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History of the Forbidden City — 1406 to the Present

00The Forbidden City is so big it has its own canals.

From 1420, the Imperial Palace was occupied by imperial families and officials for 500 years. Here are historical details about the Forbidden City's original purpose and construction, major events in the Ming and Qing dynasties and the modern era, and how it is now the world's most popular museum.

The Background and Purpose of the Forbidden City

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was ushered in by Zhu Yuanzhang. After first capturing Nanjing in 1358 and making it his capital, his army attacked the Yuan empire capital of Dadu (now Beijing) and captured it in 1368.

The Ming then burned down the preceding Yuan Dynasty's palaces in Dadu, and Zhu Yuanzhang officially named himself the Emperor of the Ming Empire. Nanjing was the Ming dynasty's first capital city.

Emperor Yongle (reigned 1402–1433) was the third Emperor of the Ming. When he was young, he was appointed ruler of Beijing and the Beijing region, and he built a base of power in the northeast.

Yongle captured Nanjing in 1402. The former palace burned down. He purged the former emperor's bureaucracy. In 1403, he moved the capital to Dadu and renamed it Beijing. He wanted to build his capital city and establish his court administration in Beijing where he felt safer.

Design and Construction (1406–1420)

Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City, and its infrastructure, was a phenomenal feat in the 15th century.

From 1406, for 14 years, the Ming court constructed what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the "largest palace in the world", with 150,001 sq m (1,614,600 sq ft) of floor space and about 9,000 rooms.

In 1406, Beijing was destroyed and its people were impoverished (see Beijing History). Construction of the palace and the rest of the city required much planning. Many architects and engineers, including Cai Xin, Nguyen An (a Vietnamese), Kuai Xiang, Lu Xiang and others, worked on the Forbidden City's design, and the plans were examined by the Emperor's Ministry of Work.

From 1409 onwards, the Emperor spent most of his time around Beijing. Construction lasted 14 years, and they used 100,000 skilled artisans and up to a million workers and slaves.

The pillars of the most important halls were made of whole logs of a kind of hardwood tree called phoebe zhennan (楠木 nánmù) that grows about 30 meters tall and is very straight. They were transported from the jungles of southwestern China all the way to Beijing in the northwest.

Rock blocks were cut and transported from quarries near Beijing. Some of them were huge. The heaviest of these giant blocks, aptly named the Large Stone Carving, weighed more than 330 tons (300 metric tons)!

The heavy ones could only be moved along on special trenches that were dug and filled with water in the winter. They were dragged on the ice! For example, according to a written record, one large monolith measured 9.5 meters (31 feet) long and weighed 135 tons (123 metric tons), and it was hauled over ice by a team of men over 28 days in the winter of 1557.

Another major construction project was the dredging of the moat and using the dirt to create a small artificial hill north of the palace called Jingshan. The moat is 6 meters (20 feet) deep and 52 meters (171 feet) wide.

The Rebuilding of the Grand Canal (1411–1415)

The grand canalThe Grand Canal

A big part of the emperor's grand plan to reconstruct Beijing and build his palace was the dredging and rebuilding of the Grand Canal. The canal was necessary because it was difficult to transport enough food to satisfy Beijing's burgeoning population of craftsmen, laborers, army personal, and officials. To build the capital, an enormous amount of materials and supplies from the south were required.

Water transport was the cheapest method that they had available to transport the heavy bricks, wood and building materials, but Beijing was an inland city. The old Grand Canal system that was built by the Yuan that linked the Yangtze River valley and Dadu had become largely unusable. To raise the water level in the canal, they built a dam to divert the Wen River into it.

Between 1411 and 1415, a total of 165,000 laborers dredged the canal bed in Shandong and built new canal locks. In 1421, when Beijing formally became the national capital, deliveries of grain began to exceed 200,000 tons annually, and so the Forbidden City and Beijing prospered.

Completion and Inauguration (1415–1420)

Once the canal was finished, materials were transported to the city more quickly, and the court hastened construction. The bricks for paving the floors of major buildings were baked in Suzhou that is 1,000 km (640 miles) away and transported up the newly built canal.

Starting from about 1417, large-scale work began on the reconstruction of the capital, and the emperor never returned to Nanjing after that. The Forbidden City palace was completed in 1420, and on New Year’s Day of 1421, he officially inaugurated the Ming capital.

