Monday, March 21, 2016

Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace)

The Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace or Gugong), more correctly known today as the Palace Museum, is the most magnificent imperial palace complex in China and is located in the heart of the city across from Tian'anmen Square. The Palace complex lay at the heart of the original Ming Dynasty plan for Beijing devised by the Yong Le emperor in the fifteenth century, and is still regarded as the central point of the modern capital. In 1987, the Forbidden City was added to the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites. 
The Palace was constructed during the Ming Dynasty  construction spanned over 14 years from 1406 to 1420. Historical records show that it took at least one million workers and 10,000 artisans to build it, using building materials from many parts of China. Heavy items that had to be transported over long distances usually meant creative ways of transportation were invented. For example, wells were dug to pour water on the roads to coat them with ice in the wintertime, making it easier to transport stones.

The Palace served as the residence of 24 Ming and Qing dynasty  emperors, and was the political center of gravity of the entire Chinese empire, housing a vast and privileged retinue of officials, advisors, generals, concubines and eunuchs. The Palace attracted vast riches over the centuries in the form of tribute, and its artistic collections were swelled by thousands of items made in the Palace workshops themselves or purchased for use by the imperial household. In 1912, the imperial era came to an end when the emperor Pu Yi abdicated, but he was permitted to continue living in the northern part of the Forbidden City complex. It was not until 1924 that he was finally expelled from the home of his ancestors. The next year, the Forbidden City was established as the Palace Museum. 

The Forbidden City is divided into two parts, the southern section of the Outer Court, which was where the emperor exercised his power, and the northern section or the Inner Court, which served as the residence for him and the imperial family. Both courts account for an area of 163,000sqm. These areas were designed according to the architectural hierarchical code to reflect the status and power of the emperor. The court was limited to royal members and the emperor; common people would be prohibited from entering or coming within close proximity of the area. Today, some of the halls have been converted into galleries that exhibit ancient paintings, calligraphy, clocks, bronze wares, pottery and other valuable treasures used by the court. It is estimated that at least 1.5 million articles are protected by the museum.
Visitors going to the Forbidden City go to see how royalty lived during the empire, but also go to experience four of its major attractions:  the Meridian Gate (Wu Men,), Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian), Hall of Heavenly Purity (Qingqing Gong,) and Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Dian,).

Entering the Forbidden City was a ritual of its own. The rules stated that the central arch was exclusively reserved for the emperor. Empresses were granted a one-march ticket; usually, her wedding day. Other days, she had to abide by a strict code of conduct. Other marchers would include the three finalists of the national examination, which was presided over by the emperor. They would be allowed to march through the archway following interviews with the emperor. Ministers used the smaller arch to the east while the royal family used the arch to the west. Officials and eunuchs used the remaining arches. 

It is believed that the emperor is a reincarnation of the dragon and thus, the hall's interior is symbolically paved with golden bricks and the color yellow dominates the thrones, columns, windows and ceilings. The throne sits on a platform in the north of the hall, with an elegant wall screen behind, and three gilded columns on each side. There are mythical beasts, cranes, and incense burners laid in front of the throne. The ceiling is adorned with a dragon with a pearl in its mouth. 

The Forbidden City is a huge complex, and a visit can be an exhausting experience. If you are in Beijing for a while, consider making several visits rather than seeing everything in a single day. Remember too that it is a Museum, with a lively program of standing and temporary exhibitions; it is worth checking the Palace Museum website for information on displays before visiting.

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