The true centrepiece of Beijing and indeed the greater Chinese dynasties of old, the Forbidden City was once the home to the nation’s most powerful emperors and remains a living guide to the once-mighty empire. For centuries, as the name suggests, its doors were sealed to the normal peasantry, but these days, anyone and everyone is able to marvel at the gargantuan developments within.
This 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site is by far one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, bringing domestic and international sightseers from far and wide. So in that case, here’s the ultimate guide for exploring the Forbidden City.
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A Brief History of the Forbidden City
For its 600-year history, the Forbidden City (or Palace Museum) has housed a total of 24 Chinese emperors during the might of the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1368 to 1911.
The history of the Forbidden City began with the Ming Dynasty. During that time, the capital resided in Nanjing while Beijing was still under the rule of the Yuan empire. Emperor Yongle (the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty) attacked Beijing in 1368, burning down the palaces of the Yuan empire and any indication of their former rule.
Shortly after his victory, the capital was moved to Beijing, as Yongle saw it as a more appropriate place to establish his court.
In 1406 construction began on what would become the largest palace complex in the world, which is still true today! Over 14 years, upwards of a million slaves were forced to construct the palace from materials that were sourced from throughout China’s different landscapes.
To make matters worse, the workers were forced to wait until the harsh winters to build. Only could they guide the enormous 300-ton blocks across trenches of frozen ice towards the Forbidden City!
An equally difficult job was to dig the extensive 6-meter deep moat which surrounds the palace. The monumental amount of dirt excavated was dumped to the north of the place, which remains there to this day in the form of Jingshan Park.
Imperial emperors lived within the confines of the palace walls all the way up until 1924. This was the year in which the rebel revolution worked to rid China of imperial rule and establish the nation as a republic.
The same year would see China’s last emperor (Puyi) escape to the safety of Japan and bring an end to Imperial Chinese rule. Soon after, a committee took charge of the palace and the treasures found within. They finally opened the gates to the public under the new title of the Palace Museum on October 10, 1925.
Where Is It?
As Beijing was literally constructed around the Forbidden City, the palace is found directly in the city centre. On all sides, it’s surrounded by a plethora of highlights.
Directly before it stands the infamous Tiananmen Square which also holds the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the site where the notorious dictator has been laid to rest. On either side of the square, you have the Great Hall of the People, the government’s headquarters, and the National Museum of China on the other.
Getting into the palace can be a little deceptive, as there are a few gates to pass through before you even get to the real entrance!
To enter the Forbidden City proper, you must go through the Meridian Gate. To get there you have one of three options: south, east or west.
If you want to enter from the east/west direction you must follow the palace’s moat along its outer walls. However, the most iconic and easiest way of getting there is by going through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the south directly next to Tiananmen Square. With a megalithic image of Mao on its front, it’s pretty hard to miss!
Due to its central location in the city, it’s pretty easy to access. Your options include:
- Subway Line 1 to either Tiananmen East Station (Exit A) or Tiananmen West Station (Exit B).
- Subway Line 2 to Qianmen Station (Exit A) to the south of Tiananmen Square. This way you’ll get to pass a number of attractions along the way including Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and Tiananmen Square.
- Take a bus to either Tiananmen East Station (Bus numbers 1, 2, 52, 59, 82 or 120) or Tiananmen West Station (Bus numbers 1, 5 or 52).
- You could also take the Tourist Bus Line 2 which also takes you to Tiananmen East Station and Tiananmen West Station.
Getting into the Forbidden City itself is quite tricky. Before you get to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, you’ll need to pass through a security check. This included showing a form of ID and having your bags scanned.
Once you pass through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, do not be mistaken, you are not in the Forbidden City yet. You’ve only passed through the outer gates at this point.
Once you get to the Meridian Gate you’ll need to show your passport and pay the entrance fee (40RMB).
After that then you can advance to the next security check where you’ll have your bags scanned again. After all that is done, you’ll finally be in the Forbidden City!
Consider the gates to be a one-way street. Once you pass through one, you can’t go back. You’ll have to exit the Forbidden City and guide yourself back around to the original entrance.
The ultimate guide to travelling to China’s capital, Beijing, including the Forbidden City!
