The Forbidden City — Imperial Palace of the Qing and Ming Dynasties

Hi All:

I am sooo sorry. I mean, being absent AND silent for so long. It is just that I was overwhelmed with so much things going on that I decided that something just got to give. I am now back home in Vancouver for a week already. Although I had a great time in Beijing, truth is, the weather got to me finally and was not feeling well. With demands at work and feeling under the weather and dealing with jet lag, I dare not even open up chowtimes as I know it will suck me into it. I am so busy I could not even all emo over the drubbing Vancouver received in Boston. Hey, we are back in the driver seat!

Anyway, what is important is I am back. Please excuse me while I speak to Suanne, OK? You can stay if you want.

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Hi Honey:

There are only two things I really, really want to see and discover in Bejing — the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. So, I am excited to finally going to the largest palace complex in the world. I knew this will take pretty much the whole day and it sure did. At the end of the day, I was so dead tired. Yeah, next time I bring you here, we will definitely be more prepared.

I knew the Forbidden City is big but I had no idea it was THAT big. I should have brought more water and some snacks on my own. You can get drinks and snacks inside the Forbidden City but it’s not always you see the shops.

A pair of good walking shoes is a definite must. For sure.

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That day was quite a beautiful day. The air was cleaner but still not quite. It cleared up a lot the next few days with blues skies and everything.

BTW, the above is one of the most enduring image you see of Beijing. But this is not even the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is quite a bit of a walk more past these gates where the huge Chairman Mao’s portrait is.

This is the Tiananmen. People know this as the Gate of the Heavenly Peace. This original gate was first built … 600 years ago but like most buildings in Beijing which is built with wood, the original structure was destroyed. This magnificent current structure is 500 years old.

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I could not have picked a worse day to come to the Forbidden City. It was a Saturday. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the crowd there. It was almost impossible to get good shots there but I managed a few.

The above totem pole is called the Huaboai. In the olden days, these are placed outside the palace where the people pins up their grievances against the emperors. Today, they are ceremonial poles. It is amazing that this is 500 years old and it still look new.

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To get to the Forbidden City, you had to pass through the Tiananmen gate …

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… and yet another gate. The next gate is the Duananmen. You can visit the displays in this gate but it is a separate entrance fee. I was confused with this and decided not to go there.

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Here is one new thing I learned in China. I realize now why they say that the number nine is an auspicious number. In the old days, the number nine is definitely more important than eight that we know today.

See the wooden door above? The imperial doors all have a 9 by 9 pins on them. So, you can see that a lot of things in the Forbidden City are in nines.

The number nine rhymes with the word “jiu” which means eternal and long lasting.

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The Wumen, also known as the Meridian Gate, is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City.  Past this gate is the grounds of the Imperial household. It was quite exciting at this point.

Lots of people milling around. And there are a lot of people trying to sell you drinks saying that past the gates the prices will be higher. I decided not to buy the drinks from them because I was not sure about it. This is even though they are in plastic bottles and have logo wrappers and all. The things is, it is just 1 RMB which is basically just 15 cents. I tried buying them once before and I thought it tasted funny. I was not sure if they are so enterprising that they package this using tap water.

On yeah, I also want to mention that I see that toddlers here wears pants that exposes their buttocks. Hehehe … there is also one that I saw that exposes the little bird too. I thought that it is common a decade or two ago but it seems like it is still common here.

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There was a considerable line getting the tickets into the Forbidden City. It is 60 RMB which is about $10 Canadian. There are people who tries to sell me tickets for a premium. I decided to line up because at that time when I was offered I was not sure how much the tickets was and how much extra they wanted to charge me for not lining up.

And then something amazing happened. A lady came and directed ME to the tour guide window which was empty. I hurried over and the folks behind me followed. Well, I thought I would be the first but hell no. The people behind me was shoving their hands into the cashier window even though I was in front of them! For being the front of the window, I ended up number 5! I only managed to get the tickets when I had to push the other hands away. Oh well, like they say: When in Rome do what the Roman does.

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The Audio Guide (which they call the Automatic Guide) was in another window. It is a must if you want to learn more about the Forbidden City. Otherwise you will be just looking at buildings after buildings and not know what they are.

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I love their Audio Guide. This is much better than the ones we had used before in Europe and the US. With this you do not need to punch in numbers and such. It is all automatic. It has a GPS and can tell where you are. The guide will activate when you are standing in front of a right spot. There is a map with little LEDs which tells you where you are too. Fancy. No fumbling with the unit. Just walk, explore and listen.

This is just 40 RMB (about $7 Canadian).

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My first look at the imperial palace!

The Forbidden City was the central political seat of the last two dynasties.

