Forbidden City

Beijing, The Forbidden City


The ‘Forbidden City’ at Beijing is one of the great tourist attractions in the world. This great Chinese palace, where from the 16th century onwards the Chinese emperors lived and performed their ceremonial functions, is the only Chinese palace to have survived virtually intact. It is indeed a miracle that it has escaped the ravages of time so successfully. In the western incursions in the 19th century, it was the Summer Palace on the outskirts that was burnt down, while the ‘Forbidden City’ was left intact. Even more fortunate was its escape from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution the 1950s and 60s, when Zhou En lai stationed soldiers to preserve the Forbidden city, and Chairman Mao was persuaded to put his zeal into building the great ceremonial Tiananmen Square in front of it. But this means that it has survived to provide an excellent guide to how the Chinese Empire actually worked.

Beijing as we see today is in fact the third capital city to be established in the area. The first was established in the Age of Disunity between the Song and the Ming by the barbarian dynasties, the Liao (907-1125) and the Jin (1125 – 1234) dynasties. The city was called Zhongdu, and was situated in what is now the south-western quarter of Beijing. The walls have long been destroyed, though the Tianning Temple with its fine pagoda dates to this period. However in 1215 it was attacked by Genghis Khan, and after a long siege was sacked and pillaged, and the capital of the Song empire was moved south to Kaifeng.

However two generations later, his grandson Kublai Khan (1264 -1293) rebuilt the city and called it Khanbaliq – the city of the Khan. This was the city visited by Marco Polo who called it Cambaluc, though the Chinese actually called it Dadu. However by the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty it had shrunk in size and the palace had been destroyed. But when the Ming dynasty took over, the third Ming emperor, the dynamic Yongle emperor decided to make it into his grand capital, and the for first time, Beijing became the capital of the whole of a united China. Between 1406 and 1420 he built a new palace, which is today the Forbidden City, largely in the form we see it today. It was formally inaugurated in 1420, having been built in just 14 years.

 The structure of the palaces

Beijing_city_wall_mapIt is tempting to believe that the Forbidden City makes up the whole of the ‘palace’, but in fact it is only part of the governing structure: Beijing is made up of five, if not six cities which form the paraphernalia of government. The Forbidden city was surrounded by the Imperial city, where the scribes and craftsmen did much of the work. This in its turn was surrounded by the Inner city where the mass of the people lived, while to the South were the two great Temples of Heaven and of Agriculture, the former constructed at the same time as the Forbidden City and forming the ritual part of the Imperial power, so after a century it too was surrounded by its own wall to form the Outer City.

Then in addition there was the Summer Palace, 10 miles to the north, where the emperor and his family in fact spent much of their time. Perhaps too one should add the latest addition to the city, Tiananmen Square, the extravaganza of Chairman Mao, with his mausoleum at the centre and the Great Hall of the People to one side facing the National Museum; the whole square was built over the Legation quarter, grand approach to the Forbidden City, and the successive gateways and the embassy buildings were demolished when the Square was built in the 1950s.

But to understand the architecture of the Forbidden City, one must first realise how very different Chinese architecture is to the architecture we are accustomed to in the West. Here in the West we are accustomed to palaces built around courtyards, where the great halls are linked up with one another. In China however the palace or indeed the great house is formed of halls placed one behind the other, and fronted by a gateway. Admittedly there are often side buildings to form in effect a courtyard, but it is the halls that form the principal feature.

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The Hall of Preserving Harmony in the Forbidden City. This is the rearmost of the three great imperial halls and was used for ceremonial banquets and it was also the also the place where the final exam of the Imperial examination system was held.

These Halls form a very different tradition to those we are accustomed to in the West. The Chinese built of wood, which is why so little of their ancient architecture has survived. True, they could build in brick and stone as is demonstrated by the great pagodas; but in China, timber halls were the main structures and it is the elaboration of their roofs and the projecting eaves with their elaborate dragon terminals that form the highlights of Chinese architecture: the columns and pillars of classical Greek and Roman (and Egyptian) architecture are unknown in China.

