of 1,240 square meters and its construction involved the special method known as “removing columns“, i.e. removing six columns from under the front eaves of the hall to widen the space. The tablet hanging in the hall reads “huang jian you ji” meaning it is the emperor who establishes the highest principles. It was written by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Ming dynasty emperors, before holding grand ceremonies, often changed their clothes in this hall. In the Qing dynasty, the emperor hosted banquets here on the eve of the lunar new year and the fifteenth day of the first lunar month for ethnic minority princes and ministers. Before the restoration of the three main palaces of the Inner Court in the early Qing dynasty, the Shunzhi and Kangxi emperors lived here and the hall was successively renamed the Palace of Proper Cultivation (Weiyu Gong) and the Palace of Pure Tranquillity (Qingning Gong). The wedding ceremony of the Shunzhi Emperor was also held in this hall. In 1789, the 54th year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, this hall became the permanent site for the Palace Examinations.

Large Stone Carving (Dashi diao)

The stone carving behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony is divided into upper, middle and lower sections. The lower section measures 16.57 meters long, 3.07 meters wide and 1.70 meters deep, and is the largest of its kind in the Forbidden City, hence the common name “Large Stone Carving”. The patterns we see today were re-carved in the Qing dynasty in 1761. The upper part of the Large Stone Carving features nine coiled dragons, symbolizing the emperor’s supremacy, while the lower part depicts sea waves and cliffs.

The stone used was quarried from Dashiwo in Fangshan, Beijing. It is said that the stone was transported to the Forbidden City by pulling it along a road covered with ice from wells dug along the route in winter.

3.8 Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cining gong)

This palace was first built in the Ming dynasty in 1536, and rebuilt in the Qing dynasty in 1653 under the Shunzhi Emperor. In 1736, the first year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, it was repaired and the surrounding structures were adapted. In 1769, under the same emperor, it was adapted into a seven-bay-wide structure featuring double layers of eaves and a hip and gable roof.

In the Ming dynasty, the palace was inhabited by the Imperial Noble Consorts of the previous emperor. Empress Dowager Cisheng lived here during the Wanli Emperor’s reign. In 1620, during his successor the Taichang Emperor’s reign, the Wanli Emperor’s concubines Imperial Noble Consort Zheng and Consort Zhao both resided in the palace. In 1627, after the Tianqi Emperor died, his Imperial Noble Consort and others moved here. In 1653, Empress Xiaozhuangwen settled in the palace, and from then on it served as the residence of empress dowagers and the wives and concubines of former emperors. Celebrations were organized on the occasion of the empress dowager’s birthday, the conferring of honorary titles and books, as well as princesses’ marriages. On the death of the empress dowager, her coffin would also be placed here.

During my visit, the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility was newly renovated and its halls were used as exhibition spaces displaying sculptures including terracotta figures, stone reliefs, brick reliefs, Buddhist statues and handicrafts. The most impressive exhibits for me were the “Stone Embracing Man and Woman” (25 – 220) found on a tomb in Sichuan Province, and the “Terracotta Warrior and Horse” (221 – 207 BC) excavated from the Terracotta Army Pit at the Qin Shihuang Mausoleum (founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China).

3.9 Six Western Palaces (Xi liugong)

Together with the Six Eastern Palaces (Dong liugong), the Six Western Palaces accommodated the emperors’ empresses and concubines. From the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) of the Qing dynasty, the empress no long lived in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, but chose one of the twelve palaces as her abode. The palaces kept their original layout basically as they were first built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and form a group with three palaces on each side of an alley that runs from north to south. Each palace has its own courtyard, a front hall, a rear hall and annexesEmpress Dowager Cixi spent most of her life in them, so she made many alterations to the buildings in this area. Depending on the time of your visit, some palaces might be closed. Below, I’ll show you and introduce the palaces I visited. One highlight of visiting the Six Western Palaces is their untouched and original furnishings displayed to the public, which you can see through glass windows.

Palace of Earthly Honor (Yikun gong)

This palace was built in 1420 and gained its current name during the Jiajing reign (1522-1588). The character “yi” means guarding and assisting, and implied that the consorts living in the Six Eastern Palaces and the Six Western Palaces should assist the empress and observe the female virtues. There is a horizontal tablet hanging in the front hall bearing a calligraphy by the Qianlong Emperor reading “yigong wanshun” (bedience and grace). When Empress Dowager Cixi lived in the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiu gong), the imperial consorts would come here on major festivals to pay their respects to her. On the occasion of Cixi’s 50th birthday celebration in 1884, this palace was converted and linked with the Palace of Gathered Elegance to form a four-row courtyard.