The Forbidden City and Beijing City's Concentric Design

The Forbidden City was enclosed in defensive layers like an onion. In the center was the Forbidden City for the emperors and their families. It was rectangular and measured 961 meters (3,153 feet) from north to south and 753 meters (2,470 feet) from east to west.

It was surrounded by a wall that is 7.9 meters (26 feet) high and 8.62 meters (28.3 ft) wide at the base. Surrounding that was the 6 meters (20 feet) deep by 52 meters (171 feet) wide moat.

Surrounding the Forbidden City was the the much bigger Imperial City where there were gardens and where court officials and staff lived and worked. It too was enclosed by a wall that has been destroyed.

Surrounding the Imperial City was the Inner City that was enclosed by a wall that was 15 miles long and 20 meters (66 ft) thick at the base. By 1553, the Outer City was added to the south. It too was enclosed by a wall. So the overall size of Beijing increased to be 4 by 4½ miles.

Surrounding the walled sections was the rest of the city of Beijing that was not walled. There were important temples outside the walls such as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, and commoners lived there.

All of these walled zones and fortifications and the troops and guards stationed throughout were designed to shield the emperors in the Forbidden City.

Buildings, Rooms, and Dimensions

In total, the Forbidden City complex covers over 180 acres (72 hectares). There are 980 buildings and 8,886 rooms. The Forbidden City was divided roughly in half into two parts. The northern part was called the inner court where the emperor, his family, and officials lived, and the southern part was called the outer court where official functions were carried out.

There originally were more buildings, but they were destroyed. Legend says there were originally 9,999 rooms.

Ming Dynasty History (1420–1644)

The Forbidden CityThese big plazas once were the stage for grand Ming imperial functions.

From 1420 to 1644, the Forbidden City was the seat of the Ming Dynasty

The new buildings were magnificent... matchless. At the time it was built, no other palace in use in the rest of the world matched it. Only in the ancient past were palaces built as large. Only later did the Tibetans and Europeans build palaces that could compare in terms of floor space and total area.

However, about nine months after the Forbidden City was inaugurated, three of the main halls, including the throne room, were struck by lightning and burned down! The emperor feared that heaven had turned against him. He said, "I am frightened to the very core of my being, and I don’t know what to do..." The three halls were not rebuilt until 23 years later.

Ming Rebels Take Beijing (1643–1644)

Shanhaiguan PassThe Ming army kept northern invaders from the Shanhai Pass for centuries, but then the army invited them in!

However, natural disasters and corruption weakened the Ming Dynasty, and troops and peasants rebelled. In April of 1644, a rebel army led by Li Zicheng captured the Forbidden City. He proclaimed himself Emperor of the Shun Dynasty.

Forbidden City Partially Burned (1644)

However, when Li Zicheng's army went to attack Ming General Wu Sangui and his army who were guarding the Great Wall against the Manchus at Shanhai Pass, instead of surrendering to the rebels, Wu Sangui sided with the Manchus and let them through the gates of the Great Wall.

Together, they attacked Beijing in 1644. The rebel army set fire to parts of the Forbidden City and fled away. The last emperor of the Ming hanged himself after the capital was conquered, and the empire was in chaos for months. The united Jurchen (Manchu), Mongol, and Qing troops swept south.

Qing Dynasty History (1644–1912)

On October 30, 1644, about 5 months after the Qing army occupied the capital, Hong Taiji's son Fulin became the Emperor Shunzhi. A ceremony was held at the Forbidden City to proclaim the young Shunzhi Emperor as ruler of all China under the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing rulers changed the names on some of the principal buildings to emphasize "harmony" rather than "supremacy", because the Ming often used the word "supreme" in the names of the buildings. They made bilingual, Chinese and Manchu, inscriptions and signs for the palace.

Under Manchu leadership, the Forbidden City was rebuilt, and the Grand Canal was maintained, just as in earlier times, so that Beijing flourished once again as the imperial capital city.

Foreign Occupations (1860 and 1900)

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, English and French troops took control of the Forbidden City and occupied it until the end of the war. They discussed burning it down, but decided to burn the Summer Palace instead.

In 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi fled from the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion. Foreign troops occupied it until the following year.