This palace serves as the ceremonial and home to the emperors of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties for 500 years. Believe it or not, there are almost 1000 buildings in this palace complex with almost 9000 rooms. Despite its size, the construction took just 15 years but it also required 1,000,000 people to build it. The materials used are the best and most precious that is brought from all over China.

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There is a set of five marble bridges (can’t remember the name) that crosses a winding stream in the main courtyard. It serves a purpose besides aesthetics. The water here is important to fight fires!

You see, the buildings in the Forbidden City are built with wood. Fires had occurred many times over the course of centuries. So many of the buildings were not original but rebuilt over the years.

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There are so many gates and halls in the Forbidden City that I had lost track of them. But this one is the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

It is one of the more important gate as walking past it, it is where the imperial political center of dynastic China is located.

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I caught a video of the Chinese architecture of their buildings. In those days before nails were used, the buildings were fitted together by the ingenious brackets that hold up the roof.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq6TJ8ORgYc&w=600]

Here honey, I just found a good video of the Chinese wood architecture. I know you might not even be interested in techie stuff like this. 🙂

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The wooden architecture is why you see so many of these containers all over the Forbidden City. These are used to hold water to fight fire. For some of the larger ones (lower picture), they light fires under them throughout winter so that the water does not freeze.

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And THIS IS IT.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony. Yeah, I know the buildings all look the same. But this one is different. This one is built on a raised platform. This is the highest point in the Forbidden City.

If Beijing is central city of China and the Forbidden City is the central palace, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is where the power of all of China emits from. This my dear is like the Zhong of Zhongguo (Middle of Middle Kingdom).

This is the largest of wooden structures in China. Actually this one is not the original one. The original one built in 600 years ago was destroyed seven times and it was TWICE the size of this one. As you can see the base of the platform, it can hold a much bigger building.

This current one was built in the year 1700 which was still a long time ago.

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This is where the Dragon Throne is. The symbol of imperial power.

This is the best picture I could take from the outside. There were so many people jostling to see the throne it is quite impossible to get a better shot. You know, I think they should make people queue up so that everyone have a fair chance at looking at it and taking pictures.

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See the roof. They have figurines on the roof. The number of figures on them tells you the importance or the rank of the building. It is everywhere in Beijing.

There is only one building in all of China that has 10 figures and that belongs to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

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All around the grounds are some urns, sculptures and sundial. I can’t remember what they all symbolize. I’ll leave it to you to discover next time I bring you here.

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You will notice too that the roofs are all in yellow, the colors of the Emperor.

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The Forbidden City is divided into several sections. All the above are the ceremonial side of the palace. They are the largest buildings and the most spacious sections of the palace. This entire ceremonial section is known as the outer court (or front court).

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Most important buildings have blue color signs above. The ones above are in Chinese (left) and Manchu (right). The last Chinese dynasty is the Qing dynasty. They are not Chinese. The last dynasty is Manchurian who once lived in the north east of today’s China.

After the Manchurian captured Beijing and brought about the downfall of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, they slowly adopted Chinese culture, customs and language. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, almost all affairs of the court were done in Chinese.

This is something that I found interesting. You see, other than the Qing (Manchurian) Dynasty, one other great Chinese Dynasty is the Yuan Dynasty. Yuan Dynasty is Mongolian, you know, Genghiz Khan and Kublai Khan. Even though the Mongolians conquered China, they ended up also adopting Chinese culture and even moved their capital to Beijing.

It tells me about the enduring Chinese culture that non-Han Chinese wanted to be Chinese even after they had conquered the country. Or so it seems to me.

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Past the outer court, in the northern part of the Forbidden City is where the Emperor lived and played. While some of the emperors were diligent with court duties and attend to the nation’s affairs, not many of the emperors do. So what do they do? They play.

Well, they have concubines. Some have hundreds of them. One poor emperor (one of the later Qing emperor, I can’t remember who) was only allowed three because mummy Empress Dowager does not allow him more. LOL! And all three of the concubines were ugly looking too. I saw the pix.

So, with so many concubines running around the palace, how does Emperor make sure that the concubines stay errr, his? For one, they are all confined in the Forbidden City and two, all the male who serves in the palace are castrated. Yeah, they keep their manhood in a box, not in their pants.

The concubines once entering into the Forbidden City will never step out of it again until they die. The Emperor decides who goes in and out of the city.

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I got lost in this area. I had to retrace my steps several times. There are all together 12 residence palaces in this area that is opened to the public. Each of these palaces will focus on one thing or another — either a story, about Jades, about living … that sort of thing.

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Some of the structures like the one above are in dire need of repair. The colors are all gone and the timber is rotting in some parts. I can see how difficult it is to maintain and rehabilitate all the buildings in the Forbidden City.

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Others are better off.

When you see the dragon, it symbolizes the building used by the emperor. I can’t remember all now. The phoenix is the empress. The deer and stork is for what now?