Hall of Harmonious Conduct (Tihe dian)

This hall was built on the site of the rear hall of the Palace of Earthly Honour and the Gate of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiu men) before the Empress Dowager Cixi’s 50th birthday celebration in 1884. It is five bays wide, with the central bay serving as the hallway and doors open to the front and rear. The eastern and western side bays and end bays are connected, providing space for Empress Dowager Cixi to have dinner, drink tea and rest when she lived in the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiu gong). On this site in 1888, Empress Dowager Cixi presided over the ceremonial selection of empresses and imperial consorts for the Guangxu Emperor.

Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiu gong)

This complex was built in 1420 and received its current name in 1535. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was a residence for imperial consorts, and the Empress Dowager Cixi also lived here for several years in the late Qing period. The palace we see today is the result of a large-scale renovation, costing 630,000 taels (one tael = 50 grams) of silver, which was conducted to celebrate the Empress Dowager Cixi’s 50th birthday in 1884.

3.10 Six Eastern Palaces (Dong liugong)

As the name indicates, this area houses six palaces in the same style located on the eastern side of the central axis of the Inner Court. First built in 1420, these buildings provided living quarters for the imperial concubines. Most of them were restored during the 17th century and now most have been turned into exhibition halls to display Chinese treasures collected by the imperial family.

Palace of Celestial Favour (Chengqian gong)

This palace was built in 1420 and got its present name in 1632. Cheng means “to accept” or “to bear”, signifying that the imperial consorts living in the Six Eastern Palaces and the Six Western Palaces should observe the female virtues and show obedience to the emperor. The Palace of Celestial Favour and the Palace of Earthly Honour (Yikun gong), one of the Six Western Palaces, are arranged in symmetry on both sides of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning gong), hence their linked names. It was inhabited by heirs apparent and noble consorts in the Ming dynasty, and by empresses and imperial consorts in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

During my visit, this palace hosted an exhibition of the Palace Museum’s collection of bronze ware, which is mainly from the Qing dynasty palace and to a lesser extent from purchases, private donations and archeological discoveries over the past years. The most impressive exhibits for me were the “Square Jia Wine Vessel with Inscription ‘Ce’”, and the “Ding Tripod Vessel with Inscription ‘Huo’” from the Late Shang dynasty (c. 1300 – 1046 BC).

Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Yanxi gong)

This eye-catching palace is rather ugly because it remains unfinished, but it’s one of the most important witnesses to the turbulent modern history of China. Built in 1420 and received its current name in the Qing dynasty, it was renovated in 1686. Imperial consorts lived here during the Ming and Qing dynasties including Imperial Concubine Tian and Noble Lady Cheng, consorts of the Qing-dynasty Daoguang Emperor (1821-1850). Originally the layout of the palace was the same as that of the other five eastern palaces. In 1845, a big fire destroyed the main hall, the rear hall, and the eastern and western side halls and only the palace gate remained. In 1909, the first year of the Xuantong reign, the Crystal Palace (Lingzhao xuan), a three-storey western-style building, was erected on the site using a cast iron framework. Because of the state’s reduced finances, by the winter of 1911 the construction had not yet been completed, and it was discontinued. In 1917, when Zhang Xun attempted to restore Aisin Gioro Puyi, the abdicated emperor to the throne, the northern section of the palace was bombed from the air by the opposing Zhili faction of military leaders. In 1931. the Palace Museum converted the palace into a warehouse for storing artefacts.

