Ringed by a 52m-wide moat at the very heart of Běijīng, the fantastically named Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved complex of ancient buildings. So called because it was off limits for 500 years, when it was steeped in stultifying ritual and Byzantine regal protocol, the otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule until the Republic demoted the last Qing emperor to has-been.
The design of the palace was originally closely based on its grand and now dilapidated forerunner in Nánjīng. Today, the Forbidden City is prosaically known as the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆; Gùgōng Bówùguǎn). In former ages the price for uninvited admission was instant execution; these days Y40 will do. It’s value for money considering how rampantly over-priced many other tourist sights around China are. Allow yourself a full day for exploration or several trips if you’re an enthusiast.
Guides – many with mechanical English – mill about the entrance, but the funky automatically activated audio tours are cheaper (Y40; over 40 languages, including Esperanto) and more reliable (and you can switch them off). Restaurants, a cafe, toilets and even a police station can be found within the palace grounds. Wheelchairs (Y500 deposit) are free to use, as are strollers (Y300 deposit).
Many halls – such as the exterior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony – have been vividly repainted in a way that disguises the original pigment; other halls such as the Hall of Mental Cultivation (养心殿; Yǎngxīn Diàn) and theYìkūn Palace (翊坤宫; Yìkūn Gōng) are far more authentic and delightfully dilapidated.Much of the Forbidden City is sadly out of bounds, including the now ruined Hall of Rectitude (Zhōngzhèng Diàn), destroyed by fire in 1923, which was once lavishly furnished with Buddhist figures and ornaments. The sound of ping pong may emerge from other closed-off halls.
The palace’s ceremonial buildings lie on the north–south axis, from the Meridian Gate (午门; Wǔ Mén) in the south to the Divine Military Genius Gate (神武门; Shénwǔ Mén) to the north.
Restored in the 17th century, the Meridian Gate is a massive portal that in former times was reserved for the use of the emperor. Across the Golden Stream, which is shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and is spanned by five marble bridges, towers the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门; Tàihé Mén), overlooking a colossal courtyard that could hold imperial audiences of up to 100,000 people.
Raised on a marble terrace with balustrades are the Three Great Halls (Sān Dàdiàn), which comprise the heart of the Forbidden City. The imposing Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿; Tàihé Diàn) is the most important and the largest structure in the Forbidden City. Originally built in the 15th century, it was used for cere- monial occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday, the nomination of military leaders and coronations. Compare the recent recol- ouring of the outside with the more sombre and natural pigments of the interior.
Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is a richly decorated Dragon Throne (Lóngyǐ) where the emperor would preside over trembling officials. Bronze shuǐgāng (vats) – once containing water for dousing fires – stand in front of the hall; in all, 308 shuǐgāng were dotted around the Forbidden City, with fires lit under them in winter to keep them from freezing over (hopefully the flames did not accidentally start larger conflagrations). Water for the Forbidden City was once provided by 72 wells, 30 of which have been preserved.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony (中和殿; Zhōnghé Diàn), which served as a transit lounge for the emperor. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive close ministers.
The third hall, which has no support pillars, is the Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿; Bǎohé Diàn), used for banquets and later for imperial examinations. To the rear descends a 250-tonne marble imperial carriageway carved with dragons and clouds, dragged into Běijīng along an ice path. The emperor was conveyed over the carriageway in his sedan chair as he ascended or descended the terrace.
Note the fascinating exhibitions in the halls on the eastern flank of the Three Great Halls, with displays covering the gates and guards in the Forbidden City and an intriguing collection exploring the emperor’s Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. In all there were 10 Buddhist chapels in the northwest of the Forbidden City; among them were the Big Buddha Hall(Dàfó Táng), the Rain and Flower Pavilion (Yǔhuā Gé) – a copy of the Gold Hall from Tholing Monastery in Tibet – and the Fragrant Clouds Pavilion (Xiāngyún Tíng), none of which are currently open. Further along in the sequence is an exhibition dedicated to ancestor worship in the palace, and the imperial harem and the lives of imperial concubines. In the next hall along is a detailed diorama of the entire Forbidden City. Halls west of the Three Great Halls exhibit treasures from the palace.
The basic configuration of the Three Great Halls is echoed by the next group of buildings, smaller in scale but more important in terms of real power, which in China traditionally lies in the northernmost part.
The first structure is the Palace of Heavenly Purity (乾清宫; Qiánqīng Gōng), a residence of Ming and early Qing emperors, and later an audience hall for receiving foreign envoys and high officials.
Beyond the Hall of Union (交泰殿; Jiāotài Diàn) and the Earthly Tranquillity Palace (坤宁宫; Kūnníng Gōng) at the northern end of the Forbidden City ranges the much-needed 7000-sq-metre Imperial Garden (御花园; Yù Huāyuán), a classical Chinese arrangement of fine landscaping, rockeries, walkways and pavilions among ancient and malformed cypresses propped up on stilts. Try to find the lump tree, the Elephant Man of the cypress world. Kneeling in front of Chéngguāng Gate (承光门; Chéngguāng Mén) as you approach the Shénwǔ Gate is a pair of bronze elephants, whose front legs bend in anatomically impossible fashion.
On the western and eastern sides of the Forbidden City range the palatial former living quarters, once containing libraries, temples, theatres, gardens and even the tennis court of the last emperor. Some of these now function as museums with a variety of free exhibitions on everything from imper- ial concubines to scientific instruments, weapons, paintings, jadeware and bronzes.
The mesmerising Clock Exhibition Hall (钟表馆; Zhōngbiǎo Guǎn) is one of the highlights of the Forbidden City. Located in the Fèngxiàn Hall (Fèngxiàn Diàn), the exhibition contains a fascinating array of elaborate timepieces, many of which were gifts to the Qing emperors from overseas. Many of the 18th-century examples were imported through Guǎngdōng from England; others are from Switzerland, America and Japan. Exquisitely wrought, fashioned with magnificently designed ele- phants and other creatures, they all display an astonishing artfulness and attention to detail. Standout clocks include the ‘Gilt Copper Astronomy Clock’, equipped with a working model of the solar system, and the automaton-equipped ‘Gilt Copper Clock’ with a robot writing Chinese characters with a brush. Time your arrival for 11am or 2pm and treat yourself to the clock performance in which choice timepieces strike the hour and give a display to wide-eyed children and adults.
Also look out for the excellent Hall of Jewellery (珍宝馆; Zhēnbǎo Guǎn), tickets for which also entitle you to glimpse the Well of Concubine Zhen (珍妃井; Zhēnfēi Jǐng), into which the namesake wretch was thrown on the orders of Cixi, and the glazed Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁; Jiǔlóng Bì). The treasures on view are fascinating: within the Hall of Harmony (颐和轩;Yíhé Xuān) sparkle Buddhist statues fashioned from gold and inlaid with gems, and a gold pagoda glittering with precious stones, followed by jade, jadeite, lapis lazuli and crystal pieces displayed in the Hall of Joyful Longevity (乐寿堂; Lèshòu Táng). Further objects are displayed within the Hall of Character Cultivation (养性殿; Yǎngxìng Diàn). The Chàngyīn Pavilion (畅音阁; Chàngyīn Gé) to the east was formerly an imperial stage.