Beijing / Forbidden City (XL to L)

I think pretty much everyone know that the Forbidden City is big in every possible way.  It is 600 years old and covers over 70 hectares and has almost 1,000 buildings with almost 10,000 rooms and for 5 centuries, was not only home to the Emperor, but the very centre of political and cultural life in China.  Built over 15 years in the early 15th century, it is estimated that up to a million workers were involved in its construction, with construction materials being transported from the far-reaches of the country, including marble from Xinjiang in the west, timber from the south-western highlands and specially made paving stones from Suzhou (a mere thousand kilometres away…)  The forbidden City houses the world’s largest collection of preserved ancient timber structures, and is arguably China’s most significant historic site.

As the name suggests, for its entire life as the home of the Emperor, the Forbidden City was off-limits to the general public.  Apart from the threat of execution (probably without a phonecall to your lawyer, let alone a fair trial), people were kept at bay by a 8 metre high wall, ringed by moats 6 metres deep and 52 metres wide.


There were only three gates into the City, including the grand Meridien Gate at the south, which only the Emperor himself was allowed to use.  This is now the public entry into the site.

Give the huge crowds in Beijing during the National Holiday, we arrived early to line up for tickets.  The government had just introduced a new ticketing system, limiting daily visitors to 80,000, with half of those tickets sold online.  It wasn’t as bad as we feared – everything was well-organised and efficient, and it took no longer than 15 minutes to secure our passes.  The gate even opened early.  Sometimes things do work.

It was a somewhat gloomy day … typical of Beijing, but somehow lending a sense of quiet contemplation to the whole experience.  This s the view from the gate, looking south over the entry plaza.


Entering through the gate into a large courtyard, you first encounter the Golden Stream, cutting across the space in the shape of a Tartar bow.  Across 5 marble bridges lies the Gate of Supreme Harmony, through which you enter into the hugest and most famous courtyard (that of Supreme Harmony, of course) of the Forbidden City.  This space could hold up to 100,000 people for imperial ceremonies and events, but is likely better recognised as the setting of the climactic fight sequence of just about every big-budget historic Chinese film ever made.

Across the courtyard is the Hall of (you may have guessed it already…) Supreme Harmony.  This is the first of the three grand buildings of the Forbidden City, aligned along a north-south axis that runs through the two main gates into the City, and forms the basis of the wider plan of Beijing.  The three halls sit atop a three layered marble plinth, an elevation that reflects their ceremonial functioning and symbolic significance.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest hall, rising to a height of 30 metres, and being laid out in a regular grid of 9 by 5 bays (these numbers having particularly majestic properties).  The Hall was used solely for ceremonial occasions, such as the Emperor’s birthday, coronations and appointment of military leaders, and  is largest timber building in China.


The Hall’s primary role is denoted by the small figures that sit along the ridgeline of its sweeping roof.  It has 11 such figures, more than any of the other smaller and less important buildings.

Directly behind the Hall is the lesser Hall of Middle Harmony (the name just gives it away, right?)  This building was used as a stop-off point for the Emperor, if he needed to rehearse speeches or hold private talks with close ministers, or maybe just wanted a little bit of down time after all that unrestrained decision-making and being carried around in his chair.  It’s actually a very sweet little building (and yes, “little” is somewhat relative in this case), perched in the centre of two overwhelmingly large Halls, and I can imagine that if I was Emperor, I could spend a bit of time hanging out here.


Beyond this lies the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which was mostly used for banquets and later, as the location of the final stage of the Imperial Examination, a process of selecting the best and brighest talent for the Emperor’s posse of administrative officials.  It must of been a little like the West Wing meets The Apprentice, with robes.  Installed at the rear of this Hall is a marble carriageway, intricately with dragons and clouds and things, over which the Emperor was carried in to and out of the Hall.  Carved from a single piece of stone, and the largest such carving in China (weighing 250 tonnes), the carriageway was transported to Beijing on a pathway of ice.

Beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony,you enter the northern (or ‘inner’) part of the Forbidden City.  Within this section, there is another set of three halls laid out in the same linear configuration as those to the south.  While smaller in scale, these halls (the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility) were important in terms of power, being the homes of the Emperor and Empress, as well as the place for receiving foreign dignitaries and important officials.

It was here that the Last Emperor, Puyi, retreated following his abdication in 1912 at the age of 6.  The southern section of the City was then opened to public uses.   Twelve years later, Puyi was forced out of the Forbidden City entirely, the first time he had experienced life outside the confines of the imperial enclave.  Until then, Puyi was a prisoner of sorts, not only within the Forbidden City, but within a crumbling system of governance.  What laid beyond the walls was forbidden for him, as much as the City itself was forbidden for those outside.

It’s a fascinating story of the clash of individuals, armies and belief systems … and, like all else in the Forbidden City, big.



5 Responses to Beijing / Forbidden City (XL to L)

  1. grandiose… sheesh: “I can imagine that if I was Emperor, I could spend a bit of time hanging out here”
    and is that Doctor in his new hat in Photo #1?

    • Disrespecting the Emperor…? Certainly punishable by the most extreme measures.

      Oh yes, the hat. It’s not me, nor my hat. But, let me tell you, it seems that the Akubra (style) is really popular right now in Beijing. Saw lots of it. Was surprised and amused.

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