Burke’s Backyard in China – The Forbidden City

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Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, known as Gugong, is the largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Completed in 1420, it was home to 24 emperors of the Ming and the Qing dynasties, and was the seat of supreme power for over 500 years.

The Forbidden City occupies 720,000 square metres. The walls are 10m high and are surrounded by a 50m wide drainage moat. Hundreds of thousands of labourers built the city over 14 years. There are 9,999 rooms in the complex of palaces, as the number 9 is a lucky number for the Chinese.

The buildings are all constructed from painted wood. This poses a huge fire risk, so water to put out fires was stored in giant bronze cauldrons placed at intervals throughout the palace. Even so, many buildings were burnt down and all of the buildings standing today, date from the last 200 years.

The main colours used in the city are red, yellow and white. To the Chinese, red is the most superior colour and symbolises happiness. Yellow represents the earth, the most important of the five elements, so yellow as used exclusively by the emperor.

City Life

At the end of the 18th century around 9,000 people lived in the Forbidden City, including guards, servants, eunuchs, concubines, civil servants and the Royal Family. However, the city was inaccessible to the common people. Even the highest civil and military officers could not enter without good reason.

Male servants were castrated and their testicles were mummified and buried with them after their deaths. In the Qing Dynasty there were around 9,000 eunuchs, many of whom were harshly treated or executed at whim.

The Emperors had several wives and many concubines. Concubines came from the best Manchu families. The Emperor decided each evening which concubine would visit him, and the social standing of the concubine depended on the number of times she was chosen. Inner sanctum rooms were forbidden to women, except to the Empress on her wedding day.

Imperial Garden

Here, gnarled old trees, bizarrely shaped rocks and traditional architecture all fuse together in a uniquely Chinese way. Constructed during the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial Garden was a private retreat for the imperial family.

The garden is rectangular in shape and at each corner is a pavilion symbolising the four seasons. The most famous is the Pavilion of Myriad Springs, which is located in the eastern corner. The Pavilion of a Thousand Autumns has a round roof superimposed on a square one, the round roof representing heaven and the square roof below representing earth.

The main building is the Hall of Imperial Peace. In front of the hall is a 400-year old white-bark pine (Pinus bungeana) known as the Consort Pine, which symbolised the harmony between the Emperor and Empress.

Further Information

The Forbidden City, Beijing
Admission: Y40-60
Open: 8.30am–4pm May to September, 8.30am-3.30pm October to April.