Forbidden City from Jingshan Park
Although Beijing’s long imperial rule has left it with numerous historical monuments dating back to the dynastic age, three of them, the Ming dynasty Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven and the Qing dynasty Summer Palace, stand out and are must-sees on any itinerary.
I went to each of these places many times, but, testament to their size and scope, on every visit I found something that I hadn’t seen before. All three sites are big enough so that you should be able to find a quiet nook for some peaceful reflection, but, to avoid the worst crowds at the main structures, try to come as the sights open, toward the end of the day, or in winter.
♥♥♥ The Forbidden City
(Daily ; ¥60, ¥40 Nov 1-March 31; Tian’anmen East or West subway, line #1)
One of the world’s most magnificent palaces, the Forbidden City’s imposing main gateway looms large over Tian’anmen Square. Forbidden to the public from its construction until after the fall of dynastic China, the splendor of imperial life is now open for the world to see. Originally built under the Ming Emperor Yongle, on the site of a Yuan dynasty palace, the Forbidden City served as the imperial seat for another 23 Ming and Qing rulers.
The city’s original Chinese name, Zijin Cheng, means Purple Forbidden City, which alludes not to its color, but to the Polar Star, which was seen as the center of heaven.
Now the city is officially entitled Gugong, meaning Palace Museum, which really doesn’t do justice to the wonders within.
The term city might sound like exaggeration, considering that this is a palace, but with its 800 buildings housing 9,999 rooms and great halls, and a labyrinth of courtyards, gardens and passages all contained within a complex nearly a thousand yards long and 820 yards wide, it really is a city within a city.
It’s difficult to gauge the city’s size from within, but a trip to Jingshan Park will provide some sense of scale, while a Google earth search will leave you in no doubt of its magnitude. Apart from annual trips to the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Mountain Resort at Chengde, emperors seldom left the city and its legions of concubines and eunuch servants.
Although destroyed and reconstructed several times through history, the design of the buildings remains largely the same, but to really appreciate the splendor of what the city was like under the Ming and Qing you also need to take a trip to the National Palace Museum in Taiwanese Taipei ! The bulk of the treasures from the Forbidden City were smuggled out by the fleeing Chiang Kaishek in 1949 and, if you visit both, you can really put the place together.
The Cultural Revolution threatened to tear apart what was left and it was only the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai that saved the Forbidden City. These days its wonders are seen by thousands of visitors every day and at the time of writing parts of the city were being given a facelift for the 2008 Olympics.
Forbidden City pictures
map of Beijing forbidden city (Beijing palace museum)
Visiting the City
The city is visited from south to north and there are guides (one person ¥150, four people ¥400 for a 90-minute tour) and audioguides (¥40 plus a ¥200 deposit) are available at the main entrance at the Meridian Gate.
While the principal courtyards and halls on the main south-north axis hold the most impressive buildings and are all must-sees, their inhuman scale (and the crowds of tourists visiting them) can make it difficult to get a sense of what life was like here during the dynastic era; a more insightful perspective (and solitude) can be found by visiting the smaller chambers that flank the main courtyards.
Throughout the city you will notice a number of recurring features, including dragons (signs of the emperor), phoenixes (signs of the empress) and golden lions, symbolic of the natural order of things – the male has the globe at his feet, while the female tends a cub! You’ll also see images of cranes and tortoises popping up from time to time and these represent longevity and immortality.
Enormous cauldrons are also dotted throughout the city and these were filled with water (which had to be heated to stop it from freezing in winter) in order to quell fires.
Golden lion guardian
From Tian’anmen to Taihemen
The main entrance is beneath the watchful gaze of a portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs on the imposing Tian’anmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace), which you can ascend for good views over the square (daily 8:30 am-3 pm; ¥15).
From here head straight through the large oblong courtyard, perpetually bustling with baseball cap-clad Chinese tourists trying to keep up with their flag- and megaphone-toting guides. You’ll pass through the smaller Duan Gate and into another courtyard, at the far end of which lies the Meridian Gate.
Just before the Meridian Gate on the right hand side is the ticket office, where you may have to be pushy to avoid losing your place. There is a separate entrance lane for foreigners to the right and, once inside, you’ll hear the dulcet tones of Roger Moore, who narrates the headphone audio-guides available here (¥40), which you can drop off at the northern exit.
Once you’re through the arduous task of getting in, you’ll find another vast courtyard, bare apart from the Jinshui (Golden Water) Stream and the five bridges that cross it, representing the five Confucian virtues. At the far end of this courtyard, steps lead past grand lion statues to the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen).
The Big Three Halls
All three major halls were being restored in preparation for the Olympics at the time of writing.
Moving through, you enter another far grander courtyard with
the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) at its center,
sitting atop flights of steps and an intricately carved marble ramp.
This grand hall was the tallest building in Beijing during the
dynastic age and commoners were forbidden from building
anything that exceeded its height.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the most important building in
the Forbidden City and was used for events such as the emperor’s birthday and coronations.
It still holds the dragon throne today.
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Within the same courtyard, the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony (Zhonghedian) is the next building you’ll come to and was used for events considered less important, such as receiving foreign leaders or envoys (illustrating the Ming and Qing’s largely inward-looking perspective), and served as a dressing room for more important occasions, which were held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The final building in the courtyard, the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian) was where state banquets took place and later served as an imperial examination hall. As you descend the steps that lead away from the Hall of Preserving Harmony you’ll find a disturbing insight into the dichotomy of modern China – here in the heart of the Forbidden City, once the preserve of emperors, there is a Starbucks!
Some might argue that the Mandate of Heaven has just swung that way and that global corporations are today’s dynasties, but this small outlet caused such a stir on opening that it has had to remove its iconic sign from the wall.
Whatever your feelings about the matter, if you’re tired and want a coffee to perk you up, there’s something to be said for a Forbidden Starbucks. Continuing right (east) from Starbucks will take you to the Nine Dragon Screen, Jewelry Museum and Imperial Theater (¥10 for all three) and the Clock Museum (¥10), both of which are thoroughly worthwhile side-trips, as much for the rooms they take you through as the exhibits themselves.
The Imperial Living Quarters
Moving north from here, beyond the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingmen), access was limited solely to the emperor, his servants, concubines and royal relatives. The next courtyard was part of the imperial living quarters and contains a further trio of halls, once again the most significant of which is the first one you’ll come to.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong) was the royal bedroom, but was later used as a state
room. The Hall of Union (Jiaotaidian) follows and was the empress’s throne room, and the third hall, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), was used for shamanistic rituals under the Manchu Qing emperors, but was traditionally where the emperor and empress spent their wedding night.
Flanking the courtyard to the east and west there are two museums, dedicated to Bronzes and Ceramics, both of which are worth a wander. A little farther to the west, the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) was a favorite place for emperors to spend time, offering a much more intimate scale and holding some original Qing dynasty furnishings.
From the end of the imperial living quarters, you enter the Imperial Garden, from where passages lead east to the Zhen Fei Well and lovely Qianlong Gardens, and west to the concubine’s and eunuch’s quarters. Straight through the Imperial Garden leads you to the northern exit at the Gate of Martial Spirit, where you can return your headset and there are a few benches to wait for any friends you might have lost inside!
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