The Forbidden City

For over 500 years this extraordinary and mysterious enclave in the heart of Beijing was the centre of administrative and spiritual power for the whole of the mighty empire of China. Although Beijing had become the capital under the Mongol rule of Kublai Khan (1215–94) and his Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368), the Forbidden City came into being only during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), under Emperor Yongle (reigned 1403–25).

It remained the Chinese emperors' primary residence throughout the ensuing Qing dynasty (pronounced 'Ching'), until revolution finally overthrew imperial rule in 1911. The walled Forbidden City lay within the walled Imperial City, an enclave within and enclave. Some 9000 select inhabitants lived in the Forbidden City: the royal family, top civil servants, elite guards, staff, and the emperor's numerous concubines and eunuchs. This part of Beijing was called the Forbidden City because no one but those invited were allowed in, on pain of death. It was a strange, mystical world, full of symbolism and governed by precise rituals, all reflecting the spiritual role of the emperor as the crucial link between Heaven and Earth, and guardian of China's essential harmony. (This uncanny mixture of power, wealth, ritual traditions, isolation and claustrophobic constraint is captured beautifully in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 film 'The Last Emperor'.)

Now fully restored (and under constant restoration), 'The Palace Museum' – as the Forbidden City is officially called – is a stunning complex of some 800 painted, carved and gilded wooden buildings and elaborately sculpted stonework. The Palace Museum includes three grand audience halls and throne rooms (including the Hall of Supreme Harmony, with the Dragon Throne), plus numerous pavilions, shrines, living quarters, courtyards, processional ways, watercourses, gardens and sculptures – all laid out along the spiritually propitious north-south axis.

There are also a handful of small museums, including exhibits of porcelain, jewellery, and precious clocks given to the emperors. All it requires is your imagination to people the Forbidden City with the glittering array of richly costumed figures who once lived and worked here, and gave it meaning. This is an unmissable attraction for anyone sightseeing in Beijing.

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