Beijing Forbidden City in 600 Years

An aerial view of today’s Forbidden City

Beijing Forbidden City, built 600 years ago, is the largest royal palace in today’s world. But it pales in comparison with Nanjing Forbidden City built 30 years earlier in the late 14th century. It is a smaller-scale replica of the palace in Nanjing, the initial capital of the Ming Dynasty.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square in the Ming Dynasty

Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) in the 15th century – Painting by a Ming Dynasty artist

Tiananmen (天安门) was originally named Chengtianmen (承天门 The Gate of Heavenly Recipient), and had the Gate of Upright (端门) immediately behind (it’s no longer there though).

In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, especially in the period of the treasure fleets’ adventure overseas, grand ceremonies and banquets during the festival seasons, in particular the Chinese new year, were held regularly, with honourable guests including officials in Beijing, senior citizens in the capital, Buddhist and Taoist representatives as well as kings and envoys from overseas.

On such occasions, elephants draped in silk brocades were presented before the Meridian Gate (午门).

 Meridian Gate (午门) in the 15th century – Painting by a Ming Dynasty artist

And the tables were placed everywhere, in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (originally named Fengtiandian 奉天殿 – The Hall of Serving the Heavenly Order) where the emperor and his most honoured guests (top-ranking officials, foreign kings and senior citizens aged over 100) resided, in the halls and the verandas at both sides where princes, senior officials and foreign envoys sat, on the huge square between the halls where middle-ranking officials found their places, and right through the Meridian Gate to the square before it, where the low ranking officials and royal guards enjoyed the feast with no seating.

Throughout the entire process, a music band entertained the dinners with gentle and harmonious tunes from the sideways in the Supreme Harmony Hall, and the melody circulated in the air of the Forbidden City into the ears of the royal consorts living in the rear quarters. These women were never invited to the banquets. But the empress, instead of squeezing herself into a seat next to her husband, would host a banquet in her chamber for the wives of high officials, foreign dignitaries, imperial consorts and other family members.

The banquet was normally a whole day event until the night fell. Once finished, it was time for fireworks.

Tiananmen Square During Manchu Rule

Tiananmen Square before 1950, looking from the Forbidden City to south

When the square was structured in the early Ming Dynasty, it included a section of Chang’an Avenue before the Golden Stream Bridges.

The space between the avenue and the Great Ming Gate in the south was a broad walkway (no horse or sedan allowed expected emperor’s passage and, on his wedding day, empress’s passage). On both sides of the walkway there were two rows of verandas with guards standing before a post every few metres; behind the verandas were bungalows which were the government offices. And it was the people working in the bungalows managing the daily lives of the country. The emperor was only the final decision maker on important issues such as war, famine and appointment of ministerial positions. And his decisions were usually accepted but could also be rejected by the cabinet.

Of course, things became quite differently after Manchus from Syberia conquered China in the middle of the 17th century. These people followed their own tribe tradition with a chieftain exercising the military-style authoritarian rule, thus the bungalows lay waste and were eventually demolished.

Tiananmen Square After 1949

Tiananmen Square in 1957, Photo by French photographer Marc Riboud

Tiananmen Square Today

On the central axis of Beijing, from south to north:

1) Great Front Gate (Ming Dynasty architecture)

2) Chairman Mao’s memorial hall (the late 1970s)

3) Tiananmen Square (initially it was a broad pathway with single-story office buildings at both sites. There were verandas between the path and the buildings and guards standing along the path)

4) Tiananmen Gate (Ming Dynasty architecture with a major renovation in the 50s), from where the royal decrees were released

5) The Forbidden City (Ming Dynasty architecture)

6) The Viewing Park (Ming Dynasty structure, serving as the backdrop of the palace based on the feng shui principles)

The vicinity in the west with ponds was part of the royal garden, and is now home to the central government offices and top-level officials’ residences.

COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS

2018

Nicole Wildman
I wonder how much it has changed since then! 🙂 I cant wait to see it for myself.

All Things Chinese
It has changed a lot. Chairman Man’s memorial hall has been built there, the square also has been landscaped.

Don Felipe
No sign of the Tanks 😛

All Things Chinese
By then Deng Xiaoping was not yet the supreme ruler (without a legitimate public office) in China.

Don Felipe
Was this before Gran Mao?

All Things Chinese
This happened in 1989, more than a decade after Chairman Mao’s death.

Mani Elliott
The massacre occurred under Deng?

All Things Chinese
The tanks were ordered to enter Tiananmen Square by Deng Xiaoping. But from the information I’ve gathered, I don’t’ think it could be classified as a massacre, as some “student leaders” claim.

The square curfew order was issued days before the incident, but “student leaders” urged the students not to leave the site while they quietly escaped to Hong Kong and the US. A female leader admitted to the US media she wanted to see the blood be spilled so it could trigger a “revolution” to topple the government. I guess she had a great aspiration for her political future at the time. But when asked why she escaped while urging others to die, she said her life was more important than other students. I’m still baffled such a person could be welcomed by the US government with open arms and accepted as its new citizen. To my mind, she should stand on trial for conspiring to sacrifice other people’s lives for her own political advancement.

