There are few countries that can compete with the magnitude of China. An immense land measuring some 9.5 million km² (3.7 million sq miles), a population of nearly 1.4 billion and a rich, complex history stretching back well over 3,000 years. It is also a nation of dramatic contradictions. A place where supposed communism mixes with the opulence of capitalism. A country with the second most billionaires anywhere on the planet, but also where nearly 20 million still live below the poverty line. But nowhere is this contradiction quite so evident than in Beijing. The brash, slightly futuristic, heavily polluted Chinese Capital with the largest palace complex in the world at its heart.
The Forbidden City is a true survivor. As China smashed its way through the 20th Century and into the 21st, becoming a global superpower in the process, much of its history was simply bulldozed. As Mao’s vision of Communist China began to take hold after World World II, the country embarked on a radical modernisation process, resulting in millions of deaths through famine and a crazed ambition to wipe away what had come before it.
China’s rich heritage was often seen as little more than a sideshow and sadly thousands of buildings were destroyed to make way for modernity. In Beijing, historical neighborhoods were razed to the ground and replaced with hulking grey beasts. But while the country was changing radically around it, the Forbidden City remained as it had for the last 600 years.
The Forbidden City
The largest palace complex anywhere on the planet lies smack bang in the center of chaotic Beijing. With 980 separate buildings and a reported 8,728 individual rooms, it covers an area of 720,000 square metres (7,800,000 sq ft) – which it bigger than Disney in California – and is valued at $70 billion, making it not only the most valuable palace in the world, but also the most expensive piece of real estate.
In 2019, the Forbidden City welcomed 19 million visitors from all over the world, but for hundreds of years much of it was off limits to all but a select few, and even today only 60% of the vast complex is open to the public. It was home to 24 separate Chinese Emperors between 1420 and 1912 and is described by UNESCO as being the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
The Forbidden City is a broad rectangle, measuring 961 metres (3,153 ft) by 753 metres (2,470 ft) and is is surrounded by a 7.9 metres (26 ft) high wall and a 6 metres (20 ft) deep by 52 metres (171 ft) wide moat. Four gates lead into the city; the Meridian Gate, the Gate of Divine Might, the West Glorious Gate and East Glorious Gate. All of the doors of these gates have rows of large doornails in them, which was said to symbolize status. Nine, being the largest singular number was also important and therefore all of the gates, with the exception of the East Glorious Gate have 9 rows of 9 doornails.
The Meridian Gate is considered the main entrance and if you walk through it you will come to the Gate of Great Harmony and beyond that there are three interconnecting halls; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The first, and largest, is the Hall of Supreme Harmony towering 30 metres (98 ft) above the surrounding square. This was the ceremonial centre of imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China, but has actually been rebuilt seven times since its original construction. This is by far the most widely recognizable structure in the Forbidden City. Beyond that you have the smaller Hall of Central Harmony, a place for the Emperor to prepare and rest before and during ceremonies, and finally, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, a smaller version of the first that was commonly used for rehearsing ceremonies.
This spot also marks the dividing line between the inner and outer courts. The inner court was traditionally the residence of the Emperor and his family, while the outer court was used for ceremonial purposes.
The inner court comes with another three halls; the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility – if you’re wondering why everything seems to come in threes, it was because three symbolizes the Qian trigram, representing Heaven. However, as we move further back into the inner court we find two sets of six residence buildings – six being the shape of the Kun trigram, representing the Earth.
Roughly 90% of the roofs in the Forbidden City are painted yellow, the color of the Emperor. The two major exceptions are the Pavilion of Literary Profundity, with black tiles representing water and therefore fire protection and the Crown Prince’s residences with green tiles representing wood and growth. While we’re talking about roofs, there is quite an oddity here. The roofs in the Forbidden City are designed in such a way as to prevent birds landing on, and now doubt crapping all over them. This was done by making the slope of each roof higher and the roof spine wider than the width between a bird’s claws. The tiles used are also glazed making it slippery so the whole structure is virtually impossible for birds to land on comfortably.
