Lonely Planet tells us that, ringed by a 52m-wide moat at the very heart of Běijīng, the Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings, and the largest palace complex in the world. So called because it was off limits for 500 years, when it was steeped in ritual and regal protocol, the otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor.
Today, the Forbidden City is prosaically known as the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆; Gùgōng Bówùguǎn), although most Chinese people simply call it gùgōng (故宫; former palace).
In former ages the price for uninvited admission was instant execution; these days ¥40 or ¥60 will do. Allow yourself the best part of a day for exploration or several trips if you’re an enthusiast.
Guides – many with mechanical English – mill about the entrance, but the automatically activated audio tours are cheaper (¥40; more than 40 languages) and more reliable. Restaurants, a cafe, toilets and even ATMs can be found within the palace grounds. Wheelchairs (¥500 deposit) are free to use, as are pushchairs (¥300 deposit).
Tourists must enter through Meridian Gate (午门; Wǔ Mén), a massive U-shaped portal at the south end of the complex, which in former times was reserved for the use of the emperor. Gongs and bells would sound imperial comings and goings, while lesser mortals used lesser gates: the military used the west gate, civilians the east gate. The emperor also reviewed his armies from here, passed judgement on prisoners, announced the new year’s calendar and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers.
Through Meridian Gate, you enter an enormous courtyard, and cross the Golden Stream (金水; Jīn Shuǐ) – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges – on your way to the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门; Tàihé Mén). This courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people. For an idea of the size of the restoration challenge, note how the crumbling courtyard stones are stuffed with dry weeds, especially on the periphery.
Before you pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to reach the Forbidden City’s star attractions, veer off to the east and west of the huge courtyard to visit the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery inside the Hall of Martial Valor (武英殿; Wǔ Yīng Diàn) and the particularly good Ceramics Gallery, housed inside the creaking Hall of Literary Glory (文化殿; Wén Huà Diàn).
Raised on a three-tier marble terrace with balustrades are the Three Great Halls (三大殿; Sān Dàdiàn), the glorious heart of the Forbidden City. The recently restored Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿; Tàihé Diàn) is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century, it was used for ceremonial occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday, the nomination of military leaders and coronations. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is a richly decorated Dragon Throne (龙椅; Lóngyǐ), from which the emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads (the custom known as kowtowing) in the emperor’s presence. At the back of the throne is a carved Xumishan, the Buddhist paradise, signifying the throne’s supremacy.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony (中和殿; Zhōnghé Diàn), which was used as the emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive close ministers. On display are two Qing-dynasty sedan chairs, the emperor’s mode of transport around the Forbidden City. The last of the Qing emperors, Puyi, used a bicycle and altered a few features of the palace grounds to make it easier to get around.
The third of the Great Halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿; Bǎohé Diàn), used for banquets and later for imperial examinations. The hall has no support pillars. To its rear is a 250-tonne marble imperial carriageway carved with dragons and clouds, which was transported into Běijīng on an ice path. The emperor used to be carried over this carriageway in his sedan chair as he ascended or descended the terrace. The outer housing surrounding the Three Great Halls was used for storing gold, silver, silks, carpets and other treasures.
A string of side halls on the eastern and western flanks of the Three Great Halls usually, but not always, house a series of excellent exhibitions, ranging from scientific instruments and articles of daily use to objects presented to the emperor by visiting dignitaries. One contains an interesting diorama of the whole complex.
The Clock Exhibition Hall is one of the unmissable highlights of the Forbidden City. Located in the Hall for Ancestral Worship (Fèngxiàn Diàn) – just off to the right after the Three Great Halls – the exhibition contains an astonishing array of elaborate timepieces, many of which were gifts to the Qing emperors from overseas. Many of the 18th-century examples are crafted by James Cox or Joseph Williamson (both of London) and imported through Guǎngdōng from England; others are from Switzerland, America and Japan.
Exquisitely wrought and fashioned with magnificently designed elephants and other creatures, they all display 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 to see the clock performance in which choice timepieces strike the hour and give a display to wide-eyed children and adults.
The basic configuration of the Three Great Halls is echoed by the next group of buildings. Smaller in scale, these buildings were more important in terms of real power, which in China traditionally lies at the back door.
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.
Immediately behind it is the Hall of Union (交泰殿; Jiāotài Diàn), which contains a clepsydra – a water clock made in 1745 with five bronze vessels and a calibrated scale. There’s also a mechanical clock built in 1797 and a collection of imperial jade seals on display. The Palace of Earthly Tranquility (坤宁宫; Kūnníng Gōng) was the imperial couple’s bridal chamber and the centre of operations for the palace harem.
At the northern end of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden (御花园; Yù Huāyuán), a classical Chinese garden with 7000 sq metres of fine landscaping, including rockeries, walkways, pavilions and ancient cypresses. Before you reach the Gate of Divine Prowess (神武们; Shénwǔ Mén), the Forbidden City’s north exit, and Shùnzhēn Gate (顺贞门; Shùnzhēn Mén), which leads to it, note the pair of bronze elephants whose front knees bend in an anatomically impossible fashion, signifying the power of the emperor; even elephants would kowtow before him.
A mini Forbidden City, known as the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity (宁寿全宫; Níng Shòu Quán Gōng) was built in the northeastern corner of the complex, mimicking the structure of the great halls of the central axis. During the Ming dynasty this was where the empress dowager and the imperial concubines lived. Now it houses a series of quieter courtyard buildings, which contain a number of fine museum exhibitions, known collectively as the Treasure Gallery .
The complex is entered from the south – not far from the Clock Exhibition Hall. Just inside the entrance, you’ll find the beautiful glazed Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁; Jiǔlóng Bì), one of only three of its type left in China.
Visitors then work their way north, exploring a number of peaceful halls and courtyards before being popped out at the northern end of the Forbidden City. Don’t miss the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies (畅音阁; Chàngyīn Gé), a three-storey wooden opera house, which was the palace’s largest theatre. Note the trap doors that allowed actors to make dramatic stage entrances.
About half a dozen smaller palace courtyards lie to the west and east of the Lesser Central Halls. They should all be open to the public, although at the time of research many of the eastern ones were closed for extensive renovation. It was in these smaller courtyard buildings that most of the emperors actually lived and many of the buildings, particularly those to the west, are decked out in imperial furniture. The Hall of Mental Cultivation (养心殿; Yǎng Xīn Diàn) is a highlight, while the Palace of Gathered Elegance (储秀宫; Chǔ Xiù Gōng) contains some interesting photos of the last emperor Puyi, who lived here as a child ruler at the turn of the 20th century.
So whether you like the exotic or the historical, the romantic or the sad, consider ancient China through the Forbidden City as a visit well worth making.
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