Highlights to see, how to get there, where to stay, what to eat!
What’s To See
The Forbidden City is in fact the largest palace complex in the world covering almost 74 hectares, that’s bigger than 70 football pitches! As the enormous palace was locked away from the rest of society, it essentially ran like its own city. Therefore there are a plethora of things to see within its walls!
The Forbidden City can essentially be divided into three segments – the area before the Imperial City Entrance, the Outer Court and the Inner Court.
Imperial City Entrance
Do not be fooled! You may think that passing through the first monstrous gate means you’re unleashed into the revered city, but you’d be wrong. This is simply the first step, we have a while to go before we get there!
Dealing with such an incredible number of gates and their highly poetic names can make the whole experience pretty confusing. The first set of gates and walls make up the boundaries of the Imperial City, inside of which stands the much more protected Forbidden City. So let’s go through each gate in order, starting with…
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
The most recognisable image associated with the Forbidden City is The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Rather than being a part of the Forbidden City itself, it’s simply the main entrance leading towards the palace.
This is also the spot where the leaders of modern China would stand to observe national celebrations, as it overlooks the expanse of Tiananmen Square and everything that surrounds it. From here, you’ll be able to experience the same view as China’s leaders enjoy by scaling to the top of the gate. This does require another ticket and yet another security check.
The gate itself is adorned with portraits of the father of modern China, Mao Zedong. As with most royal structures throughout China, careful consideration was given to their design. Of the five large arched gates that pass through the gate, the central one is the biggest and reserved only for use by the emperor.
Still not there yet! Yet another added layer of protection for the heavily fortified city and another red herring for the unwitting visitor. On either side of the central pathway are religious structures including an Imperial Ancestral Temple and an altar to the gods of grains and rice.
Unfortunately though, entrance to these areas is not permitted and still remains forbidden to us common folk. Though don’t worry, this will be the very last step before you arrive at the entrance to the ever-so-elusive Forbidden City.
If the peculiar U shape and the extensive height of the gate weren’t enough of a hint, this is the official entrance to the Forbidden City and acts as the last line of defence. Whereas modern Chinese leaders address their people from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in centuries past this is where emperors would command their people.
From here, the emperor would review and command his military powers and greet (hopefully) successful troops returning from faraway battles. This was also the spot where the emperor would sentence criminals, overlook punishments of court officials and announce the year’s calendar to the peasantry.
This is also where the three routes into the Forbidden City meet. Take note of the pathways to the east/west which would have been reserved for the mortals to enter; east for the servants and west for the military. To the right of the gate is where the ticket offices are for foreign nationals.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony
Congratulations! You have achieved something mere mortals and foreigners were unable to do for centuries – you’ve finally entered the Forbidden City! You’re now standing in the first courtyard, one that’s capable of hosting 100,000 audience members!
Continuing the theme of careful design, the imperial procession of five pathways continue over five beautifully decorated marble bridge which stretches over the Golden Stream. The small river was designed to resemble a bow which runs through the southern end of the courtyard.
At the end of the courtyard stands the spectacular Gate of Supreme Harmony. This is where audiences would gather to listen to court officials’ announcements.
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The Outer Court
Believe it or not, only now after passing the Gate of Supreme Harmony have you entered the Outer Court of the palace. Now it’s easy to see how truly enormous the palace complex really is!
This section of the palace is where the emperor would dictate his will over the nation. Here you’ll be standing in the largest courtyard of the Forbidden City.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony
Now you’ve entered the Outer Court, you’ll spot the Three Great Halls placed on a three-tiered marble terrace. As the elaborate design of the halls might suggest, these are considered the most important structures within the palace, and the centrepiece of the Forbidden City.
This would have been the venue for important court events, which included the future emperor’s coronation ceremonies and the selection of military leaders. The hall also housed some of the palace’s biggest celebrations such as the royal emperor’s birthday parties!
The centrepiece of the hall is the Golden Dragon Throne, where the emperor himself would sit before any visiting officials. Naturally, an incredible amount of respect should have been shown by anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in the presence of the emperor! Each visitor had to bow before him, touching their forehead to the floor nine times.
