There's no false advertising here. Beijing's Forbidden City was exactly what it claimed to be. This maze of 800 buildings was off limits to ordinary mortals, being the exclusive precinct of China's emperors and their courts for 500 years. Regular Chinese were prohibited from even coming near the walls. This complex has sometimes been called the "place with 9,999 and a half rooms" (because only the palace of heaven could have a perfect 10,000 rooms), but in reality it has about 8,700 rooms and halls.
Begun in the early 15th century by the Yongle emperor, who put 200,000 laborers to work on the project, the Forbidden City was the home of 24 successive Ming and Qing emperors through 1924. Surrounded by a moat and 30-foot-high walls, the "Sons of Heaven" were elevated above earthly matters, a fact reflected in the very architecture of the palace. Ceremonial halls are perched on a marble plinth several feet above the surrounding courtyard.
No group of historic buildings in China is larger or better preserved than the
Forbidden City. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
Beautifully planned, the architecture of the Forbidden City maintains a harmonious sense of poise between buildings and open space. The complex is symmetrically balanced along a north-south axis, but the design is never rigid or monotonous.
The vast outer courtyard, also known as the "Sea of Flagstones," had room for imperial audiences of 100,000 people. Like an ocean, it washes around three great halls that make up the ceremonial heart of the Forbidden City.
The largest, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was reserved for august occasions such as coronations or the emperor's birthday celebration. Only the ruler himself could use the marble entry ramp adorned with carved dragons. In the hall, amidst clanging gongs and clouds of incense, prostrate courtiers were required to strike the floor nine times with their foreheads. No doubt the emperor made a stunning impression.
The hall displays treasures such as jade musical chimes and the splendidly ornamented Dragon Throne, from which the emperor issued his absolute decisions. Outside the hall a bronze turtle, symbolizing long life, puffs incense smoke from its mouth. On the roof, ornamental dragons -- standing 11 feet tall and weighing 4.5 tons -- are believed to protect the building from fire because they draw clouds and rain.
The ruler used the nearby Hall of Middle Harmony as a dressing room before important ceremonies. He also greeted important foreigners here and addressed the royal progeny, children born to his wives and many concubines.
In the Hall of Preserving Harmony, candidates took examinations for the world's first civil-service bureaucracy. Inside stands a huge chunk of marble carved with motifs of dragons and clouds. Weighing 250 tons, it was transported to Beijing on a pathway of ice created by sluicing water onto the winter roads.
Beyond these outer precincts lies the Forbidden City's inner courtyard, whose three palaces served the Ming and Qing Dynasties as imperial residences. The Palace of Heavenly Purity, the emperor's sleeping quarters, is guarded by incense burners shaped like cranes and tortoises. Emperors and empresses consummated their marriages in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, whose small wedding chamber is painted completely red. The room was last used in 1922, after the wedding of the Manchu child emperor Pu-yi, who compared the gaudy décor to "a melted red wax candle."
Lions are considered excellent guardians and can often be found in China
protecting various entrances from evil spirits.
Uncomfortable there, Pu-yi abandoned his wedding chamber for the more familiar Hall of Mental Cultivation. In its apartments, emperors spent most of their time living and working. During the 1800s, the Dowager Empress Cixi received visitors here from behind a screen, as foreigners and Chinese of lower station were not allowed to lay eyes on so lofty a personage.
In many ways the emperor and his court lived in a gilded prison. They rarely dared to venture beyond the Forbidden City's walls, and then only with elaborate precautions. The emperor rode in a palanquin, a closed and covered reclining couch carried by four servants. Military guards, the secret service scouting the route, and a policy of never revealing which palanquin carried the emperor were just some of the stratagems used to safeguard the ruler outside the Imperial Palace.
The Imperial Garden was one of the few places where the people closed inside the complex could go to relax. Wandering among the pavilions and ponds, pines, flowers, and bamboo -- all the classical sights of Chinese gardening -- residents had an all-too-rare experience of nature, the kind of simple pleasure that commoners enjoyed every day. But that was in the world outside, beyond the high walls of the Forbidden City.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.