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Towards the end of the dynastic rule, the imperial family looked towards western ideals and culture. There is a half finished building in the Forbidden City which is built with a combination of western building style with imperial decoration. That building never got finished. They ran out of money.

It was not surprising that the Qing dynasty eventually fell. The country was too inward looking. China was too obsessed with their superiority. The Industrial Revolution changed the western world and China was left behind. When the west came to China with their battleships and big guns, all China had is their long knives and spears. Oh, and their Kung Fu fists too.

Let’s face it. The west did plunder China. They did bring opium to China and addicted the people. It resulted in a lopsided war. China lost HK and Macau. It was a humiliating period for the people of China.

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In the inner residential court, some of the buildings house exhibits of imperial household items. Those exhibits are the best because you know why? Well, they are air-conditioned!

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Actually the exhibits are quite boring. They could have done a better job setting this up. Other than gawking at them, I don’t learn much.

You know, many of the best pieces are no longer in the Forbidden City. They are all else where. Most of the best are in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The nationalists took the national treasures with them to Taiwan when they were defeated by the communists.

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If there is one thing I want to own, it is the above. The imperial chopsticks.

You know I fancy one of these. I went to a shop called Chopsticks and there is a very nice pair of chopsticks that I wanted to buy. But it is crazy expensive and am sure are priced for foreigners! It was $100 Canadian. Good thing I did not buy that or else I know I will get an earful from you. Hehehe.

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You know the part I enjoyed most was the Imperial Gardens. It is at the back end of the palace.

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This is where the oldest structures are. This is where you find centuries old trees which is so beautiful. They are not very big but it is so amazing how old they are.

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The place is very cooling. The rest of the Forbidden City is hot. As you know now, Beijing is a hot and arid place. So all these trees and water provides a cooling respite to the emperor.

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Oh the above is the classroom of the last emperor, Puyi. He had two tutors, one Chinese and one western.

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Moving on.

There is a separate section of the Forbidden City that is called the Treasures of the Forbidden City. This area has lesser people and that is simply because they charge extra for entering (just 10 RMB, $1.60 Canadian). This is a complex section built by one of the greatest Qing emperor, Qianlong, to serve as his retirement area.

The whole complex mirrors the Forbidden City’s inner court, outer court, temples and gardens but in a smaller scale.

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This is where you will find the Nine Dragon screen, one of only two ever made. This was commissioned by the Emperor Qianlong.

Anyway, see the white dragon’s belly? It is strangely made of wood. The story was that someone broke a tile when installing it. Each one was custom made. They tried to cover this accident by replacing that tile with a wood carved piece. Over time, the glazing came off exposing the wooden part. I think someone got away with it. If the emperor found out, he could have been beheaded. 🙂

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See? Everything here is a smaller miniature of the Forbidden City. Even miniature crowd too. There were hardly anyone here.

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I think they saved the best exhibits of the imperial household items for this extra paid section.

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This is the section where they showed the musical and entertainment side of the palace. The last Empress Dowager is a fan of the Chinese opera. She had this pavilion above built and she hosted many performances here.

Yeah, I also saw the bed-chair she watched the opera from. It is even bigger than a king sized bed and looking decidedly uncomfortable. She watches the opera from a building across the stage. Kind of weird I felt — watching an opera from inside a building across to the building across the courtyard.

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I like the spectacular Jade displays. Some of the pieces are 15 feet high. Yeah, too big to cart to Taipei and so they left those behind.

The smaller ones, while also beautiful, is no where near the pieces you find in Taipei. Like this one called the Jade Cabbage.

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Some other random pictures above. Oh one more thing. The emperors likes to collect rocks. I mean big pieces of rock which adorns the palaces around the Forbidden City.

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Here is the well you should know more about. This is the well that the jealous Empress Dowager Cixi drowned the beloved Concubine Zhen in. Maybe YOU tell me the story about this.

I was exploring this place until at about 4:30 PM they made the announcement that they are closing the Forbidden City. I was quite worried for a moment because I was lost and I did not know how to get out. This whole area is so quiet and everywhere I turned ends up in a courtyard that I had never seen before.

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Good thing I bumped into some tourists (with a guide) and I just tagged along.

I had a great time but oh boy, was I tired. I really wished you were here with me but no worries, I will walk through the Forbidden City with you again next time.

On the way out on the north side (remember in Beijing south is entrance and north is exit), I can see the hill called the Jingshan park. This is an artificial hill. Quite high huh? They made this hill from the earth excavated from the moat around the Forbidden City.

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The moat is beautiful and definitely formidable in protecting the Forbidden City.

I walked a lot. I don’t think I had walked more than this within a day of sightseeing. The entire Forbidden City is 1 km by 750 meters. Sometimes one would think that this is a palace but in fact, this is an entire city for the imperial family.

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I had a great time.