3.11 The Treasure Gallery, Gallery of Qing Imperial Opera

As I mentioned in Chapter 2, you need an extra ticket to visit the Treasure Gallery (which is only 10 yuan). According to my experience, it was absolutely worth the money and time seeing the “Nine Dragon Screen”, the Hall of Imperial Supremacy, (Huangji dian), the Hall of Spiritual Cultivation (Yangxing dian), the Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds (Changyin ge), and of course the numerous treasures among the Museum’s permanent collections. Nevertheless, during my visit, the exhibition rooms were way too crowded and I was almost always pushed to move forward. I could hardly take a close look at the exhibits, let alone taking photos of them. I really hope that during your visit there would be less people and you could take your time to admire the superb craftsmanship and inestimable value of the exquisite items made of precious materials such as jade, jadeite, gold, silver, pearls, and other precious and semi-precious stones. Particularly noteworthy are the “Seven Treasures” which were offerings presented before a Buddha including the Dharma Wheel, the White Elephant, the Dark Swift Horse, the Divine Pearl, the Fine Lady, the Able Minister of the Treasury and the Loyal General, and the “Eight Auspicious Symbols” which were offerings presented before a Buddha including the Wheel of Dharma, the White Conch Shell, the Precious Parasol, the Banner of Victory, the Lotus Flower, the Vase of Great Treasures, the Two Golden Fish and the Knot of Eternity.

Nine Dragon Screen

Measuring 29.4 meters long, 3.5 meters high and 0.45 meters thick, this single-sided screen made of glazed tiles was built against the palace wall when the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Ningshou gong) was converted in 1772, during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. This is one of China’s three great nine-dragon screens, the other two being in Datong (Shanxi province) and Beijing’s Beihai Park.

Hall of Imperial Supremacy (Huangji dian)

First built during the Qing dynasty in 1689, this hall was named Ningshou gong (Palace of Tranquil Longevity). In 1776 during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, it was converted to match the design of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianging gong) and acquired its current name. It was reconstructed in 1802 and 1884, during the Jiaqing and Guangxu reigns. The term “huangji” derives from the Book of Documents, referring to the line “the sovereign, having established (in himself) the highest degree…” The Qianlong Emperor planned to hold ceremonies and receive homage from ministers here after his retirement. On the lunar New Year’s Day in 1796, the Qianlong Emperor passed the crown to his successor the Jiaqing Emperor in a ceremony held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian). On the fourth day, the “banquet of a thousand elders” was organized in the Hall of Imperial Supremacy. Empress Dowager Cixi also celebrated her 60th birthday here, and on her 70th birthday she received the congratulations of foreign envoys here. After her death, her coffin was placed in this hall before its burial in the imperial mausoleum.

Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds (Changyin ge)

Built in 1776, this structure was repaired in 1802 under the Jiaging Emperor. Measuring 20.71 meters in height, it has three layers of eaves and a round-ridge hip and gable roof. Three bays wide and deep, it connects with the five-bay backstage dressing room to the south. Inside are stages on three levels: the upper Stage of Good Fortune, the middle Stage of Prosperity, and the lower Stage of Longevity. The Deheyuan Theatre in the Summer Palace in western Beijing later imitated this design.

Hall for Viewing Opera (Yueshi lou)

Built during the Qing Dynasty in 1776, this hall was where the emperor and empress enjoyed opera performances. On major occasions such as the lunar New Year’s Day and the emperor’s birthday, the emperor, empress, princes and ministers all came here to watch performances, with ministers in the corridors on both sides. During Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday celebrations, she watched operas here for over ten days, accompanied by the Guangxu Emperor, the empress, princes and ministers. The term “yueshi” (literally “seeing what is”) refers to the goal of better understanding and judging reality through watching opera performances.

Hall of Spiritual Cultivation (Yangxing dian)

The construction of this hall was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1776 imitating the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian). The name “yangxing” derives from Mencius, and means to cultivate one’s spirit and to be benevolent. The Qianlong Emperor intended to live here after he retired, but in fact never resided in the hall. However, he held a banquet for his princes and ministers here in 1781. In the late Qing Dynasty, when Empress Dowager Cixi lived in the Hall of Joyful Longevity (Leshou tang), she had dinner in the eastern warm chamber of this hall. The Guangxu Emperor lived here, and, together with Empress Dowager Cixi, met the wives of foreign envoys in this hall in 1903. In 1909, after Empress Dowager Longyu received her honorary title, princes and ministers paid homage to her here.

The Hall of Joyful Longevity (Leshou tang)

Situated behind the Hall of Spiritual Cultivation (Yangxing dian), the Hall of Joyful Longevity was the emperor’s living area after his retirement. The Empress Dowager Cixi lived here in her late years, pretending not to be interfering in state affairs. A noteworthy jade carving depicting Yu the Great (a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by establishing the Xia dynasty, and for his upright moral character) and his water-control project is to be seen at the north entrance to the hall.

