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January 13, 2019

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Home » Sunday » Now and Then

Hail the heavenly Purple Palace

ZIJIN Cheng, or the Forbidden City, lying in the center of Beijing, was the home to 24 successive Chinese emperors. Covering 74 hectares (740,000 square meters), the compound is recognized as the world’s largest palace complex, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

The iconic complex is known around the world for its unparalleled architecture and as the center of Chinese power for five centuries.

Now open to the public, it houses precious art and historical exhibits.

The ancient Chinese believed that the Purple Star (Polaris) was in the center of heaven and the Heavenly Emperor lived in the Purple Palace — Zijin Cheng (The Purple Forbidden City).

Today, it is usually called gugong, or the Palace Museum.

Construction of the Forbidden City started in 1406 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took 14 years to complete. A year later, the Ming Dynasty moved its capital city from Nanjing to Beijing.

It was said that a million workers, including 100,000 artisans, were put into long-term hard labor. The main frames of the building were built with high-quality wooden beams and columns, including whole trunks of precious Phoebe zhennan wood from the jungles in southwest China. Interlocking mortise and tenon joints were used to build the great palace “harmoniously” as nails were considered violent and inharmonious.

Yellow and red are the main colors of the Forbidden City. Red, the color for good fortune and happiness, is widely used on walls, pillars, doors and windows. And yellow, the color of supreme power in the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, is mostly seen on the tiled roofs.

Wenyuange, the royal library, has an exceptional black roof, because black represents water and is believed to help prevent fire.

The architecture of the walled complex adheres rigidly to the traditional Chinese geomantic practice of fengshui. The orientation of the Forbidden City, and indeed all of Beijing, follows a north-south line.

The Forbidden City is composed of around 70 palace compounds with over 8,700 rooms. Most important buildings, especially those along the main axis, face south to honor the sun. The buildings and the ceremonial spaces between are arranged to convey an impression of great imperial power while reinforcing the insignificance of the individual. This architectural conceit is borne out in the smallest of details.

The Forbidden City is divided into three parts — the defenses around the city, the Outer Court in the south where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation, and the Inner Court in the north where he lived.

In all, 14 emperors of the Ming Dynasty and 10 of the Qing Dynasty ruled from here.

The defenses

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 52-meter-wide moat and a 10-meter-high wall. There is a gate on each side of the wall. The whole complex is 961 meters long from the Wu (Meridian) Gate in the south to the Shenwu (Divine Prowess) Gate in north, and 753 meters wide from the Donghua (Glorious East) Gate to the Xihua (Glorious West) Gate.

There are unique and delicately structured watchtowers on each of the four corners of the wall.

The 38-meter-high Wu Gate, one of the tallest buildings, is the formal southern entrance. Its auxiliary wings, which flank the entryway, are outstretched like the forepaws of a guardian lion or sphinx.

One of its primary functions was to serve as a backdrop for imperial appearances and proclamations.

Beyond the Wu Gate lies a large courtyard, through which the Golden Water River runs in a bow-shaped arc.

The river is crossed by five parallel white marble bridges, which lead to the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen).

There are three main entrances at the Wu Gate. Only the emperor could always use the main central entrance. The queen could use it only on her wedding day, and the top three scholars of the imperial examination would exit once after taking the final imperial examination presided over by the emperor.

In the Qing Dynasty, officials used the left main gate, while nobles used the right gate. There are another two side doors which are usually closed.

The Outer Court

The Outer Court is the heart of the Forbidden City where emperors attended grand ceremonies and conducted state affairs.

There are three administration halls in the area — Taihe (Supreme Harmony) Hall, Zhonghe (Central Harmony) Hall and Baohe (Preserving Harmony) Hall.

The three halls overlook a 3-hectare plaza that admitted tens of thousands of people paying homage to the emperor. The Taihe Hall, 60 meters long, 33 meters wide and 35 meters high, is the largest and one of the tallest single buildings in the compound.

It was where the most important rituals like the emperor ascending the throne, getting married, conferring titles, appointing generals and declaring wars.

The Zhonghe Hall was where the emperor would rest or rehearse before grand events in the Taihe Hall. And the Baohe Hall was used for banquets and imperial examinations.

The Inner Court

Behind the Qianqing (Heavenly Purity) Gate sits the Inner Court in the north section. It was the home of the emperor and his family. In the Qing Dynasty, the emperor lived and worked almost exclusively in the Inner Court, with the Outer Court used only for ceremonial purposes. Puyi (1906-67), the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was permitted to live in the Forbidden City even after his abdication, but he was expelled from the palace in 1924.

Today, the Forbidden City, as a museum, houses more than a million rare and valuable artworks.

It is said to host 14 million visitors every year, with a daily limit of 80,000.


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