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The Forbidden City | © pixelflake / Flickr
The Forbidden City | © pixelflake / Flickr
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7 Interesting Facts About the Forbidden City in Beijing

Picture of Fran Lu
Updated: 9 October 2017
Standing firmly in the center of Beijing for 600 years, the Forbidden City is the most remarkable symbol of the city’s history as the political center of China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. You may already know the distinctive vermilion walls and golden tiles of the halls in the palace; or the fact that it has been the home of 24 emperors before the abdication of Puyi in 1912, but you may not have heard of the interesting facts about the Forbidden City that we’ve listed here.

No trees are planted in the Outer Court

The Forbidden City is divided into Outer Court and Inner Court. The Outer Court, known as the venue where solemn public ceremonies are held, is the place where emperors’ supreme godly power and imperial dignity are shown. This is why it was prohibited to plant trees around the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserved Harmony in the Outer Court. In contrast, trees are more often seen in the Inner Court, where emperors live their private life.

Leaving Outer Court
Leaving Outer Court | © Bernt Rostad/Flickr

Can you recognize the animal decorations on the ridge of the Hall of Supreme Harmony?

Ridge animals can be seen on most ancient Chinese architecture, with the number of animals varying according to the level of superiority of the building. As the ceremonial center and the largest hall within the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was without any suspense adorned with the highest number of 10 mythical animals on its ridges – (from outside to the inside). These were: Dragon, Phoenix, Lion, Heavenly horse, Sea horse, Suanni (the lion-like dragon), Xiayu (the fish dragon), Xiezhi (the goat-like mythical beast known as the representation of justice); Douniu (the bull-like fighting dragon); and Hangshi (the flying monkey that protects architecture from thunder). The mythical animals were installed there not only for adornment, but more importantly to fix the round tiles that could prevent roof leaks. Most of the animals are an attribute of water in the myths, and they bore a symbolic meaning of “fireproof” as they were installed on wooden architecture.

Mythical animals on the ridge of the Hall of Supreme Harmony
Mythical animals on the ridge of the Hall of Supreme Harmony | © yongxinge / Wikicommons

There’s no tick in the “門”, the Chinese character of “Gate”

The mythical beasts on the ridge are not the only implication to prevent the Forbidden City from fire: All the gates in the Forbidden City have a plaque that writes the name of the gate in both traditional Chinese characters and Manchu language. If you are familiar with Chinese, you have probably recognized that the Chinese character of “Gate”, “門”, is without a tick on any plaque. Rumor has it that it was a move passed down from the Song Dynasty after a palace caught on fire. The blaze was superstitiously attributed to the tick in the character by an official, and it was thus removed.

Qianqing Men (The Gate of Heavenly Purity)
Qianqing Men (The Gate of Heavenly Purity) | © Kan Wu / Flickr

Have you noticed the number of the doornails?

You might have noticed that there are bulging doornails on many vermilion gates inside the Forbidden City, but have you paid attention to the number of the doornails? Most of the gates have nine rows of doornails with each row composing of nine. The reason is that the number nine has a divine meaning in ancient China.

Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City
Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / Wikicommons

The Palace Museum you are seeing now is not the complete Forbidden City

Yes, it takes as long as three hours to tour the Palace Museum, but even so, you haven’t seen the complete Forbidden City. Only 65% of the Forbidden City was opened to the public in 2015, the 90th anniversary of the museum, 35% more than in 2002. In 2016, it was further extended to 76%. This is because part of the Forbidden City is still under renovation. According to Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, by the year 2020, 85% of the Forbidden City will be open to the public, with 750 employees of the museum moving to a new office out of the palace.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City | © pixelflake / Flickr

The interior of the halls in the Forbidden City in today’s movies is not the original

In the 1980s, the Palace Museum began to ban movie or TV series’ crews from shooting in the interior of the halls in the Forbidden City, after an accident occurred when the Changchun Film Studio was shooting their film Tan Sitong, which caused the burn of a carpet in the Hall of Mental Cultivation of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the Yongzheng Emperor and his successors have dwelt. The original interior of the halls of the Forbidden City can only be seen from the footage shot before the ban, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 masterpiece, The Last Emperor, in which the actors of Puyi actually sat on the real emperor’s chair in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor | Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The Forbidden City is not as rigid as you imagine

Speaking of the Forbidden City, probably the first word that appears in your mind would be “solemnity”, “supremacy” … but you’ll know it’s not the rigid palace as you’ve always imagined when you see its official online store on Taobao. Either the “I am what I am (Zhen Jiu Shi Zhe Yang Han Zi)” folding fan that was made by directly photoshopping the royal approval by the Yongzheng Emperor, or the luggage tag that has the name “Jin Yi Wei (imperial guards in the Ming Dynasty)”, or the tapes that are printed with the famous paintings or calligraphies collected in the Forbidden City, are all best-sellers that promote the brand in a friendlier way. Don’t worry even if you can’t use Taobao, because you can also find some of the products in stores inside the Palace Museum.

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