3.12 Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong)

This palace was built in the Ming dynasty in 1420, and rebuilt in the Qing dynasty in 1798. The character “qian”, used in the palace’s name, derives from the trigrams in the Book of Changes (I Ching or Yi Jing) and stands for heaven.

From the Yongle Emperor’s reign (1402-1424) in the Ming dynasty to the Kangxi Emperor’s reign (1661-1722) in the Qing dynasty, the Palace of Heavenly Purity served as a residence in which the emperors both lived and dealt with state affairs. The Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing dynasty moved his sleeping quarters from the Palace of Heavenly Purity to the rear chamber of the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian), and also handled state affairs there. However, his successor the Qianlong Emperor brought the Palace of Heavenly Purity back into use for state affairs. In addition, in the Ming and Qing dynasties this palace was where the coffin of the deceased emperor was placed, in accordance with the belief that he should “end his days in his bedchamber” (shou zhong zheng qin).

A tablet bearing the legend “justice and honour” (zheng da guang ming) hangs above the imperial throne. From the Yongzheng Emperor onwards, the Qing dynasty emperors designated their heirs in secret, personally writing the chosen heir’s name and storing it in a case behind this tablet. After the emperor died, the case would be opened and the secretly designated prince would ascend the throne.

3.13 Hall of Union (Jiaotai dian)

This hall got its present name in the Ming dynasty in 1535, which comes from the Book of Changes (I Ching or Yi Jing) and refers to the union of heaven and earth and harmony between yin and yang. For this reason, the hall is located between the Palace of Heavenly Purity (heaven) and Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (earth).

With a square floor plan, the hall features a gilt bronze finial on the roof, of similar design to that at the Hall of Central Harmony. In the centre of the hall is a throne, and a tablet inscribed with “non-action” (wu wei, a key Daoist principle) in calligraphy by the Qianlong Emperor in imitation of the Kangxi Emperor’s handwriting hangs above and behind it. Directly beneath the tablet is a screen bearing the “Ode to the Hall of Union”, composed by the Qianlong Emperor. To the left is a copper clepsydra (a water clock used in imperial China) and to the right is a large striking clock. In the Qing dynasty, the empress received homage here on three occasions each year: her birthday, the first day of the lunar new year, and the winter solstice. In 1748, the thirteenth year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, the emperor used this hall to store the 25 imperial seals symbolizing his power.

3.14 Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (Kunning gong)

The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (Kunning gong) served as the residence of the empress in the Ming dynasty. In traditional thought it formed a pair with the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the residence of the emperor, with heaven characterized by lofty wisdom and the earth represented by rich breadth and lenience.

The original palace was built in the Ming dynasty in 1420 but the structure we see today was rebuilt in 1655 in imitation of the Palace of Pure Tranquillity (Qingning gong) in Shengjing (present-day Shenyang). The entrance is located on the eastern end of the building’s face, rather than in the middle, giving the palace a “pocket-style structure” with distinctive Manchu features. During the Kangxi Emperor’s reign, the two bays on the eastern side were used as the emperor’s bridal chamber. Emperors Kangxi, Tongzhi, Guangxu, and the last emperor Puyi, all of whom ascended the throne at a young age, completed their wedding ceremonies here. The four bays on the western side were used as a shrine for shamanic sacrifices, housing a circular kang (a flat oven commonly used as a bed in northern China) on which the statues of deities were placed, and large cauldrons for cooking sacrificial meat.

3.15 Imperial Garden (Yu huayuan)

Behind the Inner Court is the Imperial Garden, which was named Gonghou yuan (Rear Garden of the Palace) in the Ming dynasty. First built in 1420, new buildings were added over time. The garden measures 80 meters from south to north and 140 meters from east to west, covering a total area of 12,000 square meters. The Hall of Imperial Peace (Qin’an dian), the main structure in the garden, features double layers of eaves and a flat-topped roof and is located on the central axis of the Forbidden City. With this hall in the centre, pavilions, platforms and towers are arranged in front and on both sides.

Another important hall in the garden is the Hall of Spreading Grace (Chizao tang), which was built in the Ming dynasty. The name “chizao”, derived from Ban Gu’s “Response to a Guest’s Jest”, refers to flowery language. This hall was one of the emperor’s studies, and was renowned for containing “The Essentials of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries” (Siku quanshu huiyao). When work was proceeding on the “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries” (Siku quanshu), the 63-year-old Qianlong Emperor worried that he might not live to see it completed, and he therefore ordered the editors to select the essentials and compile them into a book for his review in advance. The “Essentials” was completed in the 43rd year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign and stored here.

