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The Palace Museum; no longer forbidden

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By Talibeh Hydara

You probably already know about the Forbidden City. I mean, who doesn’t? That it is the world’s largest preserved wooden complex. When I say preserved, I mean really preserved; built within a period of 14 years and completed in 1420, which is over 600 years ago. Up until 1911, the Forbidden City became both the seat of power and a symbol of genius architectural craftsmanship, housing 24 emperors until the Qing Dynasty decided to choose two-year-old Puyi as emperor and the whole structure and system crashed. The Chinese empire, one of the most enduring in human history which saw the rise and fall of some 13 major dynasties, torn apart and confined into a museum. That is why kids should not lead; they should be led.

But since this article is about the Forbidden City, let’s talk about the man behind it: The Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, who was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the dynasty. The capital of China was in Nanjing, a strategic megacity in Eastern China. When he took over as emperor, the Yongle Emperor moved the capital to Beijing and started building the Forbidden City in 1406. That turned out to be a masterstroke. Over 500 emperors have reigned during the entire history of dynasties in China but the Yongle is among a few who would be eternally remembered. Not just because of his excellent military system or opening up, but because of Beijing and the Forbidden City, two legacies that represent China in more ways than any.

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It is difficult to establish why the Yongle emperor moved the capital and built the Forbidden City but knowing he seized power from his nephew, then it was meant to consolidate himself on the throne. Situated to the north of Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing, the Forbidden City was home to 24 imperial families; 14 emperors in the Ming and 10 emperors in the Qing dynasties. It was and still is a fortress, in the top 5 most famous palaces in the world.

Having been in Beijing for more than two months, crisscrossing the city and even beyond, it was at odds with logic that we didn’t visit the Forbidden City. In fact, you can make a strong argument that it’s closer to the DRC than any other historical place we visited in Beijing. I’ve heard about the city. I’ve read about it. I’ve watched documentaries about it. There was even a whole lecture on it that I attended. It’s like Shanghai, I’ve known so much about it that it felt familiar, like I’ve been there before. I was right about Shanghai; I was wrong about the Palace Museum.  

In the company of Xiaoting Guo, our tour guide from the education department of the Palace Museum, we entered from the south entrance, the Meridian Gate, and covered towers and halls in between to the north exit along the central axis. The museum has a deceptive size; it is impossible to know how big it is from the outside. It is huge, the size of a 100 football fields.

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The first palace is divided into two parts; the Outer and the Inner courts, both holding symbolic meaning to the imperial family and the public.

The Outer Court served as the venue for grand ceremonies and rituals. Its main structures include the halls of Supreme Harmony, Central Harmony, and Preserving Harmony—the three majestic halls dominating the centre. There are also the halls of Literary Brilliance and Martial Valour flanking the central axis.

The Inner Curt served as a residence for the emperor and the imperial family. That is, if the concubines are in the same category.

The first palace in the Inner Court is two-floored Heavenly Purity.Originally built in 1420 in the early Ming Dynasty, the Palace of Heavenly Purity was destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, with the final reconstruction finishing in the Qing Dynasty in 1798.
In the Ming Dynasty, the palace served as the Emperor’s residence. The first floor served as an office for the emperor to run the daily affairs of the empire while the second floor is his bedchamber. The Palace of Heavenly Purity was an important venue for emperors to meet courtiers, review memorials, handle daily government affairs, receive envoys, accept congratulations and hold banquets.

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The Hall of Union, originally named the Hall of Middle Perfection, has a square floor plan, featuring a gold-plated bronze finial on the roof, similar design to that of the Hall of Middle Harmony. A throne occupies the centre of the hall. In the Qing Dynasty, the empress received homage here on three occasions each year: her birthday, the first day of the lunar New Year, and the winter solstice. In 1748, the thirteenth year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, the emperor used this hall to store his 25 imperial seals.

The third in the Inner Court is the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, which served as the residence of the empress in the Ming Dynasty. The entrance is located on the east end of the building’s facade, rather than in the middle, giving the palace a pocket house style with distinctive Manchu features. During the Kangxi Emperor’s reign, the two bays on the east end were used as the emperor’s bridal chamber. Qing Dynasty Emperors Kangxi, Tongzhi, Guangu, and the last emperor Puyi, all of whom ascended the throne at a young age, completed their wedding in the Earthly Tranquillity. The five bays on the west side were used as a shrine for shamanistic sacrifices, housing a U-shaped kang bed-stove on which the idols and a throne were placed, and cauldrons for cooking sacrificial meat.

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There is also the Imperial Garden, which consists of beautiful flowers, stone carvings, pavilions, trees as old as 500 years, preserved and cherished for generations.

Converted into the Palace Museum in 1925, the Forbidden City is an artistic treasure trove, possessing an all-encompassing collection numbering over 1.86 million pieces (sets) in 25 major categories. It is a mirror of Chinese architecture; decorative arts, timepieces, paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, and sculptures, as well as special exhibitions.

The structure also revealed how women were considered in the imperial times; relegated to housewives and child bearers. This is shown in how women, as high profile as the empress, were not even allowed into the Outer Court or take part in any political decision-making. It showed power was with the emperor, who could only have one empress but could have as many concubines as possible. The concubines all lived in the same Inner Court as the empress, with the eunuchs shepherding them into the emperor’s bedchamber each time he needed carnal satisfaction different from that of the empress. The intelligence, craftiness, and loyalty of women was ignored in the imperial times, even if it meant placing a two-year-old on the throne. That is why the dynasties crumbled like chaff of a summer threshing-floor.

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Since 1961 when the State Council listed it as one of China’s most important protected cultural heritage sites, the Forbidden City has earned universal recognition, including being inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1987. It was also designated as a “national 5A tourist attraction in 2007.

Between the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Forbidden City was actually forbidden to the public, unless honourably invited to the audience. It is no longer forbidden, with at least 14 million visitors annually.

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