Forbidden City – A Complete Guide - AJ Paris Travel Magazine

The Forbidden City is the best of historical Beijing, as it is the home of the emperors and their many consorts, princes, and palaces.

By Li Xiu Ying

The Forbidden City will give you a chance to see the royal palace, examine architecture, and dive into history at the museum. 

Because it housed many emperors, in several dynasties, it is one of the most famous landmarks in China.

As a result, it is a place you must visit on your travel to China.

So, as mysteries shroud it, the Forbidden City is a site that has multiple layers of interest.

Therefore, this article will take you from the basics of its history.

For example, we will describe its layout, specific buildings, or associated histories.

Forbidden City Basics

So, the Forbidden City dates back to the Yongle Emperor, the Ming emperor who started its construction in 1406.

Because the size of the Forbidden City is around 178 acres (or 72 hectares), it is the largest royal palace on the planet.

As a result, there are nearly 1,000 buildings. 

So, the buildings acted as the home and court of the emperors, as well as their entourage of subjects. 

Meanwhile, it was the royal palace of 14 Ming emperors and 10 Qing emperors.

Therefore, it is understandable why it has nearly 10,000 rooms.

After that, we should talk about its name.

For example, the name of this palace in Chinese is actually gù gōng in today’s Standard Chinese.

It means “Old Palace.”

However, Communist government imposed this name.

Meanwhile, it is widely known as zǐjìnchéng since the 1500s.

So, the ancient name literally means “Purple Forbidden City.”

To understand the name, we need to talk about some Chinese beliefs.

For example, people believe in a Celestial Emperor that resides in the North Star.

So, in Chinese astrology, the North Star has the Chinese name, “Purple Star.”

Meanwhile, Chinese people believe that the Forbidden City is the earthly counterpart to the home in the North Star.

In other words, this is where the Earthly Emperor and his family live.

So, the “purple” part of the name signifies it as the earthly counterpart.

On the other hand, the “forbidden” portion means that it was forbidden to enter or leave without the emperor’s permission.

Meanwhile, the “city” part signifies that it was a place that had everything one could want.

Forbidden City Outer Court

Forbidden City Outer Court - Beijing Guide - Caravanzers

Generally speaking, the Forbidden City has two parts.

There is the Outer Court, and there is the Inner Court.

So, the Outer Court was where court ceremonies were held, and official guests were received.

In contrast, the Inner Court is where the emperor and his family lived.

As a result, there are several buildings of importance to you in the Outer Court.

For instance, the “Hall of Supreme Harmony.”

This is the largest building in the Forbidden City.

It was where the most important ceremonies were held.

For example, when crowning a new emperor, it would be where the subjects would gather to affirm their allegiance.

If you enter through the “Meridian Gate,” which is the main gate, then the Hall of Supreme Harmony will be the first large structure straight ahead of you after you go through the second gate.

Although the Hall of Supreme Harmony is most important, you can also visit other buildings in this section of the Forbidden City.

Check your entrance guides if you’re interested in more court halls. 

Forbidden City Inner Court

Inner Court  - Beijing Guide - Caravanzers

Meanwhile, the Inner Court is far more interesting.

For instance, the Inner Court presents a chance to see how the later Qing dynasty emperors worked.

Likewise, you will see how the subjects, including the empress, lived and worked.

Therefore, the most important buildings are the three buildings through which the emperor and empress worked and lived.

So, the “Palace of Heavenly Purity” is the largest of the three buildings.

This is where the emperor spent most of his time. 

Meanwhile, there are over 20 rooms on two floors.

So, the emperor used to choose any of them randomly each night to avoid assassination.

Similarly, the female companion selected would be brought to this palace for the night.

However, generally, the emperor would visit them in their own palaces. 

Meanwhile, in the last 200 years of the Qing dynasty saw the emperors living and working in another building.

We will talk about that later.

Then, there is the “Palace of Earthly Tranquility.”

It is the building in which the empress lived and worked.

The empress was in charge of the harem, while the emperor was in charge of the court.

So, this is the building from which the empress guided the wives and consorts of the emperor. 

Meanwhile, the empresses also moved out of this building in the last 200 years of the Qing dynasty.

Instead, only the wedding night between the emperor and empress would be observed in this palace. 

Finally, there is the “Hall of Mental Cultivation.”

Because of its importance, it deserves its own section.

Hall of Mental Cultivation

So, the “Hall of Mental Cultivation” or yǎngxīn diàn was the de facto space used by the emperors instead. 

Because of its proximity to the consorts and their palaces, the emperors used this “third” building instead of Outer Court.

However, this building has a particular historical importance today.


Because it was also the site used by two powerful women in the dynasty.

Empress Dowager Ci’an (died 1881) and Empress Dowager Cixi (died 1908) would hold court sessions.

Because they were regents for their young emperors, Tongzhi and Guangxu, they were, in fact, in charge.

However, they were still women and were not allowed to rule from their own personal palaces.

So, to get around this, Cixi created a silkscreen to divide her own throne behind the emperor.

