Forbidden City…chasing dreams

2020..the year that is/was .. the transformational catalyst of our lives.

Shining through the continuous pandemic haze are two milestones (for me)…first the 50th National Day celebrations of Sultanate of Oman and second the 600 th year of an architectural marvel The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Oman holds a special place in my life, having lived & experienced its warmth & hospitality. The Forbidden City was a sightseeing wonder always in the list of places to see ‘Before You die’ and I am glad I did in 2009.(the pics are faded…in haze)

2009: A Beijing trip is incomplete without queuing up to pass through The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the imposing front entrance of Beijing’s Imperial Palace.

The brightly painted, several tiered vermillion roofed Forbidden City is the magnet luring visitors down centuries. In the present, a camouflage for the 1989 Tiananmen Square carnage* when armed soldiers, accompanied by tanks, fired on demonstrators blocking the military advances into the Square, killing and wounding thousands.

In 2009 there was no trace of the horrendous decimation as we follow eager tourists, awed locals, innocent school children, in uniform pink/blue raincoats, from the largest Square in the world to enter the massive symbol of subjugation on opposite side.

Conversations and inquisitive eyes bounce off from roofs, carved decorative plinths, rocks, accessorised doors, windows, alleys, gardens…in nutshell an aqueous labyrinth of imagination. Jason Becker in THE CITY OF HEAVENLY TRANQUILITY writes ‘If you spend too long wandering the Forbidden City it seems a claustrophobic maze.’

We discovered the ‘maze-ness of The Forbidden City or “Zijin Cheng” after wandering for nearly five hours to ultimately conclude that this earthly abode of ‘Celestial Emperors’ should revert to its earlier avatar…be off bounds to general public. The Complex is 980 buildings with nearly 9,999 rooms spread out in 180 acres in traditional Chinese architecture. ‘Jin‘ means Forbidden and in Ming and Qing eras the Forbidden City was Da Nei or “Palace City” and no one could enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission. In the present it is Gùgōng or ‘Former Palace’ a historical landmark open to zillion feet. One cannot blame public for being inquisitive of this Imperial landmark, in centre of Beijing, surrounded by opulent imperial gardens and temples including 54 acre Zhongshan Park, the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the 171 acre Beihal Park, the 57-acre Jingshan Park, the Palace Museum or the former Chinese imperial palace and winter residence of the Ming to Qing Dynasties from 1420 to 1924.

We were on visit from Hong Kong, 3 friends, each with her individual interpretation of the itinerary. One preferred an interactive conducted tour while other two, including me, were inclined to mosey around, tagging the proletariate, the smiling Little Buddhas (single son child) astride on the shoulders of beaming fathers, tourists from different corners of the world hanging onto their Guides words. We tramped through alleys, passageways, gardens, empty halls, reading signs and boards for information, occasionally inveigling ourselves on fringes of English language tour groups to catch some of the history. The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ were not surprising considering Chinese goods and artefacts were encircling the world and here we were in the land of the supplier. Not surprisingly, the locals enamoured of their past denied to them for centuries, appeared, some, like headless chicken swamped with ‘effervescent aura of exclusivity’ that still refuses to die down. If Mao and his Red Guards had been successful in dismantling the trappings of aristocracy, the Forbidden City would have been another government building. The ransacking was prevented, tourist luck, and the continuous fresh coats of vermillion and yellow (royal colours) splashed liberally to preserve the ambiguity of the Imperial City as centre of intrigues, wars and desolation.

I talked with few Indian tourists, mostly from South India, and aware as we are of Mongol invaders, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, the 1962 Indo-Chinese War, Chinese cuisine in every nook and corner of India, decided that we Indians cannot beat the ‘wholesaleness’ of anything Chinese. (In 2019 there were 19 million visitors according to data released by the Palace Museum, housed within the Complex).

The gloomy afternoon Beijing sun, struggling through perpetual grey skies, was affecting my vision and I was zombied or possibly transported to the sets of Hollywood block bluster THE LAST EMPEROR. The waffling crowds transformed into Qing, Ming era denizens floating around in voluminous kaleidoscopic colored court robes, their distinctive headgear, the shoes and wait….did I see Lotus feet. The Last Emperor, a 1989 epic directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is the story of Puyi the last Emperor of China. The film, based on Puyi’ s autobiography (1964), pans his childhood, his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communist party of China ending with his visit to his domain.  

The scene that plays on memory is of Puyi visiting the Forbidden City as an ordinary tourist drawn towards ‘his’ throne. He is stopped by a young boy, a volunteer wearing the red scarf of the Pioneer Movement, from entering the enclosed area. Puyi insists he is the Last Emperor and to prove to the boy that he is indeed the ‘SON OF HEAVEN’ he ferrets out the 60-year-old pet cricket gifted to him on his coronation day by palace official Chen Baachen. Puyi hands it to the amazed boy.and who on turning to talk to Puyi, finds him gone. The scene ends with a tour guide leading tourists and announcing that Puyi died in 1967. The poignancy is perceptible as I climb the steps of the HALL OF SUPREME HARMONY, where the throne is, thinking of Puyi. Imagine loosing this ‘gloriousness’ for an ‘ordinary’ life.

