When his majesty Yongle, third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, decided he wanted a new house, he wanted to do it up big. Really big. From his palace in the southern capital of Nanjing, he set one million peasants and 100,000 artisans to work hundreds of miles to the north, in Beijing, where he intended to move the capital. The year was 1406.
Fourteen years later, in 1420, Yongle finally moved north and took the seat of power with him. Some 120 million people—more than the entire population of Europe—were ruled from the new palace, which was so huge and so off-limits, that it was called the Forbidden City.
So huge in scope and scale was it that Emperor Yongle might have well called it the Imposing City. Or the Overwhelming City. Or the “Big, Just Like Everything Else In China” City.
But it’s not so forbidden any more.
Each day, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the Forbidden City to catch a glimpse of imperial life from days gone by. The Ming emperors, and the Qing emperors who eventually took power from them, lived in the palace until the Republican Revolution in 1911. Puyi, the last emperor—or, as western movie-goers know him, “The Last Emperor” because of a film by the same name—still lived in the Forbidden City another thirteen years after being deposed. Finally, the republican government revoked Puyi’s limited privileges and kicked him out for good.
Puyi visited the palace again in March of 1960. By that time, he’d lived in exile, served as a puppet emperor beholden to Japanese occupiers during World War Two, spent a decade being “reformed” in a Communist prison camp, and finally pardoned and released as a humble citizen.
“What I found most surprising was that the air of decay and collapse I had known there when I left had disappeared,” he wrote of his return of his childhood home. “I was sure that the former palace had taken on a new lease on life.”
The government had, in 1925, turned the Forbidden City into “The Palace Museum.” As it drew more and more visitation, the government recognized the palace’s value as a lucrative tourist attraction. Now, some seven million visitors stop by each year.
Today, I’m one of them. My students and colleagues and I approach the Forbidden City from the south, through Dr. Sun Yat Sen park—which is a real irony when I think about it. It’s like the government is saying, “Before we let you see the palace, we want you to see the man who deposed the emperor.” The big statue, surrounded by flowers, stands smack-dab in the middle of the park.
But if a jab is intended, it’s a small jab, easily forgotten when I catch my first glimpse of the Forbidden City’s outer walls. Huge. Giant. Mammoth—wicked mammoth. They might be better described as mountains the color of red brick. In actuality, they’re ten meters high and thicker than a house, and at the front gate, they extend outward like a pair of bulky arms enveloping anyone who dares approach.
The palace also has a moat, fifty meters wide and two meters deep, that runs along the outside of the wall. At the southern gate, known as the Meridian Gate, the water flows under a courtyard, but elsewhere, it’s wide enough and deep enough that tourists can take boat rides back and forth along the wall’s 3,400-meter length. The moat and wall enclose an area of three square miles.
The gatehouse at the top of the wall, directly over the gates into the palace, is a two-tiered structure with goldenrod tiles made of clay. Ornate patterns that look like the thin-but-blocky designs of an Etch-a-sketch painted in blue, green, gold, and red line the edge of the building.
The emperor stood in the gatehouse to inspect his troops, issue proclamations, and watch beatings get doled out to anyone who displeased him. Other special ceremonies took place there, too. For me, it’s the place where we get to hand over our tickets and run our backpacks through a metal detector.
Inside, there’s a wide cobblestone courtyard bisected from east to west by a stream that flows from the moat. Five marble bridges, collectively known as the Golden Water Bridge, offer passage. The railings on the bridge—and, as I come to discover, along all the stairways, patios, and terraces—are lined with stout marble columns, two feet tall, carved with dragons and phoenixes.
Office buildings and more wall, all brick red, line the east and west sides of the courtyard. Beyond the wall, out of sight, sit various official buildings with names like “Hall of Embodied Treasures,” “Hall of Respectful Thoughts,” “Hall of Literary Brilliance,” and “Belvedere of Literary Profundity.” There are galleries and archives, too.
In the courtyard, a granite walkway, maybe thirty yards wide, leads to the next gate, called “Gate of Supreme Harmony.” The building itself looks much like the gate we just passed under, but this time we’ll ascend a short flight of stairs and pass through. All of the large buildings, I notice, are beginning to look the same. That’s not to take away from their beauty, though. In fact, the uniformity of the architecture ties everything together in a way that makes the palace look all the more massive.
A pair of bronze lions, representing yin and yang, guards either side of the stairs. They’ve held their posts since 1420 when the palace was built. “Male always on the right,” says our tour guide, Carl Yang. He wears sunglasses, a ballcap that says “Sport,” and a big grin with a silver tooth.
Carl’s been tour guiding for more thirty years and so has been through the Forbidden City hundreds of times. He’s talking about retiring soon, though. He’s approaching sixty—though he looks in his mid-forties—so we’re only one of ten groups he’s taken on this year, and that done only as a favor because he’s worked with our university for so many years.
Carl leads us over a threshold into the gatehouse. All the doorways have thresholds, he explains, as a safety measure for keeping out ghosts. Men, he points out, should always step over a threshold left-foot first.
Inside, he takes a moment to explain the map of the palace grounds. The layout falls into a rhythm as visitors travel south to north through the Forbidden City: gate, courtyard, hall, courtyard, gate, courtyard, hall, courtyard, gate, and so on, all centered on a north-south axis called the Dragon Line, which allowed the emperor to align himself perfectly with heaven and earth. Tiananmen Square serves as the head of the dragon, the Forbidden City as its heart, and to the north, the city’s drum and bell towers as the tale. The Olympic Village, when it was built for 2008, extended the line farther north, with the Olympic torch tower serving as the new tip of the tale.
Carl points up at the ceiling, a grid of heavy beams decorated in the same colors and square Etch-a-Sketch designs that we see everywhere as trim. Each square in the grid, he says, counts as a room. By that measure, the palace has more than nine thousand rooms. “They used to like to say nine-thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-nine,” Carl says, “because nine is lucky number. Is not quite that many, though. But sound good.”
I can see under the eaves of the roof, too, adorned with tight rows of dowels and blocks, all hand-painted in the same green-blue-red-and-gold patterns. I also finally notice that there are also lots of gold dragons. “Nobody know how many dragons in palace,” Carl says. We see them not only painted on the trim but carved into doorways and imprinted on walls. On the peak of each roof, a dragon faces east and west, literally chained to their spots as fire-prevention symbols. Dragons are water creatures, Carl explains, but they have to be chained to the roofs so they don’t fly away.
As we move northward from the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the next courtyard is even bigger than the first and is, again, just as barren. “No trees,” Carl points out. Trees would provide cover to any invader. They could also serve as a potential fire hazard, and worst of all, they could potentially grow taller than the palace—and nothing on the palace grounds can be taller than the palace because it would make the emperor look diminished. As the direct connection between heaven and earth, being diminished just won’t do.
The granite floor of the courtyard also served a defensive purpose. If through some amazing stroke of luck enemy invaders dug under the moat, under the wall, and all the way into the courtyard, they would not be able to dig up through the courtyard’s stone floor. Apparently, no stone was left unturned when it came to keeping the emperor safe.
The courtyard leads to a three-pavilion cluster of buildings set high on a terraced plateau. The first building, the largest in the palace, is the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Major ceremonies, like weddings and enthronements, were held there. Ironically, generals were also dispatched to war from the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The vast wide-openness of the courtyard was constructed to accentuate the size of the hall with the intention of giving extra architectural grandeur to the emperor and his abode.
The next building, the Hall of Central Harmony, served sort of like the emperor’s green room prior to the ceremonies in the bigger hall. Smaller ceremonies were also held in the smaller hall.
Before we move on to the third building, Carl points to a vacant courtyard to our east. That was the spot, he explains, where the tennis scene from the movie The Last Emperor was shot. “I was here with Chinese tour group, saw that part of filming,” he tells us. “Whole palace still open while they shot movie here. They just shut down sections using for filming on that day. Whole rest of palace still open.”
