The Forbidden City is the largest medieval palace architecture in the world, and was the main imperial palace of China’s final two dynasties: the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties.
While most of the buildings in the Forbidden City are made from wood and have a similar style, its architecture is nevertheless rich in subtle variations and symbolism. It has some of the grandest and most historically significant buildings and features in China.
It covers a vast area, about 150,000 square meters, and includes about 980 buildings, so it can be hard to know what to look out for. To help you make the most of your visit, here are 10 of its architectural highlights to keep an eye out for.
1. Layout: The South-North Axis of Power
The south-north axis is one of the most important features of the Forbidden City’s layout.
From its main southern entrance through its majestic halls to its northern emperors’ quarters, the south-north axis was believed to point visitors towards Heaven (the North Star was thought to be Heaven as it is the only seemingly stationary star in the northern sky).
The emperor was believed to represent Heaven and was therefore housed in the north.
The palace complex is centered on the south-north axis of the old city of Beijing.
Cosmological and Confucian Influences
Most of the buildings were built based on the Book of Changes, China’s oldest text on divination and cosmology, as well as being based on traditional Chinese culture, particularly Confucian culture. These philosophies were developed in China’s pre-imperial Zhou era (1045–221 BC).
Confucian thought is influential in the layout; it establishes stability and represents harmony between man and earth. For example, this is why the main gate faces south and the main road to the palace runs on a north-south axis. Based on Confucian thought, the south-north axis was believed to point visitors towards Heaven.
According to Confucianism, emperors held supreme power from Heaven, which allowed them to govern the whole nation. To show this power’s central place in the nation:
- The imperial palace had to be built in the center of the capital city on its south north axis.
- The important buildings had to be on the south-north “axis of power”.
Feng shui is a key feature of the Forbidden City. Based on the principles of feng shui, the layout was designed to be symmetrical, with each building or space having a complimentary component, and each side of the north-south axis compliments each other.
Emphasizing the union between mankind and nature is one of the most important practices within Chinese traditions and philosophy.
In order to maintain balance and harmony, all the main buildings were constructed symmetrically along the central axis. The Palace of Heavenly Purity particularly reflects this idea.
Also, according to traditional Chinese culture, the status of the left side is much greater than the right side. Therefore, the Imperial Ancestral Temple was constructed on the left-hand side of the south-north axis, and the Altar of Earth and Harvests was situated on the right-hand side.
- Heaven central, mankind left, and nature right is the underlying principle behind the Forbidden city’s architecture.
2. Wooden Construction
The Forbidden City’s beams and columns are made of wood, as are the walls that separate the halls into different rooms. Culturally, wood was the favored material in traditional Chinese buildings.
The Forbidden City is the world's largest collection of well-preserved medieval wooden structures. All the buildings in the Forbidden City are made using high quality wooden beams and columns, and there are many examples of outstanding carpentry.
For instance, its intricate interlocking roof brackets, known as dougong, which literally means “cap and block,” not only look impressive; they also have a crucial practical application. The brackets transfer the weight to the structure’s vertical columns, reducing the strain on the horizontal beams, which reduces the risk of the beams splitting or cracking. What is most impressive is that they don’t require glue or fasteners; they fit together perfectly because of the quality and precision of the carpentry. It is an innovation that could be up to 2,500 years old.
As well as using them for their practicality, architects later focused on making them more decorative, which is very apparent when you look at the intricate carpentry of the Forbidden City’s roofs.
3. Painting and Decorations
Painting and decoration changed considerably over the Forbidden City’s 500-year imperial history, but some things remained constant.
The windows and doors were often changed by different emperors and their family members to suit their personal needs, and the wall decorations for each hall changed frequently.
Most of the columns in the Forbidden City are painted red, China’s most auspicious color, which gives the entire area a more uniform look. As well as being a decorative feature, the oil paint helps prevent the wood from deteriorating.
Three Types of Decoration
Most of the decorations on the buildings can be classified into three types: imperial drawings of dragons and phoenixes, geometric motifs, and Suzhou garden motifs.
Dragons and phoenixes are the major motifs found throughout the Forbidden City. Dragons were used to represent emperors while phoenixes represented empresses. The dragons within the Forbidden City, of which there are more than 10,000, are in many different styles.
Besides the major buildings, other pavilions and towers are decorated with Suzhou garden motifs. The same style of motif within the Forbidden City can be found in the classical gardens of Suzhou.
Though the majority of the Forbidden City’s walls are made of grey brick and many of the stairs and terraces are made from bright white marble, there are also many bold and colorful elements, and there are very deliberate choices behind the colors used.
Yellow is a dominant color; it can be seen in the glazed tiles that are used for the roofs and the many decorations that are painted yellow. Even many of the bricks on the ground are made yellow using a special process. Since the days when myths of the Yellow Emperor became "history", yellow has been said to be auspicious and imperial, and was used exclusively by Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasty (1636–1912) imperial families,
Red is also an auspicious color, associated with happiness, wealth and power; it features prominently on window frames and exterior columns.
Green is also quite an important color, because it signifies growth; it can be found of the roof tiles of buildings such as the princes’ quarters.
See more on Lucky Colors in China.
4. The Roofs and Eaves Decorations
One of the most beautiful parts of the Forbidden City’s architecture is its roofs and their eaves.
Yellow Tiles and Stately Roof Shapes
Only the imperial buildings of the Forbidden City were permitted to have yellow tiles: yellow was the emperor’s color.
