Forbidden City — All You Want to Know (History, Facts, FAQs)

Forbidden City — All You Want to Know (History, Facts, FAQs)

By Chris QuanUpdated Oct. 19, 2021

The Forbidden City (Chinese name: Gugong, 'the Former Palace', 故宫) was the palatial heart of China. Constructed in 1420, during the early Ming Dynasty, it is China's best-preserved imperial palace, and the largest ancient palatial structure in the world.

The Forbidden City is an imperial palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912) in Beijing, China. As one of the five most important palaces in the world, the grand halls and walls proudly display the essence and culmination of traditional Chinese architecture, fitting for the capital city of the world's largest nation.

Forbidden CityForbidden City

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Fast Facts about the Forbidden City

Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaAn aerial view of the Forbidden City
  • Chinese name: 故宫 (Gugong, 'the Former Palace')
  • Most outstanding feature: It's the largest imperial palace in the world.
  • Things to see: imperial living and governing quarters, valuable artworks, and traditional gardens
  • The Forbidden City took 14 years to build (from 1406 to 1420).
  • It was built by over 1,000,000 workers, including more than 100,000 craftsmen.
  • It was the imperial palace of China for 492 years (1420–1912).
  • It was the home of 24 emperors — 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty
  • It covers 0.72 sq km (0.28 sq mi), of which 15 hectares (38 acres) are floor area.
  • It has 980 buildings in over 70 palace compounds, with over 8,700 rooms.
  • It is 961 meters long from south to north and 753 meters wide.
  • It is surrounded by a 10-meter-high wall, which is 3.4 km (2 miles) long.
  • It has a 52-meter wide moat round it.
  • It hosts 14 million visitors per year, a maximum of 80,000 visitors per day.

For more facts, see 15 Facts You Should Know Before Visiting the Forbidden City.

Why Is It Called the Forbidden City?

Forbidden CityForbidden City

The English name "Forbidden City" is a translation of the Chinese name Zijincheng (紫禁城 /dzrr-jin-chng/ ‘Purple Forbidden City’).

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.

Considered a divine place, it was certainly forbidden to ordinary people and that is why the Forbidden City is so named.

Now, in China, it is usually called the "Former Palace" (故宫 Gugong /goo-gong/).

See Why Is It Called the Forbidden City?

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History of the Forbidden City

The construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 when the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty decided to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The construction lasted for 14 years, ending in 1420.

Home to 24 Emperors (1420–1912)

Forbidden City, Hall of Supreme HarmonyHall of Supreme Harmony

From 1420 to 1644, 14 emperors of the Ming Dynasty lived in the Forbidden City.

In 1421, three main halls in the outer court were burned down and were rebuilt in 1440.

A big fire broke out in the Forbidden City again in 1557. The reconstruction continued into 1561.

In 1597, a fire in the Forbidden City destroyed the three main halls in the outer court and the rear three halls in the inner court. Their restoration was completed in 1627.

In April 1644, the Forbidden City was captured by rebel forces led by Li Zicheng and the Ming Dynasty collapsed.

At the same time, Manchu troops marched into Beijing to fight against Li Zicheng. Li Zicheng was defeated, and he set fire to the Forbidden City before he fled.

From October 1644, the Forbidden City served as the imperial palace of the Qing Dynasty, who made Beijing their capital.

The Qing emperors rebuilt and restored the burnt palaces, changed the names of some of the palaces, made their name plates bilingual (Chinese and Manchu), and introduced shamanist elements to the palace.

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Forbidden City was controlled by Anglo-French forces and was occupied until the end of the war.

No Longer a Royal Residence and Not Yet the Palace Museum (1912–1925)

Palace MuseumPalace Museum

After serving as the home of 24 emperors, the Forbidden City was no longer the private property of the emperor when Puyi, last Emperor of China, abdicated in 1912 and the Republic of China was established.

Although Puyi was no longer emperor, the Republic of China government allowed him to live in the Inner Court.

As Puyi and some remnants of the Qing Dynasty attempted to restore the empire, Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. In 1925, the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum and was opened to the public.

Relics Moved South and Returned (1933–1948)

During the Anti-Japanese War (1931–1945), the Palace Museum’s relics were moved to Nanjing to protect them from looting.

Part of the collection was returned at the end of the war, but the remainder was taken to Taiwan in 1948 by the Kuomintang, who lost the Chinese Civil War.

Restoration and UNESCO World Heritage Status (1949–now)

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Palace Museum was renovated on a large scale. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Now it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Beijing, even in China or the world.

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The Layout of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City covers an area of about 72 hectares (180 acres) with a total floor space of approximately 150,000 square meters (1,600,000 square feet).

It consists of more than 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and over 8,728 rooms. (A common myth states that there are 9,999.5 rooms, but it is not supported by survey evidence.)

The Forbidden City falls into three parts: the defenses (moat and wall), the Outer Court and the Inner Court.

