Imperial city

Beijing: the Imperial city

The Forbidden City, huge though it was, was essentially a residence: the task of running the empire took place outside. Thus the Forbidden City was surrounded by the Imperial City occupying an area six times as big, and surrounded by walls even more impressive until they were demolished in the Cultural Revolution to make way for the second inner ring road. What did the Imperial City contain?

A large area was taken up by the lakes, the artificial reservoirs for the city that were constructed by the Mongols when they laid out the earlier city of Khanbalik. There were also a dozen or more palaces for princes and high officials. Here too were the granaries, the parks where the sheep and cattle could graze and the store houses. In particular here were the imperial workshops; clocks and watches were a speciality, so was fine clothing, glass and metalwork, jewellery and ceramics. The actual porcelain was made in the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, a thousand miles to the south, but the pieces were brought to the palace for the painting and final decorations.

Hutong street with bike

A Street in one of the Hutongs, showing a tourist tricycle, and to the right the traditional houses where the workers in the Imperial city once lived

The workshops were crowded together in ‘hutongs’. Many of these have survived, but were considered to be appalling slums, until in recent years they have been discovered by the rising middle classes who see them as desirable properties to be restored, rather like mews cottages in London. They have now become part of the tourist circuit where tourists are put on bicycle rickshaws and are cycled round the hutongs. The best are in the form of the classic Chinese house: a hall to the north facing south over a courtyard with a formal gateway leading into the courtyard.

Hutong chef in courtyard

A house in one of the hutongs, where the owner/chef provided lunch for our tourist party. He said that his father and grandfather had lived there and worked as chefs in the Imperial Palace

The hutongs formed the workshops of the palace economy. When emissaries came bearing tribute to the Chinese emperor, the emperor was expected to give something in return. In practice, the transaction was often skewed in the opposite direction, and the gifts were really bribes the Chinese emperor paid to the fierce barbarians from the steppes to the north, bribing them not to invade the Chinese kingdom. Indeed one suspects that such gifts were more effective than the Great Wall in keeping the barbarians out. But there were also other members of the Royal family and powerful local magnates who needed to be bribed to be kept happy.

Prince Li jewel

How the emperor gave out gifts to his followers. This rich jewel was found in the grave of Prince Liang, buried in 1441. Some of the jewels come from India and must have been brought back in the voyages of Admiral Zheng He. They were then incorporated in this jewel which was no doubt given to Prince Liang, who was one of the Emperor’s brothers.

A good example of this can be seen in the early part of the Ming dynasty.When in the early 1400s Admiral Zheng He made his famous voyages all over the Indian Ocean, he brought back with him prized jewellery from the Indian empires. This jewellery and the rare stones that they contained were recycled in the palace workshops, and some of the resulting jewels were given to the Princes who were despatched out to the provinces. One of them, Prince Liang, died in 1441 and was buried in great splendour, and some of these recycled jewels were found in his magnificent tomb.

The big mystery to me is where were all the scribes, the bureaucrats who kept the vast empire running? There were over a thousand county towns with their surrounding territories, each controlled by a magistrate sent out by the Emperor. Every year the Imperial examinations were held producing thousands of dedicated scholars all looking for a cushy post somewhere in the administration. Who kept touch with these and decided where they should be sent out? In one of the great comparable cities, Amarna in Ancient Egypt, a special quarter was situated next door to the palace where the scribes ran the empire. One room was clearly the Foreign Office where the famous Amarna Tablets were discovered with many baked clay tablets in several different languages recording the transactions between the pharaohs and the kings of distant countries. Presumably there must have been a similar foreign office (called the Ministry of Rites) where the correspondence with the barbarians could be stored and interpreted. But where were all these situated?

It appears that the major offices were outside the southern gate of the Forbidden City in the area occupied today by Tiananmen Square. This formed the grand approach to the palace with the Gateway of the Nation halfway down. Originally however it was lined with the ministries:   the ruling of China was traditionally divided between six ministries: half to the right, half to the left: the ministries of Personnel; Revenue; Rites (which included foreign affairs); War; Punishments (in effect the Ministry of Justice), and Works. However in Beijing, five of the Ministries were situated on the eastern side of what is now Tiananmen Square, with the exception of the Ministry of Punishments which was to the West. However when the Anglo-French invading army occupied Beijing in 1860 they encamped in this area and subsequently the various western nations established their legations here, so it became the Legations Quarter. However all was swept away in the grand construction of Tiananmen Square in the 1950s.

However according to Nancy Steinhardt there were also nearly a dozen’ prefectural administrative offices’ scattered throughout the city in large compounds and one wonders why they were not all grouped together. Was it a deliberate attempt to keep them apart and prevent them forming factions or the political parties so hated by the emperors and/or right thinking administrators?


