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Forbidden City (Gugong)

The Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City or "Gugong", was the imperial residence and center of the kingdom during the reign of 24 emperors. 14 in the Ming and 10 in the Qing dynasty resided and ruled from this palace for 491 years until Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty and of China. It is now the largest and best preserved ancient architecture in China.

Located in the center of Beijing, the Imperial Palace covers an area of 72 hectares. Rectangular in shape, it runs 960 meter long from north to south. And 750 meter wide extended from east to west. There is a 10-meter high wall, encircled by a 52-meter wide moat.

The palace boasts more than nine thousand rooms, with layout following strict feudal code. The palace is divided into two main sections: the Front Palace and the Inner palace. In the center of the Front Palace stand the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Complete Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Inner Palace includes the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Prosperity, the Hall of Earthly Peace and the Imperial Garden.

There are four gates at each corners of the walls: The Meridian Gate to the south, the Gate of Divine Military Genius to the north, the East Flowery Gate to the east and the West Flowery Gate to the west.

The Gate of Divine Military Genius was the gate connecting the imperial palace with the market area to the north of the palace. It is the largest gate of the Forbidden City, 35.6 meters high and surmounted by five pavilions. The central pavilion is rectangular in shape, while the other four, two on each side are square and hence the nickname is "The Five Phoenix Tower"

The Meridian Gate was so named because the Chinese emperors held that they lived in the center of the universe, and that the Meridian Line sthus went through the Forbidden City.

A pair of bronze lions guards the gate of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, symbolizing the imperial power. In China, lions were supposed to be good doorkeepers and put at the gate to ward off evil spirits. Lions are frequently seen in front of buildings as guardians, one playing with a ball (male) and the other a cub (female). It was considered auspicious. The ball is said to represent imperial treasury or peace. The cub sucks milk from underneath the claw, because the female doesn't have breast.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is 35 meter high, 60 meter wide and 33 meter on both sides. It is now the largest, best preserved wooden hall in China. Twenty-four pillars support the roof. The Central six are gilded and painted red. The Emperor's throne, which is surrounded by art treasures of symbolic significance, is in the middle of the hall.

Above the throne is gold painted caisson, or coffer ceiling, with dragon designs, from which hangs a spherical pearl called "The Xu Anyuan mirror".

Three flights of marble steps leads up to the terrace In the middle of the central flight is a huge carving in the design of "Dragons playing with pearls", over which the emperors' sedan chairs were carried. At the east corner of the terrace is a sundial, and at the west corner stands a small temple in which the grain measure was kept. The sundial and grain measure is both symbols of rectitude and fairness.

Behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony, between the stairways, is a huge one-piece marble carving of "Dragons playing with pearls". This marble was brought here all the way from Fang Shan District, about 70 km away from Beijing City proper. It is about 17 meters long, 3 meters wide and 1.7 meters thick, weighing about 250 tons. Without any modern means of transportation, you can imagine how difficult it was for the Chinese laborer to transport such a huge piece of stone here!

Facing the Gate of Imperial Supremacy in the Hall of Jewelry is the famous Nine Dragon Screen, the best of its kind and the biggest in China. The main body of the screen was engraved with nine huge dragons. Each dragon is in different colors and is playing with a pearl, each with different unique appearance.

The Imperial Palace is the largest museum in China; it preserves more than 900,000 priceless antiques covering all dynasties of Chinese history and has been recognized as the biggest and most important treasury house of Chinese culture and arts in the world.

Some Curiosities About the Forbidden City

  1. The Forbidden City occupies 720,000 square meters (7,747,200 square feet / 180 acres). The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul measures 700,000 square meters; the Vatican measures 440,000 square meters; and the Kremlin measures 275,000 square meters.
  2. There are 9,999 rooms in this series of exquisite palaces inside the City. Nine is a lucky number for the Chinese. (Some books quote 8886 rooms but this does not include antechambers.)
  3. The walls are 32 feet high (10 meters). The surrounding drainage moat is 165 feet wide (50 meters). The main part of the city was constructed over 14 years (1407-1420) using 200,000 laborers. Building materials were shipped over thousands of miles from all parts of China using the network of canals constructed in the 6th and 7th centuries.
  4. All of the buildings are made from painted wood. To deal with the fire risk, giant bronze cauldrons filled with water were placed at intervals throughout the Palace.
  5. At the end of the 18th century approximately 9000 people lived within the Forbidden City, composed of guards, servants, eunuchs, concubines, civil servants and the Royal Family.
  6. The inner sanctum rooms were forbidden to women except to the Empress on her wedding day.
  7. The tradition of castrating male servants dates back over two thousand years. The Qing Dynasty started with 9000 eunuchs, reducing to about 1500 in 1908. Their testicles were mummified and stored in jars, to be buried with them after their death. Many eunuchs were harshly treated, or executed at whim. Corruption, power struggles and personal vendettas flourished.
  8. Emperors were entitled to several wives and many concubines. (Qianlong had two official wives and 29 concubines). Concubines were well-educated women selected from the best Manchu families. Nightly, the Emperor would decide which concubine would visit him that evening. She would then be stripped, bathed and depilated before being carried to his chamber. The number of times a concubine was chosen secured her social standing.
  9. Depending upon status, each rank would dine from "color-coded" plates, cups and bowls. Only the Emperor and Empress were entitled to use real gold or "radiant yellow" porcelain. Over 3000 pieces of gold and silver plate were held in Qing kitchens during the 18th century.
  10. The Emperor's choice of successor was usually kept secret until after his death, when it was verified by bringing together a document held by the emperor with a document previously concealed in a sealed box.
  11. Ministers and officials had to prostrate themselves on the floor before reporting to the Emperor.
  12. Manchu women did not bind their feet, but wore shoes mounted on six- to eight-inch platforms, giving them the tottering gait considered seductive.
  13. Instead of jousting with lances, Chinese courtiers took part in the competitive sport of poetry composition.
  14. Portraits have a special significance in China because of the widespread practice of ancestor worship.
  15. "The Last Emperor", familiarly known as Puyi, succeeded to the throne at the age of three. He was forced to abdicate in February 1912, but was held in the Forbidden City until 1924. During those years he had a British tutor, Reginald Johnston, who gave him his first bicycle.