The End of Its Role as Imperial City (1912)

After being the home of 24 emperors, 14 of the Ming Dynasty and 10 of the Qing Dynasty, the inauguration of the new Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen in 1912 meant that the Forbidden City was no longer the palace of the emperor. The Qing Empire was officially abolished.

Until 1912, no one was allowed to enter the Forbidden City unless they gained the Emperor’s permission. In 1912, Emperor Puyi abdicated, and under the agreement with the new Republic of China government, the outer court of the Forbidden City became open to the public.

Republic Era Museum and Tourist Attraction Status (1912–1949)

Palace of Heavenly PeaceThe Palace of Heavenly Purity is in the inner court, where the former Emperor Puyi took refuge.

The former Emperor Puyi continued to live in the inner court of the Forbidden City as part of the agreement with the new government. He remained there until he was evicted in a coup in 1924. The Forbidden City became the Palace Museum in 1925.

The 1933 Japanese invasion of China forced the evacuation of the national treasures in the Forbidden City to Sichuan where they were safely housed. Most of the collection was returned to Beijing at the end of World War II, but a large part was kept in Nanjing.

Republicans Keep Forbidden City Treasures

During the Chinese civil war after World War II, the retreating Nationalists moved about 600,000 pieces that were stored in Nanjing to Taiwan in 1948. They were not able to transport the articles in Beijing. Now, the articles are part of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The articles from the Forbidden City that were transported to Taiwan included 2,972 crates of artifacts, about 22% of the crates that were originally transported to Sichuan. These were mainly jewels, paintings, fine ceramics, and particularly valuable items.

They were were kept in storage until 1965. Then they became the core of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The National Museum has a good display of the original landscape paintings, and some of the best of the original Forbidden City antique treasures. Over time, other pieces from the Forbidden City have been donated by private citizens and other museums. The museum has the second best collection of pieces from the Forbidden City.

Modern Era Tourism and UNESCO Recognition (1949 to Present)

China Highlights guide at the Forbidden CityCrowds of tour groups (background) and private tours and guides (like ours, foreground) visit daily.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Communists damaged the Forbidden City, especially during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Red Guards tried to destroy the city and damaged it substantially, but then Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the Forbidden City. From 1966 to 1971, all the gates of the Forbidden City were sealed to protect it.

In 1972, when President Richard Nixon of the United States visited China, he visited the Forbidden City.

In 1987, UNESCO listed the Palace Museum as a World Heritage Site for its significant place in the development of Chinese architecture and culture. They declared that it is the world's largest collection of historic wooden structures. Today, the museum has about 1.5 million artifacts under its care.

From 2005, the museum authorities have been undertaking a planned 16-year restoration project to repair and restore the buildings, statues, frescoes, monuments and decorations, and several big gates, including the Glorious East Gate.

On November 8, 2017, President Trump was the first United States President to be granted a state dinner in the Forbidden City since the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The Palace Museum Now

The Clock GalleryTwo exquisite clocks in the 'Former Palace Museum'

The Palace Museum is becoming increasingly popular. It is the the world's most visited museum with approximately 16.7 million visitors in 2017. This is about twice as many visitors as the next most visited museum, the Louvre in France.

At the end of 2016, the Palace Museum announced that 55,132 previously unlisted items were discovered in an inventory check carried out from 2014 to 2016. They said that the total number of items in the Palace Museum collection is now 1,862,690.

The Chinese now call the Forbidden City Gùgōng (故宫), which means 'Former Palace'. It is now also known as the 'Former Palace Museum' (故宫博物院 Gùgōng Bówùyùan).

Forbidden City Treasures

Except for paintings and some exquisite imperial treasures that are in the National Museum in Taipei, the Forbidden City is the best place to see China's imperial treasures and artifacts. You can also see the architecture of the broad plazas and courtyards, halls, walls, and gates. These are considered to be The Top 10 Treasures in the Forbidden City.

Explore the Forbidden City with Local Experts

Visit the Forbidden City with a local expert. Visit the Forbidden City with a local expert.

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.

If you want to go deep into the history and culture of the Forbidden City, we recommend that you take an in-depth tour guided by an expert like our In-Depth Forbidden City Heritage Tour. The guide will help you steer clear of the crowds and take the best routes through.

More sample itineraries for your inspiration:

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