It’s quite clear Carl loves the movie. He makes several references to it throughout the tour. I realize it’s one of the only points of reference some Americans might have to the Forbidden City, although it’s generally lost on my students.
That was the last movie they made in the palace, too. A small electrical fire broke out, and although it did no damage, it scared government officials enough to ban further filmmaking. “You can making all the money you want, but you cannot making history,” Carl explains. “This place very historical. Your history, in America, only two-hundred years. That’s nothing!”
We finally pass the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used as a banquet hall and the location where the imperial examinations took place. The exams were grueling three-day affairs that often prompted test-takers to keel over from physical exhaustion. Epic fail! Some even killed themselves.
Carl also takes the opportunity to point out that most emperors died young, usually between the ages of thirty and forty. The reason? Exhaustion. Emperors sometimes kept thousands of concubines, Carl reveals. “Man must be careful. If too busy, you die young,” he laughs.
Two large cast-iron urns sit to each side of the hall. They are among 300 such urns placed around the grounds in ancient times for fire protection—just in case the dragons on the roofs didn’t work out (and several times, they didn’t). A hole under each urn provided a space to keep a fire going in the winter so the water wouldn’t freeze. Once upon a time, the urns has all been gold plated, but when the outer palace was occupied by western troops in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, the soldiers scraped off most of the gold, leaving scars still visible today.
We pass around the Hall of Preserving Harmony and through a gap in the wall that gives us access to the inner Forbidden City—the portion of the palace used as the living quarters by the emperor. It’s almost as big as the outer section was. Man, I think, this place goes on forever.
Descending the terraced plateau, we take a flight of steps parallel to a single huge marble slab carved with lotus flowers and nine dragons. It’s the largest stone carving in the palace, measuring 16.75 meters long, just over three meters wide, and 1.7 meters thick. It weighs more than 200 tons.
It took 20,000 workers to get the massive sculpture from the quarry west of Beijing to the palace. They had to freeze the roads and then drag the stone over the ice. Nothing’s too extravagant for the emperor, I guess.
This section of the Forbidden City is markedly different than the outer section. There are far fewer tourists, for one thing. The buildings are smaller and closer together, with many little courtyards and maze-like passages connecting them all. The buildings all still have names, like “Hall of Clocks,” “Hall of Mental Cultivation,” and “Belvedere of Raining Flowers.”
We’re on the western section of the grounds; the eastern side is just the same, Carl says. These are the parts of the palace he likes best. “You can imagine something here,” he tells me. “You can see daily life through artifacts, through living spaces.”
Thousands of people lived in the Forbidden City. The emperor had a retinue of some 6,000 people plus about 6,000 soldiers who lived on the grounds. And the emperor’s eunuchs, his small army of manservants, numbered as many as 70,000 by one count.
We maze our way through halls and pavilions and exhibit and courtyards until, at last, we find ourselves in the imperial garden. Pathways and sidewalks wind through crazy rock formations and ancient cedars. Perennials grow everywhere, with bright annuals to punctuate any out-of-season greenery. The garden is shady and pensive. Were not so many people there, it’d be easy to see how an emperor could find it so relaxing to stroll the byways.
And then finally we reach the north gate, the Gate of Divine Prowess. The southern gate we first entered, the Meridian Gate, was the palaces male gate, representing the yang. The northern gate is the palace’s female gate, representing the yin and offering balance. How one tells the difference between male and female gates, I have no idea—except standing outside the northern gate, I feel rebirthed into the real world.
We can see the pagoda on the top of the hill in Jingshan Park, just to the north, sitting on the city’s dragon line. The hill itself is lush and green, the pagoda stately and noble. The hill is the highest spot in the city, Carl says, and it affords a beautiful view.
The park looks so refreshing, especially after the architectural ass-kicking we just got from the Forbidden City. We are exhausted, overwhelmed. The magnitude of the whole place has, I admit, numbed our brains a bit.
It’s just the sense of smallness Yongle envisioned when he ordered the palace built.