Forbidden City Layout infographic

1. Forbidden City Gates and Walls — for Defense

The Forbidden CityDefensive Wall of the Forbidden City

Around the city there is a 52-meter wide moat as the first line of defense.

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.

There are four gates in each direction of the Forbidden City: 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.

Forbidden City, Meridian GateMeridian Gate

The Meridian Gate (Wumen in Chinese) is the main gate of the Forbidden City. It had three openings. Only the emperor could go through the middle one. It was the place where the emperor issued imperial edicts and battle orders.

The Meridian Gate is the entrance for Forbidden City visits. Visitors need to pass through Tian’anmen (‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’) to reach the Meridian Gate.

The Gate of Divine Prowess is the back door of the Forbidden City.  It was a special door for the empress, concubines, and other royal members to enter and leave the palace. Now, it is an exit for Forbidden City tours.

East Prosperity Gate was used by cabinet officials, senior officials with a high status, and princes to enter and leave the palace. Now, it is another exit for Forbidden City visits.

West Prosperity Gate faces what was once Xiyuan Garden and now is called Zhongnanhai. When the emperor and empress visited the garden, they often went out from this door. It was also a gate for officials to enter the palace. It is now available only to staff.

2. The Outer Court — Used for Ceremonial Purposes

Forbidden CityHall of Supreme Harmony

The outer court has three main buildings, where emperors attended grand ceremonies. In the Ming Dynasty era, emperors would hold court in Hall of Supreme Harmony to conduct state affairs.

The first hall waiting for you is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. The emperors' Dragon Throne (Longyi) is in this hall. In Qing Dynasty, it was mainly used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations, investitures, and imperial weddings.

The second hall, behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian), the resting place of the emperor before presiding over grand events held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Emperors would rehearse their speeches and presentations here before departing to the Temple of Heaven for the sacrifice rites.

The last hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian), used for banquets and later for imperial examinations.

There are a couple of side gardens with interesting halls to explore. Please consult with your local guide if you want to visit them and have more time to explore the palace.

3. The Inner Court — Residence of the Emperor and His Family

Forbidden CityPalace of Heavenly Purity

In the Qing Dynasty, the emperors lived and worked mostly in the Inner Court.

Out from the Hall of the Preserving Harmony, you will notice a huge block of marble carved with cloud and dragon designs. Go straight, and you will see another gate, called the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingmen). This is the main gateway to the inner living court.

Back Three Palaces

The inner court has three main structures at the northern rear of the Forbidden City:

  • The first structure inside the inner court is the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong). Before Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1722–35), it was the residence of the emperor. Later it became the emperor's audience hall.
  • The second structure, behind it is the Palace of Union and Peace (Jiaotaidian), where the imperial seals were stored.
  • The third hall is the Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility (Kunninggong). In the Ming Dynasty, it was the residence of the empress. In the Qing Dynasty, it became a shamanist worship place. It was also used on the emperor's wedding night.

Mental Cultivation Hall 

On the left side of the inner court is the Mental Cultivation Hall (Yangxindian).

From the time of third Qing emperor Yongzheng, all the remaining Qing emperors, 8 in total, resided in this hall. 

Six Eastern Palaces and Six Western Palaces

Six Eastern Palaces and Six Western Palaces opposite each other, with the Back Three Palaces as their axis of symmetry, were the residences of the imperial concubines.

Each palace has its own courtyard, main hall, and side hall. Each hall was managed by a high-ranking concubine. She lived in the main areas, while low-ranking concubines lived in the side rooms.

In the Qing Dynasty, empresses’ palaces were also located there. It was where many Qing emperors were born and raised.

Converted into exhibition halls, they now display a spectacular set of imperial treasures.

The Imperial Garden

The Imperial Garden is behind the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. It was a place for the emperor's family to relax and visit. The garden offers an aesthetic change — from the crimson and gray building complex to a colorful and luxuriant atmosphere.

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The Architecture of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is outstanding not only because of its magnitude, but also for its unique architectural design. Here are five key features.

1. Axial Symmetry and South-North Orientation

The Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaThe important gates and halls of the Forbidden City were arranged symmetrically.

To represent the supreme power of the emperor, given from Heaven, and the place where he lived being the center of the world, all the important gates and halls of the Forbidden City were arranged symmetrically on the north-south central axis of old Beijing.

Heaven was thought to be Polaris (the North Star), the only seemingly stationary star in the northern sky, and the Forbidden City's layout points its visitors straight at "Heaven".

2. Supreme Carpentry

Forbidden CityWooden architecture in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is the largest and most complete complex of ancient wooden structures in the world.

The main frames of all buildings were built with high-quality wooden beams and columns, including whole trunks of precious Phoebe zhennan wood from the jungles of southwest China.

Forbidden City carpenters used interlocking mortise and tenon joints to build its great palace buildings "harmoniously", without nails. Nails were considered violent and inharmonious.

See The 4 Reasons Why Most Traditional Chinese Architecture Was Wooden.

3. Imperial Colors

The Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaRed and yellow are the main Forbidden City colors.

The main colors of the Forbidden City are yellow and red. The walls, pillars, doors, and windows were mostly painted in red, which is a regarded as a symbol of good fortune, and happiness in Chinese culture.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, yellow was a symbol of supreme power and only used by the imperial family. If you climb up to the top of "Scenery Hill" in Jingshan Park and overlook the Forbidden City, you will see an expanse of yellow glazed tile roofs.

4. Roof Decorations

The Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaAnimal Statuettes on the Roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

There is a row of mystical animal statuettes placed along the ridge line of halls that were only for official use.

The animals, like dragons, phoenixes, and lions, have powerful meanings in Chinese culture.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10 roof ridge statuettes — left to right: 'Series Ten' (行什, unique to this roof, an anti-thunder monkey god), dragon, phoenix, lion, sea horse, Heavenly steed, a fish dragon, a Haetae (sheep-like dragon), a lion-like dragon, and a bull-like dragon.

The number of animals is different based on the importance of the buildings. You can see 10 animals on the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important structure in the Forbidden City, and seven on the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the Empress.

5. Stone/Bronze Lions

In Chinese culture, the lion is the king of the animals, and is regarded as a symbol of power and strength.

Stone lion, The Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaStone lions can be seen beside the entances of many Forbidden City halls.

Stone and bronze lions are popular as symbolic guardians, and can be seen beside the gates of many Forbidden City palace compounds.

The lions are always in pairs, with the female lion on the left and the male on the right. See more on China's Stone Lions — the Lowdown and Many Photos.

See more on Forbidden City Architecture.

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The Palace Museum

The Clock Gallery, The Forbidden City, Beijing, ChinaExquisite clocks in the Clock Gallery

The Palace Museum holds more than a million rare and valuable works of art, a sixth of the total number of cultural relics in China.

The collection includes ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, timepieces, jade pieces, ancient books, and historical documents. The main exhibitions are:

  • The Clocks Gallery in the Hall of Ancestral Offerings (Fengxian Dian)
  • The Treasures Gallery in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Ningshou Gong)
  • The Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery in the Hall of Military Eminence (Wuying Dian)
  • The Porcelain and Ceramics Gallery in the Hall of Literary Glory (Wenhua Dian)
  • The Bronzeware Gallery in the Palace of Celestial Favor (Chengqian Dian)

For more, see The Top 10 Treasures in the Forbidden City.

FAQs about the Forbidden City

Forbidden CityForbidden City

1. How old is the Forbidden City? 

The Forbidden City is now 601 years old, counting from 1420 when the Forbidden City was completely constructed. [2021]

2. How big is the Forbidden City?

The Forbidden City covers an area of 72 hectares (178 acres) or 36 city blocks.

3. Who lives in the Forbidden City now?

No-one: it is no longer accommodation for anyone, royal or otherwise.  

The Forbidden City used to be the residence of emperors. After the last emperor of China left the palace in 1925, it became a museum open to the public. Now it is the most popular tourist attraction in Beijing (not counting the Great Wall).

4. Why was the Forbidden City built with 9999.5 rooms?

Legend has it that Emperor Yongle, who built the Forbidden City originally planned 10,000 rooms to be built.

However, the night before issuing the order, he dreamed the God of Heaven was very angry and told him that the number of rooms he had planned for the Forbidden City was the same as the number of palaces in Heaven, i.e. 10,000.

Therefore, the Forbidden City was built with half a room less than planned. The half room is a small room on the west side of the first floor of Wenyuan Pavilion.

5. How many rooms are there actually in the Forbidden City now?

In ancient Chinese architecture, one room refers to a square space among four pillars in a hall. By the latest count in 1972, there are 8,707 rooms in the Forbidden City.

6. What movie was filmed inside the Forbidden City?

The Last Emperor was the first feature film permitted to be filmed on a large scale inside the Forbidden City. After this film, in order to protect its cultural relics, the Forbidden City no longer allows filming.

Before the Last Emperor, there were also some TV dramas and movies shot in the Forbidden City, like the Burning of the Imperial Palace and Reign Behind a Curtain.

7. Where is the 'Cold Palace' in the Forbidden City?

The 'Cold Palace' is not a name for a particular palace in the Forbidden City. Concubines or princes who made mistakes and lost the favor were placed in remote and discarded palaces in the Forbidden City. These palaces were called 'Cold Palaces'. See a stroy of one of the Cold Palace in the Forbidden City — Zhen Concubine Well.

See more on 15 Forbidden City FAQs

Further Reading about the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was where 24 emperors lived and worked. To see what an emperor's daily life in the Forbidden City was like, let’s take as an example Emperor Qianlong, the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Forbidden City infographic

More Forbidden City Related Articles

Explore the Forbidden City with Local Experts

Forbidden CityA Panoramic View of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a must-see attraction for visitors to Beijing. Visitors are limited to 80,000 a day. It is advisable to book well in advance.

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