China's Forbidden City

It can be easy to assume that the Forbidden City, that marvelous complex of palaces in the heart of Beijing, is an ancient wonder of China. In terms of Chinese cultural and architectural achievements, however, it is relatively new. It was built just about 500 years ago, between 1406 and 1420. Compared with the earliest sections of the Great Wall, or the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, both of which are more than 2,000 years old, the Forbidden City is an architectural infant.

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Dragon Motif on Forbidden City Walls

Forbidden City Dragon
Adrienne Bresnahan via Getty Images

Beijing was selected as one of China's capital cities by the Yuan Dynasty under its founder, Kublai Khan. The Mongols liked its northern location, closer to their homeland than Nanjing, the previous capital. However, the Mongols did not build the Forbidden City.

When the Han Chinese took control of the country again in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), they kept the location of the Mongol capital, renamed it from Dadu to Beijing, and built a wonderful complex of palaces and temples there for the emperor, his family, and all of their servants and retainers. In all, there are 980 buildings spanning an area of 180 acres (72 hectares), all surrounded by a high wall.

Decorative motifs such as this imperial dragon adorn many of the surfaces both inside and outside the buildings. The dragon is the symbol of China's emperor; yellow is the imperial color, and the dragon has five toes on each foot to show that it is from the highest order of dragons.

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Foreign Gifts and Tribute

Clocks in the Forbidden City museum
Michael Coghlan /

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1644 to 1911), China was self-sufficient. It manufactured marvelous goods that the rest of the world desired. China neither needed nor wanted most of the items that Europeans and other foreigners produced.

In order to try to gain favor with the Chinese emperors, and get access to trade, foreign trade missions brought marvelous gifts and tribute to the Forbidden City. Technological and mechanical items were particular favorites, so today, the Forbidden City museum includes rooms filled with marvelous antique clocks from all over Europe.

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The Imperial Throne Room

The Emperor's throne, Palace of Heavenly Purity, 1911
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

From this throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Ming and Qing emperors received reports from their court officials and greeted foreign emissaries.  This photograph shows the throne room in 1911, the year that the Last Emperor Puyi was forced to abdicate, and the Qing Dynasty ended.

The Forbidden City had housed a total of 24 emperors and their families over four centuries.  The former emperor Puyi was allowed to remain in the Inner Court until 1923, while the Outer Court became a public space. 

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Eviction from the Forbidden City in Beijing

Former court eunuchs scuffle with police as they are evicted from the Forbidden City, 1923
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

In 1923, as the different factions in the Chinese Civil War gained and lost ground to one another, shifting political tides impacted the remaining residents of the Inner Court in the Forbidden City. When the First United Front, made up of the Communists and the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) joined together to fight old-school northern warlords, they captured Beijing. The United Front forced ex-Emperor Puyi, his family, and his eunuch attendants out of the Forbidden City.

When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, in the Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II, Chinese from all sides of the civil war had to set aside their differences to fight the Japanese. They also rushed to save the imperial treasures from the Forbidden City, carrying them south and west out of the path of the Japanese troops. At the end of the war, when Mao Zedong and the communists won, about half of the treasure was returned to the Forbidden City, while the other half ended up in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated KMT.

The Palace Complex and its contents faced one additional serious threat in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Cultural Revolution. In their zeal to destroy the "four olds," the Red Guards threatened to loot and burn the Forbidden City. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had to send a battalion from the People's Liberation Army to defend the complex from the rampaging youths.

These days, the Forbidden City is a bustling tourist center. Millions of visitors from China and around the world now walk through the complex each year - a privilege once reserved only for the select few.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Forbidden City." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). China's Forbidden City. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Forbidden City." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).