The Hall of Preserving Harmony
Situated directly behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony are the second and third of the great halls. The Hall of Central Harmony was a form of staging where the emperor would wait and make his last-minute preparations before the commencing of the ceremonies in the hall before it.
Behind that stands the Hall of Preserving Harmony which would be used for staging banquets and in later years be the venue for imperial examinations for scholars to qualify for official positions in the court. This will also be the last stop before entering the Inner Court.
The Inner Court
In an already elusive and highly restricted city, the Inner Court was the most exclusive area of all. This section of the palace is where the emperor and his royal family would reside. As a tourist, this will also be a better opportunity to delve a little deeper into the palace grounds and to stray off the central path.
The extensive number of halls and individual palaces that surround the central walkway houses some spectacular exhibitions which give a little more insight into the lavish lifestyle of the imperial royalty that once called this region of the palace their home.
The Gate of Heavenly Purity
This is the official entrance into the Inner Court and the emperor’s residence. It’s a gate only a few lucky mortals were permitted to pass through!
It was at this gate that emperors of the Qing dynasty would meet with court officials to discuss matters relating to the court. This will also guide visitors deeper into the labyrinth of the Forbidden City.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity
Once you arrive in the Inner Court, you’ll immediately arrive at the Palace of Heavenly Purity. This was one of the most significant structures in the entire Imperial City, and was rarely seen by anyone other than the emperor himself!
This was the emperor’s personal bedroom! It was also used to house the emperor for a few days following his death.
The Hall of Union
This small structure wedged between two palaces represented the union between heaven and earth. The individual considered responsible for this union was none other than the emperor himself who was regarded as the Son of Heaven.
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The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity
The last central hall of the palace has been used for many things over the years. During the Ming Dynasty, this was the residence of the empress’ and the eunuchs who were entrusted to guard her. Though the empress was never lucky enough to claim the entire palace to be her own!
Other rooms in the palace were used to make sacrificial offerings to deities. During the Qing dynasty, the empress was evicted from the palace and instead it was used as a bridal chamber.
The Hall of Clocks and Watches
Pretty self-explanatory what you’ll find within these halls. It would seem that emperors of the time (pun very much intended) had a keen interest in procuring a vast collection of clocks and watches from both within China and faraway lands.
It’s an interesting niche with some incredibly lavish examples of imperial treasures inside. Sadly though, this hall requires another ticket (10 RMB) to view the special exhibition.
The Hall of Longevity
The centrepiece of this exhibition is the display of meticulously carved jade stones, some of which are the largest ever to have been discovered. This particular hall was also used as the residence of certain empresses during the Qing dynasty. Sadly for them, it was much less luxurious than the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity where they once resided.
The Eastern Palaces
This is the collective term for the surprising number of separate smaller palaces situated on the eastern edge of the Imperial City. These individual palaces were also used as residences of empresses and even the emperor’s own collection of concubines!
These days the harem of women has been replaced by a number of exhibitions. The collection of palaces includes such grandiose names as the Palace of Sunlight, Palace of Eternal Harmony and Palace of Prolonged Happiness to name a few.
The latter place is probably the most intriguing of all. With its unmistakable Western-style structure, it sticks out like a sore thumb! Following the destruction of the original structure in 1845, it was rebuilt with hopes of creating an all-glass “crystal palace” which would house a vast variety of aquatic life. They really wanted a palace sized fish-tank. Unfortunately, construction was never completed.
The Imperial Garden
If by now you’re sick of the sight of palaces, you’re in luck. The Imperial Garden brings a nice change of pace as it brings you to the end of your incredibly long journey.
You’re gifted with a spectacular sense of tranquillity and a much-needed escape from the authoritative royalty of the rest of the palace. This was the exact purpose of these gardens, providing emperors a second of peace and tranquillity away from it all.
Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwu Gate)
The gate was once used as the daily entrance and exit for the royal members, maids, eunuchs, and court officials. It also housed a bell which was tolled 108 times after dusk to mark the end of the day.
These days, it functions as the main exit for tourists leaving the Forbidden City. Here you’ll step out into the streets where the common people once lived.
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