1 Voodoor

Forbidden City China Architecture Essay

The Forbidden City, imperial palaces in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), is famous not only because of the palaces themselves, but also its architecture style. It stands for the culmination of the development of classical Chinese and East Asian architecture and influences the development of Chinese architecture. The largest surviving wooden structure in China is surrounded by 7.9 meters (26 feet) high walls and 3,800 meters (2.4 miles) long moat. Containing more than 9,000 rooms, it covers 72 thousand square meters (178 acre). Four gates on four directions are the Meridian Gate on the south, the Gate of Devine Might on the north and two other Glorious Gates on west and east. There are delicate towers in four corners on the walls. All the major buildings are wooden structures roofed with yellow glazed tiles and supported by white marble terrace.

Axially Symmetrical Layout

Symmetrical Layout of Forbidden City
It was constructed symmetrically along a central north-south axis, which is also the axis of the old Beijing City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony in the outer court together with Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility in the inner court were constructed on the central axis. Other palaces are in parallel with the central axis.

All the palaces were constructed based on The Book of Changes and Chinese traditional Confucian culture. “The union of human being and the nature” is the main idea in the Book of Change. In the names of the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, union of the heaven and the earth can be reflected. The gates were constructed based on the Chinese Eight Diagrams in hope of the harmony with the nature. Ancient people emphasized on the balance and harmony, so all the palaces are constructed along the central axis symmetrically. In Confucianism, the emperor had the supreme status. Emperors also thought they governed the whole nation, so they built the imperial city in the heart of the capital and their residence in the center of the imperial city. This shows the highest status of the emperors. Chinese traditional culture prefers that the left side means promotion or high-ranking and the right side means demotions or low-ranking, so the Altar of Earth and Harvests is on the right, while the Imperial Ancestral Temple is on the left. To some extent, the Altar of Earth and Harvest ranks higher than the Altar of Earth and Harvest.

Structure and Decorations of the Palace

Wooden Structure and 
Color Painting inside the Hall
The main frames of all palaces are built of wood. The wooden beams and columns (the column is the upright post; the beam sits on top of the column) are the most important elements, while the walls, using to separate space, are auxiliary structures. Therefore, windows can be designed flexibly and made for different needs. The bracket, using to bearing the weight, is also a typical structure in ancient architecture. In Ming and Qing Dynasty, these capitals were no longer used to support the house and absorb the effects of earthquakes, but only for decoration. Various categories of decorations used leaves people a feeling of mystery.

Color Painting is one form of decorations in Chinese ancient buildings, which is used not only decoratively, but also to protect the wooden structure from deterioration. The motifs of Color Painting are dragons and phoenixes. Three categories of color painting are used -  imperial pattern paintings, tangent circle pattern paintings and Suzhou style pattern paintings. The imperial patterns mainly with dragons and phoenixes are used on palaces on the central axis and other major palaces. Dragon patterns were used to stand for the emperors and there are 12,654 dragons in different styles. Phoenix patterns, standing for empresses were also widely used. Tangent circle patterns are inferior to the imperial patterns, which involve gyrate decorative patterns. This kind of pattern is always used on side halls, gates and subordinate halls. The Suzhou style patterns are used on pavilions, towers and so on in the gardens.

Roofs and Animal Decorations on the Eaves

The design of the roofs is also attractive. More than ten kinds of roofs exist in it and the three halls in the outer court have three different roofs respectively. The ten kinds of roofs mainly include single-eave hip roof, hipped-gable roof and pyramidal-hipped roof. The feature of the roof is big as well as the smooth lines and the eaves. The role as a symbol of rank soon replaced their original function of providing shelter.
Roofs of the Imperial Palaces
Animal Decorations on the Eaves
The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest level of the roof with ten mythical animals at each of its roof corners, which shows the superiority. These mythical animals are characteristics in Chinese architecture, which has special purpose. The animals on the ridge of the ancient buildings include Chiwen, the kissing dragon, the phoenix, the lion, the heavenly horse and the sea horse, Suanni - the lion-like dragon, Yayu - the fish dragon, Haetae, Douniu - the bull-like fighting dragon and Xingshi, the flying monkey. The kissing dragon is said to be one of the nine sons of the dragon to watch fire; the phoenix is to bring happiness and good luck to the building; the lion indicates the power of the owner; the horses show their ability to reach both heaven and the sea; Suanni, also one of the sons of the dragon, is the king of the animal kingdom; Yayu, the fish-like dragon, is able to collect clouds and extinguish fire; Haetae, a unicorn, stands for justice and upright; Douniu, the bull-like fighting dragon, fights for peace; and Xingshi, the flying monkey, is an animal for prevent the destruction by thunder.

