Beijing Day 4: Forbidden City


Ben had planned to bring me to the Forbidden City on a week day to avoid the crowds during weekend. We went there on a Monday. The Forbidden City name is commonly known to the Chinese as Gugong which means the old palace.

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This is one of my favourite walk in Beijing; it’s along the eastern perimeter of the Forbidden City and along the only section of the moat that is accessible to the public. The tree lined perimeter, guard towers and the moat makes the stroll a very pleasant one. And this is most definitely the approach to the Forbidden City that is not crowded and not known to many people.

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The Meridian Gate (Wumen), sometimes also called Five Phoenix Tower  is the front door of the Forbidden City. It is the largest and the most spectacular of the gate structures along the central axis. On top of the U-shape base are five separate pavilions representing the five cardinal Confucian virtues; humanity, refinement, justice, education and trust.

Wumen is where the emperor announced yearly planting schedules according to the lunar calendar. This is actually the main gate to the Forbidden Palace. Beyond the walls here is the Forbidden City proper.

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West of Wumen is where the main ticket office and audio-guide rentals are. Entrance fee is RMB40 per person (about CAD6.70). There is always a long line at the ticket office (the picture above is not of the ticket office but of the Audio Guide rental office). There are scalpers who will try to entice you to buy the tickets from them to avoid the long lines.

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We noticed that the rental of the audio-guide in foreign language is 4 times more expensive than those in Chinese. Did you notice that sign above? In Chinese, the rental is 10 RMB but in English it is 40 RMB!

Too bad we are not very good in Mandarin, otherwise we can save 30 RMB.

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The Forbidden City today is officially known as the Palace Museum (Gu Gong). It was listed as a World Heritage site in 1987. According to UNESCO, the Forbidden City represents the largest collection of preserved wooden structures in the world and also the largest palace complex in the world too.

The Forbidden City is divided into two main parts, the Outer Courtyard and the Inner Courtyard. The Outer Courtyard comprises of three large halls (the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony) used by the Ming and Qing emperors for public ceremonial purposes. The Inner Courtyard comprises of three large palaces (the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and Peace and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility), used for the more private day-to-day affairs of state, as well as the residential quarters of the emperor, his family and servants.

The Forbidden City was built by the third Ming Emperor, Yongle who moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing about 600 years ago. Since then, the Forbidden City is the seat of the government of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties for 500 years. In effect, the Forbidden City is considered then as the center of China and the Chinese universe.

The photo above is one of the five marble bridges that cross the Golden Water River which runs from the northwest corner of the Forbidden City southward along the west side of the complex before crossing the width of the courtyard between the Wumen and the Gate of Supreme Harmony (in the background) and eventually arriving at the southeast corner of the complex. Actually, this small river serves a purpose of providing water to fight fires! You see, the palaces are all built of wood and over the years, the palace were struck by lightning and burnt down a few times.

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The above Gate of Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen) divides the ornamental outer courtyard, with it’s Golden Water River from the more formal inner courtyard of the Forbidden City’s ceremonial section.

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All the gates in the Forbidden City are decorated with a nine-by-nine array of golden studs. Nine is the largest odd number less than then the number 10, so it’s considered both lucky and important.

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Incense burners like the above are located at the entrances and around the halls and palaces in the Forbidden City.

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The above photo was taken from the Gate of Hall of Supreme Harmony looking towards the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) in the background. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is of Ming architecture and it rises from a triple terrace of white marble.  The Hall of Supreme Harmony has richly painted pillars and brackets that support a prominent, double-eaved, yellow tiled roof. This was the Dragon Throne where the Ming and Qing emperors ruled. It was used for important state occasions, for meetings with senior ministers, for coronations and for imperial birthdays celebrations and weddings.

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The above courtyard is where hosts of silk clad officials would be kowtowing (kneeling with forehead touching the ground) as the emperor was carried in his palanquin to his magnificent throne. In the background were the 10,000 enuchs and 9,000 ladies-in-waiting that the palaces boasted at the height of its power. Such ceremonies continued to take place unchanged for five centuries, throughout the reigns of 24 emperors.

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Since the structures in the Forbidden City were built mainly with woods, there were bronze vats all around the halls and palaces for storing water to fight fires. The scratches on the vats were telltale marks of greedy foreign soldiers who scraped the gold with their bayonets during the foreign occupations.

In winter, these vats are constantly heated to make sure that they don’t freeze.

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The entrance to the Golden Throne Hall is decorated with stork and dragon which was auspicious symbols to an emperor and the empress. The stork symbolizes longevity and is the symbol of the empress while the dragon symbolizes power of the emperor.

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The carved dragons are part of the drainage system on the three stone tiers of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. There are 1000 of these carved dragons here.

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A pair of lions also guarded the entrances to the halls and palaces. The one above is a male lion as he was sitting with a sphere beneath his paw which represents power. A female lion will be playing with a cub which symbolizes imperial fertility.

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Animal ornaments decorate the corners of many roofs. The more animals, the more important the building. The above photo must be from one of the main halls or palaces since there are 10 figurines on it. According to Ben, there is only ONE building in all of China that is supposed to have 10 figurines and that building is the center of power of the Chinese dynasties.

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Most of the entrances to the halls and palaces have information boards in Chinese and English. The irony of the information board above is the bottom line which says “Made possible by American Express Company” which I noticed that they had tried to cover it up.

Ben said that there used to be a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. It is now closed because many people protested its presence in the imperial palace.

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More photos from the Forbidden City. I had lost track of where were the photos taken. There was a lot of walking throughout that day. I think we spent like 4-5 hours inside the palace because I wanted to see everything. Some people will take 1-2 hours if you want to do it fast.

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The Imperial Garden (Yuhuayuan) composed of ancient cypress trees and elaborate landscaping of stones. This is an amazing garden with so many things to see at every turn of the corner. Many of the trees there are hundreds of years old.

Look at how smooth the tree trunk has become due to continuous polishing by touches.

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I think the above is the palace where Empress Dowager Cixi resided. Instead of phoenix, Empress Dowager decorated her palace with dragon which showed her desire for power.

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More scenes from the palaces.

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I think the above photo is taken from the one of the smaller palaces which is used as a treasure galleries. The photo above are collection of potteries excavated from various sites. The entrance to the Treasure Palace is RMB10 per person (about CAD1.70). The Treasure Palace is a series of halls with displays like candleholders, wine vessels, tea sets, imperial seals, jewelery, carved jade, etc from the imperial palace. Either no photography is allowed or Ben was too tired to take picture anymore. I remembered when I visited the galleries, he would find a place to sit and wait for me outside since he had seen the galleries in his previous visit.

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The above was a last look at the Forbidden City with the long corridor and tall red walls on both side. Just imagine the life behind these walls few hundred years ago.

We were really tired and hungry after all the walking.

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