In fact, the first group of people killed were not students but soldiers trying to impose a curfew. They were burned by mobs. Then Deng Xiaoping ordered the army to shoot back.

I am by no means here to defend Deng Xiaoping’s decision of sending tanks to crackdown on student protests, I think it’s unwise, because, apart from some rougher “student leaders” and a small group of mobs, the vast majority of students were innocent, sincere and peaceful. They were just protesting against the corruption by the top government officials and their families, represented by Deng Xiaoping’s son Deng Pufang and President Zhao Ziyang’s son Zhao Dajun.

However, the Chinese military force acted in restraint, unlike what happened in May 4 shooting, also known as the Kent State Massacre, occurred at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, in the United States, in which the National Guard fired at the unarmed college students indiscriminately, including those walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance, without provocation.

Mani Elliott
It’s a massacre whether you’d like to admit it or not.
Also please provide me with evidence of what you’re saying instead of hearsay. If what you’re saying is true, then she is just another disgusting psychopath. Deng Xiaoping was very idiotic to use tanks and the military to quash student protests.

All Things Chinese
I watched and listened to various of her interviews on Australian tv and Australian radio (702 ABC and Radio National), not once but many times, you can contact them for the “evidence”.

Using tanks to impose curfew is more than idiotic but an abuse of power and anti-people, as I’ve already stated (If you do understand my point in my last comment you shall know my position).

I have no intention to defend Deng Xiaoping. He had no faith, held no principles and his family is so corrupt.

At the time when he made that decision, I guess he was in a rage and in panic due to the factor that his family was implicated in corruption and CIA agents were openly setting up workshops in the square coaching the “student leaders” how to mount a revolution to throw over Chinese government, just like what they did in many other countries in the previous few years.

At the time, the entrance to the central government office compound (Middle South Sea) was blocked by the protesters, US flags were raised on the square, and loudspeakers broadcasted Voice of America in mandarin day and night instigating confrontation against the authority.

But even so, all these still can’t legitimate Deng Xiaoping’s decision to send a military force to the square.

However, the word massacre is normally attributed to an act of deliberately and brutally killing (many people). But on that day, warnings were issued days ahead and shots were fired only after several soldiers were tortured, hanged and burned to death (I learned this from eyewitnesses’ accounts in Chinese which are plenty online if you bother to search). Therefore I don’t think this can constitute a “deliberate” killing. Only when a killing happened in the style of Kent State University in 1970, when curfew was not declared and the killing was indiscriminate, the action can then be labelled as a massacre.

Mani Elliott
He is still largely responsible. Sending tanks against students was still a very bad decision. It’s very naive to not consider that the situation could escalate.

The Forbidden City

Beijing Forbidden City - ink painting by Ming court artists

Beijing Forbidden City, Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), colour meticulous-style ink painting by Ming court artists

Since the palace was built in the early 15th century, a total of 14 Chinese emperors lived, worked and died in this compound.

After Manchus came to rule China in the late 17th century, 10 Manchu emperors also called this palace home until 1911.

The main meeting hall in Beijing Forbidden City in the 1920s

At the turn of the 20th century, a “coalition” forces led by a German commander occupied Beijing and set their headquarters in the Forbidden City and let their horses amble around before the grand meeting hall.

COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS

2018

Aquil A Rahman:

Who actually lived in the forbidden city?

All Things Chinese:

The royal family and its servants, which include the emperor, his wives, his unmarried children, the servant girls and women, and the servant men (eunuchs), lived in the rare quarter of the Forbidden City. The front part was used as the emperor’s meeting place and offices.

Aquil A Rahman: 

My studies /assumptions (?)have been that Kublai Khan had much to do with the founding of Beijing.

All Things Chinese: 

Kublai Khan was the first to build a capital in Beijing, correct.

When the Mongols were driven out of China by the Ming army in the later 14th century, the Chinese capital was set in Nanjing in the south of the Yangtze River near Shanghai, and Beijing was left for Prince Yan to station his border troops guarding the Great Wall.

Mongols’ capital was in fact rather rough, and by then Beijing was just like a large village and big county town. There was not much demolition to do, and Prince Yan just pretty much built his Prince mansion anywhere he thought was fit, with feng shui masters’ guidance of course. Ming was the golden age of feng shui 😉

When thirty years late Prince Yan successfully seized the throne in a military coup and relocated the Chinese capital from Nanjing (meaning south capital) to Beijing (meaning north capital), he built a replica of the Nanjing palace in Beijing (on a reduced scale, which means the original Nanjing Forbidden City was much more grandeur, just look how great the remaining city wall is) based on his mansion, complete with Heaven’s Temple in the south, Sun Alter in the east, Moon Alter in the west and a hill in the north (Jinshan Park).

Then he encircled the city with three layers of walls, with the Forbidden City (the palace) in the centre, the Inner City in the middle for government organisations and the Outer City for everybody to live.

Finally, he filled new Beijing with the people, mainly migrated from Nanjing and its surrounding areas, which included officials, merchants, tradesmen and artists.

