Hail the heav­enly Pur­ple Palace

Shanghai Daily - - NOW AND THEN - Zhang Qian

Zi­jin Cheng, or the For­bid­den City, ly­ing in the cen­ter of Bei­jing, was the home to 24 suc­ces­sive Chi­nese em­per­ors. Cov­er­ing 74 hectares (740,000 square me­ters), the com­pound is rec­og­nized as the world’s largest palace com­plex, and was listed as a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site in 1987.

The iconic com­plex is known around the world for its un­par­al­leled ar­chi­tec­ture and as the cen­ter of Chi­nese power for five cen­turies.

Now open to the pub­lic, it houses pre­cious art and his­tor­i­cal ex­hibits.

The an­cient Chi­nese be­lieved that the Pur­ple Star (Po­laris) was in the cen­ter of heaven and the Heav­enly Em­peror lived in the Pur­ple Palace — Zi­jin Cheng (The Pur­ple For­bid­den City).

To­day, it is usu­ally called the Palace Mu­seum.

Con­struc­tion of the For­bid­den City started in 1406 dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644) and took 14 years to com­plete. A year later, the Ming Dy­nasty moved its cap­i­tal city from Nan­jing to Bei­jing.

It was said that a mil­lion work­ers, in­clud­ing 100,000 ar­ti­sans, were put into long-term hard la­bor. The main frames of the build­ing were built with high-qual­ity wooden beams and col­umns, in­clud­ing whole trunks of pre­cious Phoebe zhen­nan wood from the jun­gles in south­west China. In­ter­lock­ing mor­tise and tenon joints were used to build the great palace “har­mo­niously” as nails were con­sid­ered vi­o­lent and in­har­mo­nious.

Yel­low and red are the main col­ors of the For­bid­den City. Red, the color for good for­tune and hap­pi­ness, is widely used on walls, pil­lars, doors and win­dows. And yel­low, the color of supreme power in the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dy­nas­ties, is mostly seen on the tiled roofs.

Wenyuange, the royal li­brary, has an ex­cep­tional black roof, be­cause black rep­re­sents wa­ter and is be­lieved to help pre­vent fire.

The ar­chi­tec­ture of the walled com­plex ad­heres rigidly to the tra­di­tional Chi­nese ge­o­man­tic prac­tice of feng­shui. The ori­en­ta­tion of the For­bid­den City, and in­deed all of Bei­jing, fol­lows a north­south line.

The For­bid­den City is com­posed of around 70 palace com­pounds with over 8,700 rooms. Most im­por­tant build­ings,


or es­pe­cially those along the main axis, face south to honor the sun. The build­ings and the cer­e­mo­nial spa­ces be­tween are ar­ranged to con­vey an im­pres­sion of great im­pe­rial power while re­in­forc­ing the in­signif­i­cance of the in­di­vid­ual. This ar­chi­tec­tural con­ceit is borne out in the small­est of de­tails.

The For­bid­den City is di­vided into three parts — the de­fenses around the city, the Outer Court in the south where the em­peror ex­er­cised his supreme power over the na­tion, and the In­ner Court in the north where he lived.

In all, 14 em­per­ors of the Ming Dy­nasty and 10 of the Qing Dy­nasty ruled from here.

The de­fenses

The For­bid­den City is sur­rounded by a 52-me­ter-wide moat and a 10-me­ter-high wall. There is a gate on each side of the wall. The whole com­plex is 961 me­ters long from the Wu (Merid­ian) Gate in the south to the Shenwu (Di­vine Prow­ess) Gate in north, and 753 me­ters wide from the Donghua (Glo­ri­ous East) Gate to the Xi­hua (Glo­ri­ous West) Gate.

There are unique and del­i­cately struc­tured watch­tow­ers on each of the four cor­ners of the wall.

The 38-me­ter-high Wu Gate, one of the tallest build­ings, is the for­mal south­ern en­trance. Its aux­il­iary wings, which flank the en­try­way, are out­stretched like the forepaws of a guardian lion or sphinx.

One of its pri­mary func­tions was to serve as a back­drop for im­pe­rial ap­pear­ances and procla­ma­tions.

Be­yond the Wu Gate lies a large court­yard, through which the Golden Wa­ter River runs in a bow-shaped arc.

The river is crossed by five par­al­lel white mar­ble bridges, which lead to the Gate of Supreme Har­mony (Tai­he­men).

There are three main en­trances at the Wu Gate. Only the em­peror could al­ways use the main cen­tral en­trance. The queen could use it only on her wed­ding day, and the top three schol­ars of the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion would exit once af­ter tak­ing the fi­nal im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion presided over by the em­peror.

In the Qing Dy­nasty, of­fi­cials used the left main gate, while no­bles used the right gate. There are an­other two side doors which are usu­ally closed.

The Outer Court

The Outer Court is the heart of the For­bid­den City where em­per­ors at­tended grand cer­e­monies and con­ducted state af­fairs.

There are three ad­min­is­tra­tion halls in the area — Taihe (Supreme Har­mony) Hall, Zhonghe (Cen­tral Har­mony) Hall and Baohe (Pre­serv­ing Har­mony) Hall.

The three halls over­look a 3-hectare plaza that ad­mit­ted tens of thou­sands of peo­ple pay­ing homage to the em­peror. The Taihe Hall, 60 me­ters long, 33 me­ters wide and 35 me­ters high, is the largest and one of the tallest sin­gle build­ings in the com­pound.

It was where the most im­por­tant rit­u­als like the em­peror as­cend­ing the throne, get­ting mar­ried, con­fer­ring ti­tles, ap­point­ing gen­er­als and declar­ing wars.

The Zhonghe Hall was where the em­peror would rest or re­hearse be­fore grand events in the Taihe Hall. And the Baohe Hall was used for ban­quets and im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tions.

The In­ner Court

Be­hind the Qian­qing (Heav­enly Pu­rity) Gate sits the In­ner Court in the north sec­tion. It was the home of the em­peror and his fam­ily. In the Qing Dy­nasty, the em­peror lived and worked al­most ex­clu­sively in the In­ner Court, with the Outer Court used only for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses. Puyi (1906-67), the last em­peror of the Qing Dy­nasty, was per­mit­ted to live in the For­bid­den City even af­ter his ab­di­ca­tion, but he was ex­pelled from the palace in 1924.

To­day, the For­bid­den City, as a mu­seum, houses more than a mil­lion rare and valu­able art­works.

It is said to host 14 mil­lion vis­i­tors ev­ery year, with a daily limit of 80,000.

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