Likewise, to make sure the men respected, she made her throne nearly three times larger than the emperor’s.

Because Cixi was fierce, she is called “the Dragon Lady” to this day.

Typically, the Empress Dowager worked in the Palace of Benevolence Tranquility if there was an adult emperor. 

Now, we can explore the palaces of the harem.

Consort Palaces

The consort palaces were located in the Inner Court, as previously mentioned.

At any given moment, there were many levels of consorts.

For example, in the Qing dynasty, there were 9 levels occupied by 12 women.

Precisely, these women were: empress (1); imperial consort (1); noble consort (2); consort (4); imperial concubine (6); first-class attendant (unlimited); and second-class attendant (unlimited).

So, the most important consorts lived in the eastern palaces or western palaces, each side having six.

Six is the symbol of earth.

In other words, the consorts represent the earth.

In contrast, the emperor represents heaven, which is why all the main halls of the court are three, as three represents heaven.

So, generally speaking, there was no “imperial consort” unless the emperor intended to replace an empress.

As a result, with the empress having her own palace elsewhere, it would leave 12 spaces for noble consorts, consorts, and imperial concubines.

Therefore, that is how we have 12 palaces.

Cixi’s Palace

Meanwhile, a must-see building in the harem quarters is the “Palace of Gathering Elegance” or chǔxiù gōng.

It is on the western side of the harem.

This is where Empress Dowager Cixi lived most of her life. 

So, like all the palaces in this part of the Forbidden City, it is built with sìhéyuàn standards.

Because siheyuan is a courtyard system, there are four buildings in the four corners—connected by the courtyard.

For instance, the consort would be living in the northern building, which got most of the sunlight.

Meanwhile, this palace is prestigious because Cixi was the only woman to rule China.

She was the de facto emperor of the Qing dynasty for 47 years!

So, visit this palace and try to imagine how much power she had to have to become emperor!

Ci’an’s Palace

Meanwhile, you should also check out the residence of Empress Dowager Ci’an.

She was the co-regent of Cixi for over 25 years.

In fact, until her death in 1881, Ci’an was the top ruler, as she was the empress.

For instance, even though Cixi was the emperor, she would have to get Ci’an’s approval for everything.

So, Ci’an’s only home at the Forbidden City was the “Palace of Accumulated Purity.”

It is called zhōngcuì in Chinese and is located on the eastern side of the harem.

Therefore, when Cixi and Ci’an were co-regents, they were informally known by their palace locations.

So, Cixi was informally called the “Western Empress,” and Ci’an was called the “Eastern Empress.”

Imperial Garden

Imperial Garden - Beijing Guide - Caravanzers

What else should you see at the Forbidden City?

The Imperial Garden.

It is located just before the Gate of Divine Might, in the northernmost of the palace.

Because of its history, it is definitely worth a visit.

Imagine, this was the park the royals used daily.

For instance, it was what the consorts and the royal children had to stretch their legs.

Likewise, it was the only place they had to enjoy the changing seasons.

In fact, it was the only place they could go for outdoor activities.

Beijing Opera

Beijing Opera - Guide - Caravanzers

On the surface, this is not exactly a “Forbidden City” thing, but “Beijing Opera” is definitely directly linked to it.

So, in Chinese, it’s jīngjù, meaning “Beijing play,” as “Jing” is another name of Beijing and “ju” means play.

Because it was founded in the Qing dynasty, we assume Beijing Opera was created in the Forbidden City.

Certainly, it remained one of the most popular artistic expressions of the Forbidden City.

For example, it was used as a form of entertainment by the emperors when dignitaries would visit.

As a result, it can be found across China and around the world where there are sizeable Chinese communities.

Therefore, as a tourist you must see this traditional expression of the old palace.

So, where can you see the best?

Zhengyici Theatre, called zhèngyǐcí xìlóu in Chinese, which has been around since the late 1600s!

Meanwhile, another three noteworthy theaters are the Huguang Guild Hall, Chang’an Grand, and Mei Lanfang Grand.

Forbidden City Final Thoughts

Because the Forbidden City is a historical landmark, it is one of the most important places to visit for travelers.

“I would say the Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing,” says Wei Fang, who lives in Beijing. “Sure, we don’t go there everyday, but we all must be around it, somehow,” she adds. “After all, the whole history of the city is linked there.”

So, the Forbidden City was home of the emperors and their large royal families and has something special to offer.

As a result, there are several buildings of importance.

For instance, the buildings used by the emperors or empresses are historically essential.

“My favorite is to visit the homes of some famous consorts,” says Zhang Jing, visiting from central China. “They are so pretty and I can’t imagine what it was like to live there,” she adds.

Of course, for history buffs it might be the halls occupied by the emperors.

Likewise, there are many stories related to its history that a traveler ought to know. So, a visit to the Forbidden City museum is great.

Meanwhile, it still remains a place of mystery and as such offers unique impressions to all.

Li Xiu Ying is a travel writer and is the author of Beijing Travel. She writes about China for Caravanzers.

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