Howzat? This must be the longest post I had ever written. 🙂

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Welcome back, or rather HuanYing!!

    Hope you are well rested and recovering from Jetlag.

    Excellent post once again Ben! I am impressed with the amount of information you retained. Ever thought of being a historian?

    1. Hi Shopaholicinvan: Being a historian? Yeah, that would have been fun and I think I would be very motivated in a job like that. Seriously. 🙂 I hope this post is not too long! Suanne helped me by adding the pictures I selected to the posts and she said I was crazy because it was close to 100 pictures. LOL! Well … I already tried my best to cut down the number of pictures already. Good to be back. Good to read comments again! Ben

    2. Oh one more thing. I was pecking away with the info on my iPhone as I was vacationing throughout Beijing. By now, I am getting really adept in typing on the iPhone. 🙂 Ben

  2. Hi Ben,
    Wonderful post! Love your facts and photos. Next time, you must visit Jingshan Park and take some photos of the Forbidden City from the north side. The vantage point from Jingshan is breathtaking as you look down and admire the immensity that is the Forbidden City. Great to have you back!

    1. Hi Lily: Jingshan Park, I did not go. I was too intimidated by the height of that hill. After a tiring day, the last I wanted was to tackle that steep looking hill. But yeah, I saw some really good shots of the back part of the Forbidden City from the vantage point of Jingshan Hill. They were awesome, particularly on a misty day. Ben

  3. My first trip to the Forbidden City was in ’84; back then I didn’t realize how lucky we were to see the “gifts” ie all those jade sculptures, amazing antique clocks and all those other antiques up close, no glass cases. I’d love to go back some day with the kids. So glad they got rid of the Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City!!

    1. Hi Chris: Wow, you were there in 1984 before they even showed “The Last Emperor”? It was that show that I first saw the vastness of the Forbidden City and never thought that I will see it someday. It would have been awesome to see the artifacts up close. Everything is encased in glass now. Even the chambers were hard to see because the glass and windows were all smudged up. Ben

  4. Welcome back Ben Glad to know you are back safe and sound

  5. Welcome back Ben – safe & sound. I really enjoyed and am enjoying reading your posts on the trip to Beijing. When I was there we were able to spend two full days just exploring the Forbidden City, thanks to our hosts. I don’t think I could’ve done it in one day, they would’ve have to carried me. Again, thanks and hope we have a meet up soon. Any more interest in the 8T of Chinese cuisine?

    1. Hi Darlene: My heart yearns to restart the 8GTCC dinners but reality is I just can’t find the time given all that I had to deal with these days. Thanks for so much support on this. Let me see what I can do. It is easier to do a more common cuisine like Sichuan as a lot of people are familiar with that cuisine. Ben

  6. Great post! Like the pics and stories behind them. Taiwan isn’t the only one that took away some items from there. The west also looted some. Did you know the containers used to have a thin layer of gold? Because they’re too heavy to carry, the west scraped off the layer of gold. Have you visited YuanMingYuan Park? The west also destroyed and looted it. There’s a fountain in the park that had the twelve Zodiac animal signs. It’s thought that several families in Europe own some. Several years ago, Stanley Ho paid a staggering $8.9 million to buy one bronze Horse head and returned it to China.

    1. Hi Jem: Is YuanMing Yuan Park the same as the Summer Palace? I went to Summer Palace and did see pictures of that palace ransacked and burned down by western forces. It’s so sad. I’ll share about it in a future post.

      1. Ben: Apparently it’s called Summer Palace too, with “old” added – Old Summer Palace.

        Pinoy Gourmet: I know…I was pointing out that Taiwan isn’t the only one. In fact, Taiwan took some items hoping someday they would be able to return to China when the Communists were gone.

        1. Hi Jem: Yeah, I read that too. I hope that someday Taiwan and China will be one, just as much as I would like to see one Korea too. The people desires it and I hope it will happen one day in my lifetime. Ben

  7. Jem What do you expect from a bunch of uneducated Laowai?But in fairness they were no worse then the Mongols and Manchus before they could get culture.Things are different now.IMHO Taiwan removing the treasures may have saved them from destruction during the cultural revolution.They can always be returned when Taiwan and China resolve their differences

  8. Great post and pictures, it refresh my memories. I visited Forbidden city in 1990, all the display was not glass in yet and was not so crowded. Last year I visit Yuan ming yuan from the “back door” from the top of the hill and walk down the many stairs to the lake, fantastic architectures. You can get to the back gate by ride Metro line 4 north bound get off 2 stop before the last.

    1. Hi James: I went to the Summer Palace using the Metro too and started the trip from the north gate too. I had a private tour guide and he brought me around and showed me things and places which I would probably not have noticed at all. But the day I was there was celebrated as Youth Day and there were a lot of school children. Too many! Ben

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