China :: The Forbidden City

“It’s important to be comfortable with uncertainty.”
– Xiaolu Guo

I stayed in Beijing for two weeks preparing for my teaching assignment and during that time I checked off several bucket list items. The Forbidden City was nr. 2.

The Forbidden City was designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. The former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (1420-1912), it now houses the Palace Museum. The Forbidden City served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

I was a bit overwhelmed visiting the Forbidden City. Not only because it’s another item that’s been on my bucket list so long it as almost unreal being there but also because with an average of 15 million visitors per year you can only imagine the amount of people who are gonna be there during your visit. It was massive… I don’t mind touristy destinations at all, but it will naturally diminish the historical feel of a place. Unlike the visit to the Great Wall it was not possible for me to find a private corner for two minutes here… Another part was that our guide was probably very knowledgeable, but I gave up trying to hear what she was saying after the two first stops. She was totally drowned out by the crowd. So I just got my camera out and snapped photos of whatever I thought looked cool.

The Forbidden City is a place full of history though. It would be hard for me to not feel any of it walking around the approx. 72 hectares that the complex covers. There’s supposed to be 980 buildings there, it goes without saying we didn’t see them all. I don’t remember seeing the Golden Water River though, which was a bit disappointing. It’s an artificial stream that runs through the Forbidden City crossed by several bridges… I remember seeing pictures before coming to China of a park looking area with lots of trees and greenery, and the river running through it. It would’ve been a nice break from the concrete and bleakness of Beijing.

There was great artistry in the buildings though, the colours were really beautiful and the statues of various dragons, deer and turtles caught my attention. But the visit was a bit… sterile. Or lacking in atmosphere. It’s a shame these places let so many people in every day. (Well, I guess it’s good because then more people can experience it, but you’re not really “experiencing it” as much…)

I think it was Lorcan told me that the Great Wall is the most popular with foreign tourists while the Forbidden City is the most popular with locals and other Chinese tourists. It’s certainly busy. All the time. I doubt the “slow period” of the year is very calm at the Forbidden City.

“The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. Some noted examples of symbolic designs include: Yellow is the color of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions:

  • The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity had black tiles because black was associated with water, and thus fire-prevention.
  • The Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood, and thus growth.

The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three ā€“ the shape of the Qian triagram, representing Heaven.
The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six ā€“ the shape of the Kun triagram, representing the Earth.

The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building ā€“ a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times. As a result, its 10th statuette, called a “Hangshi”, or “ranked tenth” is also unique in the Forbidden City.
The layout of buildings follows ancient customs laid down in the Classic of Rites: Ancestral temples are in front of the palace. Storage areas are placed in the front part of the palace complex, and residences in the back.”

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