A footnote: when Prince Yan (Emperor Yongle) wanted to relocate the capital to Beijing, there were fierce debates in the court and opposition to the move was strong. One of the main concerns was the violent and rough qi of the Mongols lingering in Beijing.

History proves their concern is quite legitimate.

The Forbidden City in December 1948 (Photo by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson)

When China became PRC, the government spent three years cleaning up all the garbage left by the Manchus, which amounted to 250,000 square metres.

The Forbidden City first opened to the public in the early 1950s

A chamber in the Forbidden City that is still closed to public

Allegedly this is one of the places known as “Cold Chamber” (冷宫) – a prison for the emperor’s estranged wives.

Although Manchus brought some backward customs into China in the late 17th century, such as the marriage between close family members and relatives, a cruel concubine system was not their invention but a long Chinese tradition and emperors would have dozens even hundreds of women in their collection.

As the result, internal struggle between the emperor’s women was a constant theme in the lives of those unfortunate ladies and it was all too easy for them to make mistakes during the fighting and to be sentenced to a Cold Chamber for years or even life.

COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS

2018

Aeryeon:

As in the epic movie, “The Last Emperor”?!

All Things Chinese:

He was the last Manchu “emperor”, not a Chinese emperor.

Today’s problem is there are too many Manchu descendants in the Forbidden City museum. Many of them view this Ming Dynasty palace as their trophy, not heritage, just like that “last emperor”, the convicted WWII war criminal, who stole and sold a large number of cultural artifacts to make cash, which is part of the reason why there are so many priceless ancient Chinese relics in British, French, American and Japanese museums.

Hall of Warrior (武英殿) in the west wing of the royal palace, where royal artists’ studios were situated during the Ming Dynasty.

Hall of Scholars (文华殿) in the east wing of Forbidden City, where the Ming Dynasty’s crown princes lived, studied and worked when they were waiting in the wings.

The highest point in Beijing Forbidden City – Pavilion of Home Viewing atop an artificial rocky hill in the back garden

In ancient China, the royal sponsors and maidens were not allowed to visit home once they entered the palace, so during Moon Day (family reunion day) on lunar August 15 and Double Nine Festival Day (senior family members day)  on lunar September 9, this pavilion was the place for the ladies to symbolically connect to their own families.

COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS

2018

Toan Nguyen:

just loose stones?

All Things Chinese:

They are special stones with many holes and could only be found in the bottom of Tai Lake next to Suzhou.

This isn’t a good example of an artificial hill as it looks too solid.

Toan Nguyen:

Yes it looks like one piece, as if the stones fit together so well that no joints can be easily seen. It’s quite remarkable if this is simply a pile of stones.

Nitin Kulkarni:

The Shinto temple in Tokyo has central steel support around which entire structure is built and astonishingly it is
earthquake resistant.

Is this structure having the same type?

All Things Chinese:

I don’t think so. Not initially at least, but I’m not sure if they added metal support inside the structure late on.

An all-season corner watchtower of Beijing Forbidden City built 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty

COMMENTS FROM MIND

2020

Eric
Is that the river or a moat built for protection?

All Things Chinese
Yes, it’s a moat for protection, dug in 1420, 52 metres wide, 5 metres deep.

Eric
A lot of manual labour was involved, great projects of society, but probably many slaves at work.

Al Things Chinese
It was during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. A slavery system was officially abolished 2,000 years ago during Han Dynasty so governments were not supposed to use unpaid slavery work for public projects.

When repairing the Great Wall at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, for instance, the project was contracted out. Each work unit (normally a family or an entire neighbourhood) would have the name of the head to be carved on the brick, which was both a way to calculate how much they should get paid and a measure to ensure the quality of the product.

A mythical guardian dragon is positioned on a roof in Beijing Forbidden City for 600 years to protect the palace

A troop of mythical creatures led by an immotal are stationed on the roof of a palace building to guard with vigilance and force against any invisible or intangible attacks

COMMENTS FROM MINDS

2020

Eric
And it did its job for around 550 years.

All Things Chinese
Hmmm, the main conference hall was completed in 1419 but burned down to the ground about 3 years later and rebuilt by his grandson which could be more than 3 decades afterwards. So let’s say around 570 years? Pretty close to 550 years.

Eric
I was thinking of the emperor, and the revolution and being ousted in 1939 I think. Probably 520 years?

All Things Chinese
The last Chinese emperor committed suicide in 1644 when mobs broke into Beijing. He left a handwritten note next to his body: you may do anything to my corpse to vent your anger but please do not hurt ordinary people in the city.

I know who you are thinking, the last Manchu emperor Pu Yi from The Last Emperor, a movie made by a Manchu director and full of lies.

Pu Yi was kicked off the throne in 1911 by an anti-Manchu revolution initiated in Wuhan. He then worked with the Japanese army to invade China and slaughtered 300,000 Chinese people in Nanjing alone during WWII.

Eric
Wow, is my history off the mark. Thanks, yes the movie is where I got that info.

All Things Chinese
The movie is total crap.

Pillars in Beijing Forbidden City were from the early Ming Dynasty 600 years ago. The busy patterns painted on the ceiling and beam are not an original style but a Tibetan-Manchu fashion.

You are most welcome to leave your comments below