By STEVEN WINDUO
IF I was told that walking through the Forbidden City in Beijing, from one end to the other end, is like walking from my house at UPNG to Vision City I would have had second thoughts.
The entry to the Forbidden City is made through the famous Tiananmen Gate, which is decorated with a portrait of Mao Zedong in the centre and two placards to the left and right: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples,” the banners read. The Tiananmen Gate connects the Forbidden City precinct with the modern, symbolic center of the Chinese state, Tiananmen Square.
So many people pass through the Tiananmen Gate and the Upright Gate to take the journey through the Forbidden City. Every day these gates are filled to capacity.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years from 1420-1912. It is located in the centre of Beijing and serves as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.
The Forbidden City was constructed from 1406-1420, comprising of 980 buildings and covers 72 ha (180 acres). The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. It was declared a Unesco Heritage Site in 1987 and is listed by Unesco as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
The Forbidden City was designed to be the center of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the Outer City.
The moment I made the walk through the Forbidden City, I moved along with the crowd. There were so many inner gates and chambers that served different purposes and functions. The Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The Outer Court or the Front Court, includes the southern sections, and was used for ceremonial purposes.
The Inner Court or Back Palace includes the northern sections, and was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was used for day-to-day affairs of state. Generally, the Forbidden City has three vertical axes. The most important buildings are situated on the central north-south axis.
I moved through the courts and learnt as much as I could. Entering from the Meridian Gate I observed the large square, pierced by the meandering Inner Golden Water River, which is crossed by five bridges. Beyond the square stands the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The Hall of Supreme Harmony Square stands behind it. A three-tiered white marble terrace rises from this square. Three halls stand on top of this terrace, the focus of the palace complex. From the south, these are the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony us the largest, and rises some 30 meters above the level of the surrounding square. It is the ceremonial center of the imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. In the Ming dynasty, the Emperor held court here to discuss affairs of state. During the Qing dynasty, as Emperors held court far more frequently, a less ceremonial location was used instead, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony was only used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations, investitures, and imperial weddings.
In the south west and south east of the Outer Court are the halls of Military Eminence and Literary Glory. The former was used at various times for the Emperor to receive ministers and hold court, and later housed the Palace’s own printing house. The latter was used for ceremonial lectures by highly regarded Confucian scholars, and later became the office of the Grand Secretariat. A copy of the Siku Quanshu was stored there. To the north-east are the Southern Three Places, which was the residence of the Crown Prince.
The Inner Court is separated from the Outer Court by an oblong courtyard lying orthogonal to the City’s main axis. It was the home of the Emperor and his family. In Qing dynasty, the Emperor lived and worked almost exclusively in the Inner Court, with the Outer Court used only for ceremonial purposes.
At the centre of the Inner Court is another set of three halls. From the south, these are the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. Smaller than the Outer Court halls, the three halls of the Inner Court were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, would occupy the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, would occupy the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. In between them was the Hall of Union, where the Ying and Yang mixed to produce harmony.
An Imperial Garden lies behind all these halls. The garden contains several elaborate landscaping features. To the north of the garden is the Gate of Divine Might.
Directly to the west is the Hall of Mental Cultivation. Originally a minor palace, this became the de facto residence and office of the Emperor starting from Yongzhen.
Religion was an important part of the life for the imperial court. In the Qing dynasty, the Palace of Earthly Harmony became a place of Manchu Shamanist ceremony. At the same time, the native Chinese Taoist religion continued to have an important role throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. There were the two Taoist shrines, one in the imperial garden and another in the central area of the Inner Court.
Buddhism had a powerful impact in the Qing dynasty palace. A number of temples and Buddhist iconography were scattered throughout the Inner Court, including that of Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism. There is evidence of Buddhism everywhere in the courts.
The Forbidden City is an enduring monument of the political power in China.
By STEVEN WINDUO