The Forbidden City (紫禁城) is a large precinct of red walls and yellow glazed roof tiles located in the heart of Beijing surrounded by a moat, and a 10m high red wall with watch towers on each corner. Measuring 961 meters in length and 753 meters in width, the Forbidden City is composed of more than 90 palace compounds with over 800 buildings & 9999.5 rooms (because only heaven could have 10,000 rooms).

The Forbidden City was the political and ritual center of China for over 500 years. After its completion in 1420, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors, their families and servants during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The last occupant (who was also the last emperor of imperial China), Puyi (1906–67), was expelled in 1925 when the precinct was transformed into the Palace Museum. Although it is no longer an imperial precinct, it remains one of the most important cultural heritage sites and the most visited museum in the People’s Republic of China, with an average of 80,000 visitors every day.

The Forbidden City (translation is one of the Chinese terms for it – Zījĭncheng) was so named because commoners were forbidden to enter the city. Any commoner who saw the emperor was killed.  The Forbidden City is also referred to as 故宫 – Gugong.

Construction and layout

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.  The palace was burnt to the ground when the Manchus stormed it in 1644.  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.  Since the Forbidden City is a ceremonial, ritual and living space, the architects who designed its layout followed the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology that had held Chinese social structure together for centuries. This layout ensured that all activities within this micro-city were conducted in the manner appropriate to the participants’ social and familial roles. Similarly, the court determined the occupants of the Forbidden City strictly according to their positions in the imperial family. The architectural style also reflects a sense of hierarchy with particular designs for buildings of different ranks in Chinese social structure.

Public and private life

Public and domestic spheres are clearly divided in the Forbidden City. The southern half, or the outer court, contains spectacular palace compounds of supra-human scale. This outer court belonged to the realm of state affairs, and only men had access to its spaces. It included the emperor’s formal reception halls, places for religious rituals and state ceremonies, and also the Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south end of the central axis that served as the main entrance.

The main entrance to the palace is through the South Gate, known as the Meridian Gate (午门 Wu Men), so named because the emperors believed they were at the centre of the universe – on the meridian.  Since the Ming dynasty, officials gathered in front of the Meridian Gate before 3 a.m., waiting for the emperor’s reception to start at 5 a.m.

Upon passing the Meridian Gate, one immediately enters an immense courtyard paved with white marble stones in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). 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 court, 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.

While the outer court is reserved for men, the inner court is the domestic space, the exclusive domain of the Emperor, his concubines, and the eunuchs who served and advised them. The inner court includes the palaces in the northern part of the Forbidden City.