Forbidden City in China

The Great Forbidden City of China

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The Forbidden City is the imperial palace that was once home to the emperors of China during the final two imperial dynasties, the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. The complex covers an incredible 720,000 m2 and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, listed by UNESCO as holding the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China began during the fourth year of the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle (A.D. 1406), and was completed in A.D. 1420. In the following half a millennia, the Forbidden City saw the enthronement of 14 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, and 10 emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The Forbidden City was built as a replica of the ‘Purple Palace’ in Heaven, as the emperor of China was believed to be the Son of Heaven. Vast numbers of huge stones were mined and transported to the site for its construction, the heaviest of which weigh more than 220 tonnes and would have weighed more than 330 tonnes before they fragmented.  It has been determined that the largest blocks came from a quarry 70 kilometres away and since people in China were using the wheel since around 1500 BC, it was believed that this is how the huge stones were transported. However, last year, a 500-year-old document was translated which revealed how the giant stones were slid for miles on specially constructed sledges, and dragged over slippery paths of wet ice by a team of men over 28 days.  The workers dug wells every 500 metres to get water to pour on the ice to lubricate it, which made it easier to slide the rocks.

Huge stone blocks dragged along ice - Forbidden city in China

An historical document revealed that huge stone blocks were dragged along ice. Photo credit: Daily Mail

The Forbidden City has 800 buildings, and is said to contain some 9,000 chambers (8,700 in reality). Yet, all this was inaccessible to the ordinary Chinese, as it was the residence of the emperor and the royal family. This was even more so for the Inner Court, as it was the domestic realm of the Forbidden City, while the Outer Court was used for ceremonial purposes, and was accessible to government officials and foreign dignitaries. In fact, the only men allowed into the Inner Court were eunuchs (men who were castrated), so as to ensure the ‘authenticity’ of the emperor’s offspring.

The Great Forbidden City

The Great Forbidden City has 800 buildings within its walls. Source: BigStockPhoto

It is certainly true that the Forbidden City was the centre of power in China, and filled with luxuries and pleasures of the flesh. For instance, it has been claimed that the Empress Dowager Cixi’s meals commonly consisted of 108 dishes, an amount that could have fed several thousand of her impoverished subjects. In addition, the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties had numerous concubines to satisfy his sexual desires – historical records state that by the Qing dynasty there were around 20,000!  Despite the power that the emperor wielded and the opulence he was living in, life in the Forbidden City was very much like living in a gilded cage, as the emperor was not really free to venture beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. Elaborate precautions had to be taken when the emperor travelled outside the Forbidden City so as to ensure his safety. For instance, he would have ridden in a palanquin, escorted by guards, and have the travel route scouted beforehand.

The spectacular temples within the Forbidden City

The spectacular temples within the Forbidden City contain ornate designs. Source: BigStockPhoto

Interestingly, the first Westerner to be allowed into the Forbidden City was the Italian Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci. Although Ricci’s objective was to spread the Christian faith in China, his admission into the Forbidden City in 1601 was not due to his religious beliefs, but because of his scientific knowledge. Another Westerner who managed to enter the Forbidden City, this time during the Qing Dynasty, was Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, an American citizen. Amazingly, Houckgeest’s account of his visit to the Forbidden City in 1795 has been preserved in his journal. As Houckgeest visited the Forbidden City during the period when the Qing Dynasty was at its height of power, he witnessed the wealth and splendour of the country, which is described in his journal. Houckgeest also provides his readers with some extraordinary stories about life in the Forbidden City. For example, he wrote that he was served meat that had been gnawed on by the emperor. Apparently, this was a great honour accorded by the emperor.

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