Hall of Imperial Peace (Qin’an dian)

First constructed in the Ming dynasty, this became an independent building after walls were built during the Jiajing reign in 1535. Measuring five bays wide and three bays deep, it stands on a single-tier base of carved white marble. The Supreme Lord of the Numinous Heaven was worshipped inside. The Qing court set up an altar within the Gate of Heaven’s Primacy (Tianyi men) on every New Year’s Day, and the emperor would burn joss sticks and pay homage here. On festive occasions rites would be held in this hall. Taoist eunuchs managed the hall’s daily affairs, but from the year 1839, during the Daoguang reign, the participation of eunuchs was forbidden.

Mountain of Accumulated Elegance (Duixiu shan)

Located northeast of the Imperial Garden, this was originally the site of the Ming-dynasty Hall for Viewing Flowers (Guanhua dian). In 1583, this artificial hill replaced the hall, with its north side reaching a height of around ten meters against the palace wall. The front features a cave, with a brick dome and a stone caisson ceiling carved with dragon patterns. The words “accumulated elegance” (dui xiu) in Manchu and Chinese can be seen on the lintel of the cave. Fountains stand in front of the hill on both sides, with a vat containing water hidden in the rocks, and a connecting pipe conveying water to be sprayed from the mouth of a stone coiled dragon. This is the only water work feature preserved in the Forbidden City. Stone steps on the eastern and western sides of the hill lead up to the crowning Imperial Prospect Pavilion (Yujing ting).

Lodge of Spiritual Cultivation (Yangxing zhai)

Located in the southwest corner of the Imperial Garden, the lodge was initially built in the Ming dynasty and received its current name in the Qing dynasty. The upper floor features a colonnade, while on the ground floor, doors and casement windows are set on the bays. The lodge was initially a seven-bay structure. In 1754, the 9th year of the Qianlong reign in the Qing dynasty, a three-bay extension was added to each end of the structure to give it a U-shaped plan. The Qing dynasty Jiaging and Daoguang emperors both lived here at times. Another resident was Reginald Fleming Johnston, the English tutor of the last Qing emperor Puyi.

3.16 Gate of Divine Might (Shenwu men)

This gate is the northern gate of the Forbidden City and the exit of the Palace Museum. Built in 1420, it was originally named Black Tortoise Gate (Xuanwu men), but when the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty, whose birth name was Xuanye, ascended to the throne, the use of the Chinese character Xuan became a form of naming taboo. Besides being used by palace workers, women being sent into the palace for selection as concubines also entered through this gate.

4. Jingshan Park

By exiting from the Gate of Divine Might (Shenwu men), your visit to the Forbidden City is officially finished. However, I strongly recommend you to continue your visit to the Jingshan Park (2 yuan entrance fee), whose south entrance is located right across the Jingshan Front Street from the Palace Museum. The focal point of the park is the 45.7-meter high artificial hill Jingshan, literally “Prospect Hill”, which was constructed during the Yongle reign of the Ming dynasty entirely from the soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals. It is especially impressive when one considers that all of the material was moved only by manual labor and animal power. The dictates of feng shui long praised tombs and residences sited south of a nearby hill, serving to channel both harmful yin and cold northern winds. With Jingshan serving that purpose, it gained the name Feng Shui Hill. The Chongzhen Emperor, the last ruler of the Ming dynasty, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in Jingshan in 1644 after Beijing fell to Li Zicheng’s rebel forces. Until 1928 the park sat directly by the moat and was accessible on the south side only from the Forbidden City via the Gate of Divine Might. Now it’s a popular place for people to gather and socialize. One can often find elderly folks dancing, singing opera and doing other cultural activities, such as kuaiban.

Jingshan consists of five individual peaks, and on the top of each peak lies an elaborate pavilion. After an easy climb to the highest point of the hill, where the Wanchun Pavilion stands, you will get an amazing view of the entire Forbidden City and the city of Beijing at large from above. If you are lucky, the sunset and sometimes burning clouds seen from the top will certainly take your breath away.

The Forbidden City – Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing (Peking) was last modified: November 23rd, 2020 by Dong

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