But one should not see the phenomenon of being an emperor purely in practical or economic terms: there was also a major ritual element. Chinese religion was rather like Roman religion – it did not play a major role – but it still existed deep down. The trouble was that the traditional Chinese religion tended to be overlaid by other philosophies. There were the Confucian and Daoist philosophies, more philosophy than religion, though Daoism in particular had plenty of temples. The most obvious religion of all was Buddhism, which always remained essentially a foreign religion. But underlying all, there was still the original Chinese religion in which the emperors played a major role.

Temple of Heaven straightened red2 P689

The Temple of Heaven, built at the same time as the Palace.

The most important temple was the Temple of Heaven, a mile south east of the Forbidden City. This was built by the Yongle emperor at the same time as the Forbidden City, that is between 1406 and 1420. It stands in its own extensive park and it is still a most stunning piece of architecture. It is circular, for it is the Temple of Heaven, and whereas the earth is square, heaven is round – and for the same reason it is decorated with blue tiles. At the mid-winter solstice every year great ceremonies took place. The emperor fasted for two days and then on the third day made his way in a chariot drawn by elephants with all his court to the Temple of Heaven where he performed sacrifices and offered prayers for a good harvest.

Adjacent to it was a second temple almost as big: the Temple of Agriculture set in grounds that covered three and a half square kilometres. Here the great ritual took place at the time of the Spring equinox, when the king processed from his palace to the temple and then to show his practical prowess would plough a couple of furrows. The royal princes and the high ministers were then expected to plough a couple of furrows each, followed by a real ploughman to show them how it should be done. But this ploughing by the emperor ensured good harvests throughout China for the rest of the year.

There were many other such temples in Beijing: two of the most important were the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, set outside the walls of the Imperial City one to the east, the other to the west. Inside the City there was also the Temple to the Earth while two important temples flanked the approach road to the palace, on one side the altar to the gods of Land and Grain, on the other side was the Temple to the Imperial Ancestors, though this has now been converted into the Working Peoples’ Cultural Palace: the gardens surrounding it are still beautifully maintained. It is temples such as these that represent the real traditional Chinese religion.

 The Summer Palaces

Longevity Hill

The Summer Palace, looking across the lake to Longevity Hill, made up of the spoil dug out when the lake was formed. A Buddhist monastery sits on its slopes.

In addition to the formal palace of the Forbidden City, the emperors also had their Summer Palace, situated five miles to the North West. This was situated around the huge Kunming Lake which was largely artificial. When Kublai Khan established the capital city of Dadu in the 1270s to 1290s, the great Chinese astronomer and water engineer, Guo Shoujing re-organised the water supply to the city and formed several lakes which served as reservoirs for the city – two of them existing within the Imperial city. However the largest was the Kunming Lake, and the spoil dug out was piled up to form a hill, today known as Longevity Hill. Between 1750 and 1764, the long-lived Qianlong Emperor enlarged the lake and built a Summer palace along its shore, employing some of the leading European architects.

The old Summer Palace is a subject of controversy, for it was burnt down in 1860 by an Anglo-French army under Lord Elgin in retaliation for the murder and torture of the envoys who had been sent to negotiate a truce. The old Palace buildings set in three separate zones – burnt for thirty days and the porcelain that were looted from it decorate many country houses in England. However a nearby portion of the lakeside was used for a new Summer Palace. This too suffered from several vicissitudes noticeably in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, but the wicked Dowager Empress Cixi poured money into it, diverting money that had been set aside to rebuild the navy into adorning her summer palace. As a result in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 the impoverished Chinese forces received a thorough drubbing. However the Summer Palace is now a highly successful summer park loved by locals and visitors alike: there are ample facilities for boating on the lake. But during the time of Empress Cixi, much business was done in the various halls that are spread around the gardens.

It is difficult to comprehend quite how China was ruled so successfully over such a long period of time. The Forbidden City was at the centre, but the government business spilled over into the Imperial City that surrounded it and the rituals spread further still, while the Summer Palace was probably used for some of the business.  For much of the time, the system worked well.

The palaces of Beijing present one of the prime examples in the study of palace society. They are huge and dominate the city within which they existed and the whole city must have been devoted to serving the palace complex. But there is a mystery: where did all the scribes work? There is an interesting comparison to be made with the Amarna palaces in ancient Egypt, where there was a definite section adjacent to the Palace for the scribes, and where in one of the rooms the Amarna tablets were discovered, the diplomatic correspondence between the Pharaoh and the kings of adjoining nations. There is nothing like that in Beijing: were some of the Hall in the Forbidden City given over to bureaucracy? One would like to think that the Hall of Literary Glory was really a den of bureaucracy, but apparently it was just a place where once a year the Emperor read out a study of Confucius. Or were all the scribes in the ministries that underlie Tiananmen Square?

Beijing is the best preserved of all the palaces, but it is also the latest: for a view of the classical palace-city, we must now turn to the Tang period and to the city of Chang ‘An, modern Xian.



On to Xian