The Forbidden City is humongous and home to the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, In 1987 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. We could not cover every corner and waited for our friend, with the tour, to fill us up on the information.

The Layout: We entered through the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’ crossing an expansive brick-paved square towards the main gate of the palace the Meridian Gate. The main exit gate is the Gate of Divine Might.There are Four Gates in each direction…the Meridian Gate on the south, the Gate of Divine Might on the north, East Glorious Gate on the east and West Glorious Gate on the west.

We reach the OUTER COURT with its three main buildings. The first building is the Hall of Supreme Harmony’ the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne (Longyi) is in this hall. The second hall is the Hall of Central Harmony or (Zhonghedian), the resting place of the emperor before he presided over events in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The last hall, the Hall of Preserving Harmony or Baohedian was the banquet hall and later used for Imperial examinations. The surrounding Gardens are equally interesting to explore.

The brightly painted doors, cubicles, passageways, the giant 308 copper and iron Vats, dotted around the imperial palace, are silent witnesses to history. The vats were regulalrly filled with water and used as ‘sea in front of doors’ as protection against fire. During winter the eunuchs would cover the vats with thick cotton covers and light charcoal fires on the stone bases beneath them to prevent the water from freezing. It is said that when the Eight-Nation Alliance forces captured the Forbidden City in 1900, they looted a large number of treasures and used their bayonets to scrape away the gold off the vats. The Japanese went a step ahead….they removed the vats and used the bases as canon mounds during the Pacific War (1941-1945}.

The setting was expanding as we walked towards the Inner Court via the Gate of Heavenly Purity or Qianqingmen which again has three main structures towards North of the Forbidden City. The first is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the sleeping quarters of the Emperor. The second is the Palace of Union and Peace where imperial seals were stored. The last or third hall is the Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility or the Emperor’s wedding room. Curiosity killed the cat and here it decimated any romantic illusions as the rooms were bare. 

By now our feet were wanting a locale change and we cut short viewing more buildings. Besides the three main buildings there are the Eastern palaces and Western palaces, the living quarters of the emperors, empresses, concubines and now converted into exhibition halls for imperial treasures. It would have been worth the extra effort but the Imperial garden was a balm after all the vermillion and yellow. Red, considered the symbol of good fortunes and happiness in Chinese culture, is visible on walls, pillars, doors and windows. Yellow, the colour of supreme power during Ming and Qing dynasties was used only by the Imperial family. From Scenery hill in Jingshan Park the Forbidden City appears an expanse of yellow or orange roofs. 

It was not the sheer vastness but the labour and artistry of wood work, the decorative roofs with rows of mystical animal statuettes with representational meanings and numbers, that is intimidating. There are nine animals on the Hall of Supreme harmony and seven on the Palace of Earthly Tranquility or the residence of the Empress. Not to miss out the stone and bronze lions, the symbol of power and strength, at entrance to most halls and gates. The mythical figurines on the tails of the ridges of buildings at the four corners of the Forbidden City served decorative purposes as well as helped drive demons away. The pièce de résistance is the huge dragon stone carving along the staircase behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The carving is 16.7 metres in length, three metres wide and 1.7 metres thick and weighs more than 200 tonnes. The slab is said to be carved from a single piece of natural marble quarried in from Fangshan, West of Beijing.

‘The empty halls, the quiet courtyards, the doors and windows with fading paint, and the long grass in the corners of the squares evoke a strong sense of history’.

It was not quiet and neither was the paint peeling. It was the weight of Imperial history that was bogging us down.

It was time to leave with hope of coming again.

Some Facts:

*The Last Emperor – Wikipedia the Last Emperor movie.


  1. The Forbidden City took 14 years to build (from 1406 to 1420).
  2. It was built by over 1,000,000 workers, including more than 100,000 craftsmen.
  3. It was the imperial palace of China for 492 years (1420–1912).
  4. It was the home of 24 emperors — 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty
  5. It covers 0.72 sq km (0.28 sq mi), of which 15 hectares (38 acres) are floor area.
  6. It has 980 buildings in over 70 palace compounds, with over 8,700 rooms.
  7. It is 961 meters long from south to north and 753 meters wide.
  8. It is surrounded by a 10-meter-high wall, which is 3.4 km (2 miles) long.
  9. It has a 52-meter wide moat round it.
  10. It hosts 14 million visitors per year, a maximum of 80,000 visitors per day

In ancient times, the emperor was said to be a son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The emperors’ residence was built leading north, as an earthly foil to the heavenly Purple Palace, i.e. the North Star, though to be home to the Celestial Emperor.

Originally it was called “Purple Forbidden City” 

  • The construction of the grand palace started in the fourth year of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1406), and ended in 1420.
  • From 1420 to 1644, the Forbidden City was the home of 14 emperors of the Ming Dynasty.
  • From October 1644, the Forbidden City served as the imperial palace of the Qing Dynasty.
  • In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Forbidden City was controlled by Anglo-French forces and occupied until the end of the war.
  • From 1912, the Forbidden City was no longer home to the emperor with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China.
  • In 1925, the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum.

For security the Forbidden City is enclosed by a 10-meter-high defensive wall, which has a circumference of 3,430 meters. At each corner of the Forbidden City, there stands a magnificent watchtower, which was heavily guarded.

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