Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Forbidden City

Forbidden City

Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City, otherwise known as the Palace Museum, is one of the must-see sights in Beijing. With a total of 9999.5 rooms (because only heaven could have 10,000 rooms) and an area of over 720,000 square metres, it was the Imperial residence during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a powerful national symbol which appears on the official seal of the PRC.

Construction of the Palace began around 1407, during the reign of Yongle, the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty. It is thought that up to a million workers may have been coerced into working on the palace’s construction. It was inhabited by more than 20 Emperors, and during that time built up an incredible collection of treasures and artwork. The palace was burnt to the ground when the Manchus stormed it in 1644, and has been comprehensively looted on several occasions in its history but there’s still plenty to see.

The name ‘forbidden city’ is a translation of one of the Chinese terms for it- 紫禁城- Zījĭnchéng, so called because ordinary folk would be punished by death if they found their way in uninvited. The Forbidden City is also referred to as 故宫 – Gùgōng.

The whole city is surrounded by a moat, and a 10m high red wall with watch towers on each corner. Come along in the morning and you’ll see lots of old Beijingers doing their morning exercises by the moat.

To get to the Palace, head North from Tiananmen Square and under the Mao portrait. Continue for another few hundred metres and you’ll be at the Forbidden City ticket booths. There are audioguides available, or you could employ the services of a guide.

One of the best places for a view of the Forbidden City, and the Beijing cityscape is Jingshan Park (景山公园 Jĭngshān Gōngyuán), which is directly North of the Forbidden City. Formerly known as Coal Hill, it is here that the last Ming Emperor Chongzhen is believed to have died. As enemy troops stormed the palace, he fled through a back exit and hung himself from a tree. To get to the park, leave the palace through the rear exit to the North, Shenwumen.

The palace is symmetrical in layout and the main halls and gates of the Forbidden City lie on a North-South axis which runs all the way across Beijing – to Yongdingmen in the South, and Zhonggulou in the North.

The main entrance to the palace is through the South Gate, known as the Meridian Gate (午门 Wu3 Mén), so named because the emperors believed they were at the centre of the universe-on the meridian.

Beyond this is the Gate of Supreme Harmony , and then the largest of the palace’s halls, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall was used for official celebrations, and to receive high officials.

Beyond this are two more halls of the Outer Palace, The Hall of Central Harmony, which served as a study for the Emperor, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which had various functions over the years, from the location for official banquets to an Emperor’s walk-in wardrobe.

Next along the North-South axis are the three main halls comprising the Inner Palace, the exclusive domain of the Emperor, his concubines, and the eunuchs who served and advised them. The first is The Hall of Heavenly Purity (the Emperor’s sleeping quarters). Next is The Hall of Union (or of Celestial and Terrestrial Union). The name is a metaphor – for the union of the Emperor and his Empress, and the hall was used by the Empress for official engagements. Finally you arrive in The Hall of Earthly Tranquility

The North gate is called Shenwumen, which means ‘The Gate of Divine Might’ (神武门 Shénwu3 Mén).

Read more on the Forbidden City

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