Construction of the Forbidden City began back in 1406 when Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The building work was a mammoth operation that took 14 years and reportedly 100,000 of the finest of craftsmen and one million labourers to complete.
Materials were sourced from across the country, with the highly prized Phoebe Zhennan wood coming from the jungles of south-western China (even today this wood is worth roughly $10,000 per cubic meter, 35 cubic ft), while marble and other stone came from quarries close to the city. The story goes that during winter, water was purposely poured onto the ground to create an icy superhighway that the great stones could then be heaved along. The largest, and perfectly named, ‘Large Stone Carving’ now weighs around 220 tons, but probably weighed closer to 330 tons when it was first moved. Specially baked paving bricks were brought from Suzhou and became the famous ‘golden bricks’ that form the floors in most of the major halls.
The city was finished in 1420 and remained the seat of power for the Ming dynasty until 1644 when a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng ousted the sitting emperor. The root of the rebellion came from a profound dissatisfaction among the peasant class, compounded by an epidemic which swept the area in 1639.
But there was another enormous event which quite literally shook the foundations of the Forbidden City. On 30th May 1626, a catastrophic explosion occurred inside the Wanggongchang Armory, around 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) southwest of the Forbidden City. The cause is believed to have been down to poor handling or transporting of gunpowder and the damage was horrific. Over 20,000 people died almost instantly as the explosion consumed the area.
The Forbidden City was in the midst of a renovation at the time with thousands working on the old wooden roofs. It’s thought that at least 2,000 people died when they were thrown from the sloping roofs of the city. Inside the palace, many were killed as tiles and beams came crashing down, this included the 7 month old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Zhu Cijiong.
All this led to simmering long-standing discontent and the rebel army of 30,000 men finally took the Forbidden City in 1644, but it was to be short lived. Within a year, the Ming dynasty had hit back and Li Zicheng fled the Forbidden City, but not before setting various buildings on fire. Things remained relatively calm for the next couple of hundred years as the Ming dynasty was replaced with what would be China’s final Imperial family, the Qing Dynasty. This was a time of relative prosperity and the Qing Empire grew to be the 4th largest in the world at the time.
The fact that Britain instigated not one, but two opium wars in China tells you everything you need to know about colonialism at the time. What had the Chinese done to deserve such a backlash? They simply cracked down on illegal opium smuggling. With huge numbers of the population falling into addiction, Emperor Jiaqing ordered any opium found to be confiscated and thrown into the ocean. Britain was openly involved in this trade and the financial ramifications were severe (to the illegal drug dealers that is). So on two separate occasions, armed forces stormed into China to put an end to this horribly unfair war on drugs and in 1860, during the Second Opium War, Anglo-French forces took control of the Forbidden City, where they remained for the next six months. That was the end of the Opium Wars, and the start of Britain’s 99 year lease of Hong Kong.
But the peace didn’t last long. The Boxer Rebellion erupted in 1899, fueled by anti-christian and anti-imperialist sentiment. What began as a violent uprising in the north, arrived in Beijing in June 1900 and began targeting Chinese Christians along with foreigners. In response, the Eight Nation Alliance of American, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian troops arrived in China but were initially pushed back.
To begin with, Empress Dowager Cixi had ordered the execution of the rebels, known as boxers because many practiced martial arts which was called ‘Chinese Boxing’ at the time, but in a remarkable 180, she then wholeheartedly supported them. The alliance returned in greater numbers and easily overwhelmed the Imperial Army. On 14th August 1900, the foreign armies arrived in Beijing and set about plundering the city and the surrounding area. Empress Cixi fled the Forbidden City and didn’t return until January 1902.
The Boxer Rebellion had shattered the public trust in the Qing Dynasty and when Cixi died in 1908, power was handed over to young – Puyi. If any of you have seen the excellent film ‘The Last Emperor’ then you’ll know all about the life of this young man. Just a quick word on that film before we move on. Not only is it superb and if you’re interested in this particular stretch of Chinese history a real must watch, but it was also the first foreign made film to be allowed to film inside the Forbidden City.
The Last Emperor
In December 1908, Puyi became Emperor of China at the grand old age of 2 years and 10 months. The young boy was not in fact directly related to Empress Cixi, but had been chosen nonetheless. In a quite heartbreaking moment the child was dragged away from his parents and into the Forbidden City. He would not see his mother again for seven years.
But the turbulence was just beginning for Puyi, and indeed for China. On 10th October 1911 another rebellion broke out, this time in Wuhan, led by a mutinying garrison. By this point, public sentiment was firmly against the Qing Dynasty and on 12th February 1912, the abdication of the Emperor was officially signed – though he himself was not told and believed he was still the ruler of China for sometime. The age Chinese dynasties that had stretched back almost 4,000 years, was finally over, and the country became a republic.
Under the agreement, Puyi was allowed to remain in the Forbidden City, although only in the inner court, while the remainder was opened to the public. This was mostly likely when Puyi finally discovered his fate as Emperor. A brief uprising (yes another) occurred in 1917 and the Puyi was temporarily restored to the throne, but the Imperial Army’s response was dramatic. Three bombs were dropped on the Imperial Palace from a Caudron Type D plane. The damage to the Forbidden Palace was minimal, but one man inside was killed and the temporary reinstatement was over
Things got considerably worse for Puyi in 1924 when a coup d’etat by the warlord Feng Yuxiang forced the once Emperor from the Forbidden City. He was now considered a private citizen of the Chinese Republic and it was the last time that the famed city would house nobility of any kind.
The Cultural Revolution
The Chinese Civil war had been fought on and off from 1927, although the government of the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China did combine during World War II to fight off the Japanese. Things finally came to a close in 1949 and the era Mao began.
Now, we don’t have nearly enough time to go into everything that occurred during this period, save to say it was an era of great change – and certainly not always for the better. Across China, buildings, landmarks and historic monuments were vandalized or completely destroyed. A fever aimed at wiping out the past imperial ways swept across China. And quickly, eyes turned to the glittering symbol of Imperial China – the Forbidden City.
We’ll probably never know exactly how close the Forbidden City was to being either destroyed or redeveloped, but it seems there were serious discussions. During the Cultural Revolution, a large scale sociopolitical movement from 1966 until 1976, the destruction was ramped up ever more. A battalion of soldiers were ordered to Beijing to protect the palace complex and the gates into the Forbidden City were sealed, probably saving it from the baying mob.
This really highlights the absolute absurdity occurring during the Cultural Revolution as factions fought bitterly and purges claimed the lives of those ranging from peasants farmers to high-ranking government officials. The fact that the Forbidden Palace remained relatively unscathed despite standing for everything the communists were against has long been debated. If you trawl through modern Chinese commentary on the matter (dripping with propaganda it must be said) it seems it may have survived as a symbol to the waste of the Emperor Dynasties – which sounds about as reasoned as the whole of Mao’s lunacy that was the Great Leap Forward.
For whatever reason, the Forbidden City survived the bedlam of the Cultural Revolution and with Mao’s death in 1976 a new period began.
The Forbidden City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is today the most visited site across China. As I mentioned earlier, not all of the complex is open to the public, but the Chinese government has said that after further restoration work as much as 80% will be open to all.
The complex also now houses the Palace Museum, widely regarded as the best collection of Chinese artifacts anywhere in the world. There is also some controversy here because when the Japanese invaded China in 1933, much of the artwork was evacuated, with some of it ending up in Taiwan. At the time the island was very much part of the Chinese Republic, but of course things have now changed, and Taiwan is an independent country – just don’t say that to the Chinese. Some of these priceless artifacts are now housed at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which I’m sure goes down really well with the Chinese.
As I said right at the start of the video, the Forbidden Palace is a survivor. A beautiful, grandiose place that has just passed its 600th birthday and has come through insurrections, invasions, explosions, natural fires and the carnage that was the Cultural Revolution. There are few places that have changed quite as radically as China, and in particular Beijing, in recent decades. But through it all has stood the unyielding Forbidden City.