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Forbidden City (built 1420 onward)

The Forbidden City was built in the early Ming dynasty by the third emperor Zhu-Di. When the founder of the Ming dynasty died in 1398 after thirty-one years of rule, power passed to his grandson Jianwen. Jianwen was a studious Confucian and a man of integrity, but he was too much of an idealist to rule the Ming empire effectively. When he tried to centralize authority by limiting the power of the provincial nobles, they rebelled and rallied around General Yongle, the Emperor's uncle and the commander of the powerful northern army. Yongle had designs on the throne and soon gathered a powerful force, marching south to the southern capital at Nanjing. Despite the numerical superiority of the government troops, Yongle carried the day and occupied the city. Jianwen's body was never found, and many legends state that he either fled the city in disguise or became a Buddhist monk in exile.

Yongle ruled for twenty-one years. He was as ambitious as his grandfather, but he lacked his predecessor's attachments to the Nanjing region. Yongle was much more comfortable with the plains of northern China, where his loyal forces were concentrated. He was also wary of relinquishing command of the northern army to a subordinate. Accordingly, he decided to move the capital close enough to the northern frontier so that he could simultaneously direct his armies and rule as emperor. His first act as Emperor was to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.

In 1406 Zhu-Di ordered the construction of an Imperial palace. He spared no expense. Up to a million laborers toiled in abysmal conditions to finish the construction work in a few years time. The scale of the project taxed the technological know-how of the Chinese engineers. To move an enormous stone cylinder as long as an elephant and as tall as a man, twenty-thousand peasants in the dead of winter created a huge ice path by pouring liquid water on the frozen soil. Thousands of horses pulled the stone across the ice to the center of Beijing. Wood was even more difficult to move. Giant trees in Sichuan province were felled for the main halls, but it was found that they were too large to move. Workers had to wait until torrential rains washed the fallen logs into rivers, where boatmen steered the logs into the Grand Canal. From there they were floated north to Beijing and towed into the palace grounds.

Repeated fires plagued the construction effort, but Zhu-Di lived long enough to see the palace completed in 1420. Its overall form was essentially the same as the palace of today�a quadrangle 900 x 750 meters (3000 by 2500 feet) surrounded by a wall and a moat. All of the buildings were roofed with yellow tiles to symbolize the dignity and solemnity of the emperor. Only the Imperial family was permitted to wear yellow clothes or use yellow tiles.

The Forbidden City is an extremely formal place. It is almost symmetrical and hierarchically arranged so that all the important buildings run down the center, north-south. In keeping with geomancy, the main gate is in the south and the northern side is "protected" by the artificial Coal Hill (see webpage). The palace contained many diversions and beautiful women, but in the summer months the emperors gladly retired to summer palaces north of Beijing�perhaps visiting the Fragrant Hills.

The Forbidden City can also be found in Hue, Vietnam. The Nguyen dynasty rulers created their own version of the Forbidden City that can still be seen in partial form. To examine Hue's Forbidden City, click here.

Plan of the Forbidden City

Plan of the Forbidden City.
Image modified and adapted from the original in The Forbidden City in Beijing, compiled by Zheng Zhihai and Qu Zhijing, by China Today Press.


All images copyright 2008 Timothy M. Ciccone (photographed May 2008), except for a few images copyright 1998 Timothy M. Ciccone & Abraham C. Ahn

Zheng Zhihai and Qu Zhijing. The Forbidden City
  China Today Press, 1993. China

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