All these animals on the ridge come from the evolution of the nails or something heavy for the stability of the eaves when stuck by wind. This is their practical role in the ancient Chinese architecture. They, on the one hand, also create the mythical atmosphere for the building apart from their decoration functions. Besides, the number of the animals indicates the rank of the building and its owner. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest level of the building and was used by the emperor, so it has ten mythical animals on the ridge. Following the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony have lower status with lower status of roofs.

Terraces under the Palaces

Hall of Supreme Harmony on the High Terrace
The terraces are exquisite, too. The terraces are used to support the building as well as avoid getting septic. The height as well as the decorations of the terrace is strictly limited by the hierarchy system. The three halls in the outer court are constructed with the grandest terraces - 8 meters high (26 feet) terrace with three layers. The terrace of the Hall of the Supreme Harmony is the highest level in ancient Chinese architecture, which shows the superior status of the hall. Other palaces or halls have their own particular terraces according to their status. The stone lions’ heads around the terrace are decorations as well as draining systems.

Imperial Colors

The color also has its own culture. Yellow and red are the two main colors. Yellow, meaning respect in Chinese culture, was widely used on roofs of most palaces. This color is only used by imperial families and makes these palaces looks gorgeous. Besides, the roofs of the residence of imperial children are green. The red walls stand for emperors’ hope of national stability.

 Further Reading
Facts & History of Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is the common name of the Chinese emperors' palace of the Ming and Qing dynasty, which ruled China from the 15th century until the beginning of the 20th century.

Pavilion of the Supreme Harmony

Pavilion of the Supreme Harmony

The Forbidden City, now known as the Palace Museum, was the imperial palace of two Chinese dynasties, the Ming and the Qing. Located in the center of Beijing, it was built between 1406 and 1420 and served to 24 Chinese emperors, until 1911. Currently it is a museum presenting artistic and cultural treasures of Chinese history. At the same time luxurious and magnificent, the Forbidden City is considered as one of the five great palaces of the world, with the Palace of Versailles (France), the Palace of Buckingham (Great Britain), the White House (United States) and the Kremlin (Russia). It was classified by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.

Measuring 750 meters from East to West and 960 from North to South, the Forbidden City covers 720,000 square meters, it is the largest palatial complex in the ancient world and China's most complete existing architectural group. The legend says that it has 9999 pieces, but the reality is quite different, in fact it counts only a little more than 8700. It is necessary to know that 10000 is the number of the Gods, corresponding to infinity, it was therefore not conceivable to create a palace with more than 9999 rooms ... hence this legend.

A museum of one million works of art exhibited

Nowadays the Forbidden City is a museum called the "Museum of the Palace". ("Gugong Bówùyuàn") The Chinese prefer the name "old palace", which better corresponds to their history. It is interesting mainly for its buildings, whose state of conservation and restoration are exemplary. Squares, passages, gardens and walls are just as interesting as the places of life themselves. This museum, however, contains pieces of many important Chinese works of art, such as lacquer, bronze, paintings, but also elements of the imperial family, sometimes very old. The whole is particularly interesting but requires a certain time of visit, time that is rarely compatible with the visits organized for the Westerners on the spot.

One million works of art are said to be visible in the museum, which is difficult to verify ...

Learn more about the collections of the museum.

The appellations

Its official name is "The Forbidden Purple City". Purple refers to the polar star, considered in the Chinese imagination as the "small purple star". This star being in the axis of the Earth, it seems never to move and has been considered the center of the World. As the emperor was also considered at the center of everything, the two notions were joined together and the palace where the emperor lived was therefore associated with the purple color. This is also the reason for the color of the buildings, supposedly purple (and that is, in reality, red).

The Chinese call this monument "The ancient palace", referring to the ancient times during which it was occupied. But most of the time, in Europe, we call it "The Forbidden City" because it was forbidden to enter, approach, or even look at it!

Lear more about the appellations of the forbidden city.


When the new Emperor Yongle decided to build a new palace in Peking, he had a certain number of requirements linked to the Chinese traditions. The name was chosen according to astronomical elements. The new imperial palace being the center of power, it had to bear the name of the central star in the sky. This star is known in the west as the "polar star", but in China it is "the small violet star" ("Ziwei Xing", in Chinese). The palace was called "the purple city". His name forbidden city came later, the adjective referring to the fact that no one could enter the palace except the imperial family and servants.

