The name Forbidden City, implies a secretive place. When things are forbidden, it makes people want to see them even more. And so it is with Beijing's Forbidden City, once a place of mystery, now one of the top museums of the world — a world unto its own hidden behind thick tapered earthen-filled brick walls and a moat.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Located in the center of Beijing, it now houses the Palace Museum. But for nearly five centuries, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.
Construction lasted 14 years, from 1406 t0 1420, and required more than a million workers. The complex consists of 980 buildings, the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, covering over 7 million square feet. Materials used include whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood found in the jungles of southwestern China, large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing, and "golden bricks," covering the floors of the major halls, from Suzhou. Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artifacts originated with the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Upon opening, it contained over 1 million pieces of art, as well as countless rare books and historical documents and items used by the imperial family and the palace in daily life.
Designed to be the center of the ancient, walled city of Beijing, the Forbidden City forms a rectangle, inside of which is a walled area known as the Imperial City which is , in turn, enclosed by the Inner City. At the four corners of the wall stand towers with intricate roofs which are the most visible parts of the palace outside the walls.
Gates pierce the wall on each side. At the southern end is the main Meridian Gate. To the north is the Gate of Divine Might, and to the east and west are the East Glorious Gate and West Glorious Gate, respectively, each decorated with a nine-by-nine array of golden door nails.
The central gateway is part of the Imperial Way, a stone flagged path that forms the central axis of the Forbidden City and the ancient city of Beijing, and leads all the way from the Gate of China in the south to Jingshan in the north. Only the Emperor could walk or ride on the Imperial Way, except for the Empress on the occasion of her wedding.
The Forbidden City is divided into two parts — the Outer Court, used for ceremonial purposes, and the Inner Court, the residence of the Emperor and his family. The most important buildings stand along the Imperial Way.
Entering from the Meridian Gate, you'll encounter a large square, pierced by the meandering Inner Golden Water River, crossed by five bridges. Beyond the square stands the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Behind that is the Hall of Supreme Harmony Square. A three-tiered white marble terrace rises from this square. Three halls — the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony — stand on top.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest, acted as the ceremonial center of imperial power and is the largest surviving wooden structure in China. The Emperor used the Hall of Central Peace, a smaller, square hall, to prepare and rest before and during ceremonies. Behind it stands the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for rehearsing ceremonies. All three halls contain imperial thrones, the largest and most elaborate one being in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
An oblong courtyard separates the Inner Court from the Outer Court. It was the home of the Emperor and his family. In the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor lived and worked almost exclusively in the Inner Court, with the Outer Court used only for ceremonial purposes.
At the center of the Inner Court stands a second set of three halls — the Palace of Heavenly Court, the Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. These halls were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, occupied the Palace of Heavenly Purity while the Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, occupied the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. In between them stood the Hall of Union, where the Yin and Yang mixed to produce harmony. Behind these three halls lies the Imperial Garden, a small area containing several elaborate landscaping features.
In addition to former ceremonial and residential buildings, the Forbidden City contains several temples and shrines, including two Taoist shrines, one in the imperial garden and another in the central area of the Inner Court, and a number of Buddhist temples and shrines scattered throughout the Inner Court.
Today, the Tiananmen Gate connects the Forbidden City with Tiananmen Square, the modern, symbolic center of the Chinese state.