The core of the Forbidden City consists of three great Halls placed one behind the other. The foremost is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest and most prestigious of all; we use it for a default header for our Chinese pages. It is set on a huge artificial platform which was built in three tiers.  This terrace formed the centre of the palace, and there were three palaces on it, one after the other.

The first hall, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was where coronations and Imperial weddings took place. Behind it, the central building was the Hall of Middle Harmony, a comparatively small, square building where the Emperor robed, and the nobles made their kowtow, touching their heads nine times on the floor: today it houses an elaborate throne. The rear hall, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was nearly as large as the main Hall of Supreme Harmony, but it served as a banqueting hall, and also the place where the final exams for the civil service took place.

The interesting thing to me, comparing it with other palaces, is that there appears to be no redistribution element, nothing to compare to the Window of Appearance in Egyptian temples where the Pharaoh showed his magnanimity by giving out presents to the leading nobles. In China, the Emperor received gifts, but the gifts that he gave out were distributed more discretely.

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The great outer courtyard in the Forbidden City. Note the river meandering through it, crossed by elaborate formal bridges. (Double click to enlarge)

.However having said that the Chinese do not do courtyards I must eat my words because the Halls are fronted by two huge courtyards. The question however is what the courtyards for? The outer courtyard has a stream running through it, crossed by five ceremonial bridges. But the inner courtyard is vast. It reminds one of the great courtyards of Mughal and Imperial India, dominated by the Imperial throne where the Emperor would make his formal appearance before the thronging masses. But just how crowded were the courtyards? The Forbidden City was after all ‘forbidden’; but China had over 1000 local ‘counties’, and if the magistrates from every county were to attend the capital, the courtyards would be very full indeed. China was a very populous place.

 The inner court

Behind the three great halls of the outer court there was the smaller inner court where the Royal Family actually lived. There is a major difference in function between the different courts: the outer court was dominated by the imperial bureaucracy. Here the high officials chosen from their success in the imperial exams made the decisions that ruled China. Real power however lay within the inner court, for this is where the crucial decisions were made about dynastic succession. The Chinese did not follow the strict rule of primogeniture, but instead the current emperor chose his successor from within the members of the Royal family, sometimes his younger brother, more often one of the children of one of his wives.

The atmosphere therefore in the inner court was one of constant infighting and back stabbing: there were normally at least a dozen wives who had produced male offspring, and each wife was supported by several eunuchs all jostling for their position and the all-important question as to who the next emperor might be. In the Qing dynasty the emperors tried to avoid this by putting the name of his successor in a sealed box which was only to be opened after his death. But many of the children died young and all too often the chosen successor turned out to be an infant whose mother would be the regent and thus for years at a time, the empire would be ruled by a dowager empress and her favourite eunuchs. The decisions made by the scholar officials in the outer court were normally good ones. Those made by the families in the inner court were all too often bad ones.

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Where the concubines really lived: the Hall of Gathering Elegance, where the Dowager Empress Cixi lived with her ward, Puyi, the last Emperor

Much of the actual residential quarter was comparatively small-scale.  An area in the north west corner is displayed to visitors as being the residential quarters of the last Emperor of China, Puyi, and the Dowager Empress Cixi who dominated the court in China for much of the second half of the 19th century. It all seems surprisingly small, home to a series of small courtyards and halls where the Imperial family lived. It is nowhere near as elaborate as the Harem in the Topkapi palace at Constantinople where a whole quarter of the Palace was set aside for the concubines and the eunuchs who looked after them.

But how many of the scribes and civil servants who actually ran the Emperor actually worked here? Undoubtedly some did, but one suspects that much of the work took place outside the Palace in the Imperial city, and it is to the Imperial city that we must now turn.


On to The Imperial city