Another symbol, in the Chinese traditions, the number 10 000 represents the infinite, and the 9 is a symbol of longevity. The palace received 9999 pieces, figures intended to ensure a long life to the emperor while approaching the maximum number of rooms that could contain a palace made by men. (10,000 being the limit, after only the Gods could make palaces with more coins)

Learn more about symbols of the forbidden city.

Life in the palace at feudal times

When visitors discover this magnificent complex, no one can imagine the dismay of the members of the imperial family who lived in these premises. Disarray is the word because although considered as gods, they never had to leave the palace except with rare exceptions. The nearer the Emperor was, the more strict this restriction was, even to the Emperor himself, almost assigned to this palace for the rest of his life. The forbidden city was therefore a prison, gilded prison, but a prison anyway.

On the other hand, for the eunuchs who were assigned to the daily tasks in relation to the royal family, they were among the few people to share them on a daily basis. Their lives were relatively interesting because, apart from their states of eunuchs, they benefited from many advantages related to overconsumption of the imperial family. As an example, it must be known that the Emperor never wore the same dress two days, the latter was for single use. The eunuchs could retrieve these outfits and resell them, which made them rich. There were of course many confrontations between eunuchs, who lived in a sometimes very heavy atmosphere. But this status was still sought because the operation of removing the testicles succeeded in 90% of the cases (10% mortality, anyway) and ensured an enviable life.

The servants of the palace were members of the common people who enjoyed the privilege of working within the walls of the palace. Being able to circulate as close as possible to the power, they soon enjoyed greater consideration among all the Chinese. Moreover, they had, like the eunuchs, certain advantages connected with their functions.

During the five centuries of its use the forbidden city was perceived as a sacred place. In this capacity no one but the emperor and his court had the right to enter. Approaching it significantly was strictly forbidden, and even a glance at these high walls could be reprehensible.

Lear more about the life of an emperor into the forbidden city.

Origin of the forbidden city

The Middle Kingdom has not always been ruled by Chinese emperors. In the thirteenth century most of the present-day China is dominated by the Mongols, who set up an administration mainly controlled by the Persians, the Syrians and the Turks. The present capital is then designated as the city of the Great Khan (Khânbalikâ). The Mongol empire is experiencing rapid growth but is very soon confronted with uprisings of the Chinese. The Mongol power collapsed and a Chinese dynasty, the Ming (word meaning "clear", "brilliant", "resplendent") took its place. She soon undertook to shave the palace of the great Khan to replace it with buildings inspired by the purest tradition of Han and Tan dynasties.

Learn more about the history of the forbidden city.

Architecture of the forbidden city

Chinese memories do not need massive castles with high walls to demonstrate their powers: They prefer generous surfaces with low constructions arranged square to symbolize the Earth - indeed, in the Chinese genesis, the Earth is a slice of square shape. The planning of this extraordinary site, around which the rest of the city must organize, demonstrates the intentions of the powerful, highlighting the Middle, the fifth cardinal point and the most important. Even though Beijing is not the geographical center of the Empire, the capital is the symbolic center, in the center of which stands this city, the heart of the Empire and power.

The main buildings are located on a perfectly north-south axis, with a parade avenue which once crossed the whole city and connected the gates. Other buildings are organized in groups of two on either side of the axis or along parallel axes. The large courtyards used for ceremonies and receptions are to the south in the public part of the city, while the residential palaces are situated in the north. This layout of the buildings echoes the Chinese representation of Feng Shui which advocates that man and his home fits between wind and water. That is why the buildings must be protected to the north and open to the light and heat to the south. In the imperial city these conditions are fulfilled, since in the north and west the city is protected from the winds coming from the Gobi desert, while it can open to the south and the east on a plain.

The city is also defended in the North by an artificial hill built from the earth removed to dig the moat. This hill is called in popular language "The Coal Hill", because it is there that the essential fuels are stored in the palace. The different buildings do not strike by their height but rather by their width and their gathered appearance. All stand on imposing stone pedestals that can be as large as 8 meters wide for the reception pavilions and provide a good insulation of the soil moisture for wooden buildings. From these stone bases stretch powerful columns cut in a very hard wood, the nanmu, transported for this purpose by channels from the South of China. These columns support very massive roofs covered with varnished clay tiles. The colors were to be decreed by the emperor: In the palace, it is the yellow, imperial color par excellence.

The reception buildings are topped by two-tiered roofs, which seem very light and elegant despite their height on two floors and their impressive size. This effect is obtained thanks to the presence at the four corners of the building of a particular wooden framework that springs to the assault of the sky. It is populated with fabulous beings in glazed earth that are supposed to protect the City and its inhabitants from all dangers - not just Mongols.

Learn more about the architecture of the forbidden city.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *