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Rating 1.5 (252 votes)

Forbidden City

Listed under Castles & Palaces in Beijing, China.

  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
  • Photo of Forbidden City
Photo of Forbidden City
Photo by Dave and Deb
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An entire mysterious city of narrow high walled alley ways leading onto courtyards with single storey, well decorated temple-esque buildings, the West and East palace compounds are just as interesting as the much photographed main gates and temples which run in a direct line on a south to north axis from the huge Mao painting at the Meridian Gate to the Gate of Divine Prowess. These were the living quarters of the royal family and concubines, and where a lot of the intrigue took place, remember, as well as all the important business of business, running the country and praying, the Forbidden City was also a community and as with any community, especially one where a lot of power is concerned there was more drama than your average soap opera going on, and historic personal drama is fascinating stuff.

My first recommendation is get an audio guide. For only 40RMB (2008) on top of the entry ticket at 60RMB, you get to hear a lot more about the people who lived in the city. I've seen 'The Last Emperor' so I had an idea about the end of the story, but each generation had its own intrigues. The men vied for power but the women were at it as well, and in an even more formal way – the concubines had a defined heirachy and were recruited every four years then competed for favour with the emperor, and were promoted and demoted at his will. They weren't really mistresses but almost part of the family and had court duties to perform as well as walking around looking lovely, saying clever things and generally keeping everyone happy. I found their stories the most touching, they were all having children by the same man, yet had to constantly compete on their children's behalf – a lot of their stories seemed to end with them crying with grief until they went blind. Concubines could easily have their children taken away and be banished to the cold, dark north eastern corner if they fell out of favour where they could pretty much languish in boredom by the sounds of it, possibly within hearing distance of their children's laughter.

Only a few of these buildings are open and those that are have been converted into museum and exhibition space. I got the impression that the upkeep of the Forbidden City is a big job and some sections looked in dire need of a little TLC, but it was a shame to gut the inside of these buildings. Some of the ones on the western side are presented behind glass, you can't go in but some of the original furniture and decorations have been feng shui -ed in the rooms. The crowds seemed to be fascinated with the Emperor's official bridal bed and the rooms he and his new wife would have shared for the first three months of their marriage, but if felt kinda voyeristic to crowd round the windows and with no inside lighting everyone had their faces pressed in ungainly ways against the glass.

Only a small section of the garden, a bit with lots of ornamental, strangely shaped rocks, is open to the public, and it swarmed with tour groups, hanging around the gift shops and tea houses where they'll serve your tea in paper cups. The inside of the Pavilion of the Crimson Snow, for which Emperor Qian long poeticised:

'Where are the trees that grow more luxuriant and earlier than the others in spring?

They are those near the Pavilion of the Crimson Snow in front of the Hill of Accumulated Elegance.”

Has been made into a gift shop, and the crab apple trees responsible for the leaves like red snow have long died, but there is still a graceful rock by it inscribed with some of the poetry that Emperors wrote inside the pavilion.

I've mentioned the East and West palaces first but the main thoroughfare through the Forbidden City is from the Meridian Gate where you'll get those famous views of all the temples lining up behind each other and rising into the distance. The gates and temples all have wonderful names, the Gate of Supreme Harmony is before the Temple of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which are all the official bits before you get to the residential bits starting with the Gate of Heavenly Unity, the Hall of Imperial Peace and Gate of Loyal Obedience. Each of these building is decorated along similar lines, very grand and golden-dragon and it's the overall impression which makes them so impressive. Individually they hold their own against Beijing's other temples but the way they're linked by carved marble bridges and wide courtyards really bring home the unique purpose these buildings served for so long in housing god's representative on earth.

The most impressive thing has to be the history and there isn't enough information about life in the city, in fact without the audio guide I would have been staring in awe at I don't know what – which a lot of people were doing. I thought visiting the Forbidden City was going to be like visiting Versailles, where people gasp quietly and reverently, but you're sharing your experience with thousands and thousands of visitors, and it's more zoo than relic down the central pathway, but quieter in the West and East Palaces where I think the tour groups don't have time to delve and you can spend more time considering what life would have been like to live in such a strange insular, luxurious prison. The labyrinth like walls made me feel sorry again for Pu'yi, the last Emperor, whose story seems a bit like a trail across all of Beijing's relics.

Definitely get an audio guide, leave plenty of time (it closes at 5 and 10 minutes before they start playing dinky music to herd you out by which sounds like the Blue Peter theme.) to see the side compounds and expect to share your visit with a lot of others and to feel slightly batted by the number of souvenir stores - but if you listen to the personal stories you can still feel something of the place.

Written by  Kat Mackintosh.

Other expert and press reviews

“The Forbidden City, A Long Tour on a Cold Day”

Before traveling to China, I never fully understood why it was called the Forbidden City. Chinese history wasn’t my forte and I never really cared enough to do the research for myself. I just knew that the movie The Last Emperor won a bunch of … Read more...

Written by  Dave and Deb. Continue reading on theplanetd

“Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang”

'Seat of supreme power for over five centuries (1416-1911), the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its landscaped gardens and many buildings (whose nearly 10,000 rooms contain furniture and works of art), constitutes a priceless testimony to Chinese civili… Read more...

Written by press. UNESCO

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closet port to beijing

the port cruises leave from

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Xingang Port

Forbidden City

If you have seen the film “The Last Emperor” then you will already have an impression of what China’s Forbidden City looks like. A functioning mini city it is a series of squares, courtyards, raised temples and buildings spreading over 720,000 metres in a vast rectangle behind 7.9 metre high walls and containing almost a thousand buildings, the city is the world‘s largest palace complex. Yellow, the colour of the imperial family is the dominant colour, from the roofs to decorations to the stone tiled floors in some places.

As well as the walls which have bases eight and a half metres thick tapering to upwards, the city is also surrounded by a moat, 52 metres wide by six metres deep. On three sides the Forbidden City is then surrounded by beautiful formal gardens and further walls. The main gate, called the Meridian Gate, an impressive, ornate creation with extended wings fronting on to a large square, is on the southern wall.

Built in the beginning of the 15th Century, when the Chinese capital was moved to Beijing, five imperial families and 24 Emperors lived and ruled here. The front section of the city by the southern entrance was used for pomp and ceremony while the back section was used for the day to day business of the imperial family and the running of the country. The most familiar structure in the complex is probably the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is a rectangular temple-esque building rising 30 metres above the huge courtyard which fronts it (if you have seen ‘The Last Emperor’ this was used to impressive effect when filled with extras all revering the Emperor.). The largest surviving wooden structure in China, the hall has rows of pillars supporting a huge carving of a coiled dragon.

After the last Emperor abdicated in 1912 the outer portions of the city were opened up for public use for the first time, prior to that the ‘Forbidden’ part of the title meant what it said - no one was allowed to enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission.

Since 1924 the Palace Museum has been charged with protecting and restoring the city and it’s artefacts, some of which are back on display in museum buildings within the complex after having been evacuated in WW2. Making up part of the collection are over 30,000 pieces of jade, mostly from the imperial collection and featuring several famous pieces.

Most Chinese now refer to the Forbidden City as Gugong, meaning ‘former palace’.

With large restoration projects underway the Palace Museum made a few questionable decisions over what uses were appropriate for buildings within the Forbidden City, and though the main offender, Starbucks, Forbidden City was removed in July 2007 there are still a couple of questionable souvenir shops.

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