Beijing: Forbidden City/ Palace Museum (紫禁城, Zǐjìnchéng/ 故宫, Gùgōng)

By Cubie - May 11, 2013

The red caps
Our second day itinerary was easy, just one item - The Forbidden City, or currently referred to as Gùgōng, 故宫 (Palace Museum).

Maybe we did take our own sweet time, or maybe with holidays mode switched on, by the time we reached Forbidden City, it was swarmed with people, and tour groups segregated by caps or hat of different colours.

Despite the very obvious red wall, we were apprehensive of entering the wrong site (LOL!) and sis sent me to confirm with one of the locals who were standing around. It was rather embarassing if I just asked, "Is this the Forbidden City?"

After all, we have seen the red wall numerous times on TV, even on dramas. Anyway, I did ask, though in a more subtle, "Is this the entrance to get into the Forbidden City?" :P

紫禁城 (Zǐjìnchéng) or literally translated as Purple Forbidden City. I have always wonder what's with the purple but google comes to help, as usual. Ancient Chinese Astronomers believed that Purple Star (Polaris) was in the center of heaven, and the Heavenly Emperor lived there. Emperors at that time were considered to be the earth counterpart of Heavenly Emperor, therefore the word purple. "Forbidden" because no one was allowed to enter or go out without permission from the emperor.

One said, "If you have not been to the Great Wall, you have not been to China."
In my humble opinion, I feel it would be "If you have not been to the Forbidden City, you have not been to Beijing." After all, Forbidden City is at the very heart of Beijing. This impressive complex is chokeful of history - completed in 1420, where 24 emperors ruled for nearly 500 years.

We entered via Meridian Gate (Wu Men, 午门). This was where the Emperor would review his armies and perform ceremonies marking the start of a new calender during Ming and Qing Dynasties. The central doorway was for the exclusive use of Emperors in Ming and Qing Dynasties. An Empress coulud enter this doorway once, on her wedding day. Aside from that, as a special honour, the top three scholars of the civil service examinations at that time, would be permitted to exit through this door after their interview with the emperor.

Apparently it is common to hear in some TV shows or movies that one is beheaded at the Meridian Gate. I have not heard it, or even if I had, I must've conveniently let it slide and not registered in my head. However I heard that twice on the day I visited the Forbidden City. Anyway, that was not a true event. As how my sis put it, it was very unlikely for the emperor to allow execution to be performed at where he review his armies, no? ;)

A personal tour guide was probably too costly for us. We opted for the audio guide, at 20 RMB each.

The audio guide was based on auto detection, it will detect your location and started playing once you crossed a certain area. The explanation didn't start even though we were at a certain hall, unless we crossed a certain beam. We didn't know that initially, but it appeared that we were not the only clueless one as we heard a girl asking her friends as well. :P

This auto-detection thingy probably sound a little high tech but the down side was that we can't control when the audio guide would start playing, and no repeats available. :(
In spite of that, I think the audio guide was a great tool in helping me to appreciate this magnificent complex better than just strolling through. Otherwise, the halls will probably just look the same, one after another.

Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian, 太和殿)
I won't write about each and every hall in this city within a city, but here are some little details and makes this place even more superb.

I am rather fascinated with this roof figures thingy, so I did some reading on it.

See the roof guardians?
I put up a different picture of these roof guardians in my earlier post on Yiheyuan, that picture showed of a roof with only seven roof beasts. This one, on the roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian, 太和殿) has the maximum number of beast - nine. The number of beasts indicating the importance of the duties performed within the building or within the courtyard protected by a gate.

The first one is a man riding on a phoenix, followed by nine beasts. The one before the imperial dragon is not a beast but an immortal holding a sword or staff signifying the wish for peace and harmony. This immortal figure is said to be unique to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The last figure in the row is the large dragon figure of the chiwen (鴟吻, chīwěn). Chiwen is one of the sons of the dragon king. It protects the building from fire by commanding the waters of heaven and earth.

Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Men, 乾清门) written in Chinese and Manchurian

Lions in front of Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Men, 乾清门)
The male lions were potrayed with a ball under his paw, while the female lion has a lion cub. Yup, so the one further away in the photo is a male lion. It was said that the lions in front of this Gate of Heavenly Purity is slightly different from the rest. The ears of the lions were not 'perked' up as the rest of the statues to serve as a reminder for the concubines or court ladies to stay out of government affairs in the Outer Court. After all, Gate of Heavenly Purity leads to the Inner Court.
(Note: Inner Court - Emperor and royal families living area)

Here's a photo of a female lion, located in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian, 太和殿) for comparison.

Oh, and the doors for imperial use usually contain 81 brass studs. Odd numbers represent yang (masculine element associated with the emperor). In addition, nine being the highest of odd number, therefore nine times nine are especially lucky :)

It feel surreal to walk in a forbidden palace built in the Ming Dynasty. There were times when I thought to myself, "Is this really from a few centuries ago?" Or am I walking in some old China Dynasty theme park? For now, it is real though there have been changes made to this place. For example, I read that the two side doors (there were five doors initially) at Meridian Gate (Wu Men, 午门) has been reconstructed as toilets.

With that, here's a photo of the iconic red wall of this palace complex. Can you imagine a maid walking passed in the olden days? Grin, am sure it is not hard, with all the TV drama and movies filmed based on this complex ground :)

Side note: Totally random, but now I can do with a slice of Japanese strawberry shortcake :P

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  1. Totally fascinating. I've watched The Last Emperor more than once, and some of your photos look so familiar!

    PS: You're also interested in roof ornaments? Ru loves rooves and everything on them! ^^

  2. Japan is not far off from China, maybe it's time you make a trip and see it in real life!
    PS: Roof ornaments are awesome, and most have nice details ^^

  3. Photo at the top is an excellent illustration of the Forbidden City in the 21st Century -- the top tourist attraction in the most populous nation on earth. Also, don't you find that this was one of the only places in China where the entrance fee would be affordable to the commoners?

    1. Totally agree. I was told entrance fees to attractions in Beijing are under subsidize but I still find comparatively, entrance fee to Forbidden City is still much cheaper than other places in Beijing itself.