The roof shape of the Forbidden City’s most important buildings also had significance. Double-eave hip roofs were the classiest roofs in the empire, reserved for the top imperial buildings.
Read more on Traditional Chinese Roof Architecture.
Animal statuettes have been used on the eaves of important Chinese buildings since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). There are many kinds of animals on the Forbidden City's roofs.
Each animal has different meanings. For example, dragons are used to protect against fire while phoenixes bring good luck and represent virtue. A lion represents the power of the owner and a Haetae (a bull-like beast reputed to butt wrongdoers) stands for justice.
The number of animals reflected the status of a building, with 9 being the highest number permitted in China.
The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important building in China, housing the emperor’s throne, is the classiest roof in all of China’s history and the highest roof in the Forbidden City. There are 9 mythical animals at each of the roof’s corners: a dragon, a phoenix, a lion, a horse, a seahorse, a lion-like dragon, a fish dragon, a Haetae (bull-like dragon), and a flying monkey.
The Number 9
The roofs were built to represent the number 9. Each roof has 9 horizontal beams and 72 ridge beams, supported by 18 columns, making a doubly auspicious sum of 99. The number 9 has a special meaning for Chinese people as it represents longevity and eternity.
Numerology is very important in Chinese culture, and that is certainly apparent at the Forbidden City.
Patterns based on the number nine and its multiples, representing longevity and power, can be found everywhere throughout the structure. Because 9 is the largest single digit and the emperor was seen as the most significant single person, the number became closely associated with imperial status. Perhaps the most prominent example is that the entire structure is said to have 9,999 rooms.
There are many other instances of the nine pattern throughout the different sections and buildings. For example, the original buildings measured 9 bays and there are 9 gates for the watchtowers. Meanwhile, the gates for emperor’s quarters all had studs in rows of 9. Lower ranked officials had fewer studs on their gate. For example, the studs for the gates of princely buildings are in rows of 7.
See more on Lucky Numbers in China.
6. Stone Terraces and Carvings
The marble terraces underneath the palaces were constructed to support the buildings and to help prevent the bases of the wooden structures from rotting.
The height of the terraces represents a symbol of hierarchy. Therefore, the terrace underneath the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the highest.
The Giant Stone Carving
Situated behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony, between the stairways, is a huge stone carving sculpted from bluestone that displays several dragons playing with pearls.
The carving was first sculpted in the Ming Dynasty (1638-1644) and was carved again in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It originally weighed more than 330 tons, but it now weighs about 220 tons.
The stone was originally located in Fangshan District, tens of kilometers from the Forbidden Palace in downtown Beijing. It was pulled to the Forbidden City by 20,000 laborers who slid it across the ice on sleds; the task took the laborers 28 days to complete.
The dragon design represents the power of the emperor and imperial authority and is particularly impressive for its intricacy.
7. Stone and Bronze Lions
The stone and bronze Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) lions, which are seen as symbolic guardians, can be found near the gates of many of the Forbidden City compounds.
The lions are always in found in pairs, with the female on the left and the male on the right. The male lion’s right paw rests on a ball; the female lion’s left paw is holding a cub. The ball that the male lion is protecting represents friendship and affection; the cub that the female protects is symbolic of guardianship. In China, lions are known as “the king of the beasts,” and they often symbolize dominance in Chinese culture; when found in pairs, they represent happiness and prosperity.
See more on China’s Stone Lions.
8. Ornate Throne Rooms
Because the Forbidden City is so vast, with so many pavilions, several thrones were needed in buildings around the complex. They are housed in ornately decorated throne rooms.
One of the most impressive thrones is the Dragon Throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Because emperors were seen as descendants of dragons, dragons are regarded as symbols of an emperor’s power and authority. The dragon throne is a spectacular sight. It is situated at the top of a seven-step platform and surrounded by animals and mythical creatures.
The thrones face south because anyone who approached the emperor would have to face north, and this was a way of showing respect. While the Forbidden City was still used as an imperial residence, anyone who passed the throne was required to bow before it as a show of reverence to the emperor.
9. The Opera House of Changyin Pavilion
Also known as Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, this pavilion inside the Palace of Tranquility and Longevity includes a 21-meter high 3-storey wooden opera house that is the Forbidden City’s largest performance stage.
Built in 1776, it includes many interesting features, such as trap doors that allowed actors to make dramatic entrances to the stage. In recent years, performances have been held here for important international guests.
10. Western-Style Crystal Palace
Located in one of the Forbidden City’s six eastern palaces, toward the back of the Forbidden City, the Palace of Prolonging Happiness is an incomplete a 20th-century Western-style palace. Construction of the palace began in 1909, but was discontinued because of a lack of finances.
The base is made of intricately carved marble, and the upper parts of the structure consist of cast iron and clear panels, which were originally filled with glass. What sets it apart from the buildings that surround it is that it is clearly designed in a “foreign” architectural style, marking it as one of the Forbidden City’s most unusual structures.
Explore the Forbidden City with Local Experts
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. For more expert advice, see How to Visit the Forbidden City - for Discerning Travelers.
To discover more of the history and culture of the Forbidden City, you are recommended to take an in-depth tour guided by an expert, such as our In-Depth Forbidden City Heritage Tour
More sample itineraries for your inspiration:
- 4-Day Emperor's Tour of Beijing: Discover Chinese culture and history with a knowledgeable guide.
- One-Day Beijing Highlights Private Tour: Specially designed and flexible, it’s ideal for those who are short on time.
- See more Beijing tour ideas
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