More than 70 halls of various sizes, containing more than 8,700 rooms, comprise the Forbidden City. These halls are aligned along a north-south axis, and extend out on either side in an east-west symmetry. The central axis not only passes through the Purple Forbidden City, but extends south to Yongding Gate, and north to the Bell and Drum Towers, altogether some eight kilometers in length. This passage through the entire city of Beijing symbolizes the centrality of imperial power: the imperial seat is at the very center of this line. The architectural design lines up the buildings in neat array and with imposing scale. In a concentrated form, this assemblage expresses China's artistic traditions in the setting of China's unique architectural style.
Entering the Forbidden City from Tian'an Men (Gate), one first moves straight through the Duan Gate to arrive at Wu Men, or the great Wu Gate. The popular name for Wu Men is the Five Phoenix Tower, which marks the front entrance to the Purple Forbidden City. Going through Wu Men, spread out before one is a broad courtyard with the twisting course of the Jinshui Creek (Gold Water Creek) passing from west to east like a jade belt. Five marble bridges have been constructed over this waterway. Passing through the Taihe Gate to the north of the bridges one reaches the core of the Purple Forbidden City, the famous three great halls called Taihe Hall, Zhonghe Hall, and Baohe Hall.
Taihe Hall is 26.92 meters high, or 35.05 if the platform is included, and occupies a space of around 2,377 square meters. It is the largest hall in the Palace. The Taihe Hall was the location of the Emperor's most important ceremonies, such as his own inauguration, his or his queen’s birthday, New Year’s celebration, celebration of the arrival of winter, and so on.
Behind the Taihe Hall lies the Zhonghe Hall. When the Emperor was about to officiate at important ceremonies, he would first rest in this building and receive visits of his various Ministers. Behind the Zhonghe Hall is the Baohe Hall. In the Qing dynasty, every New Year's Eve, the Emperor would hold a great banquet in this hall. This also was where the highest examination of the imperial exam system was held.
Emerging from the Baohe Hall and following the stone stairs downwards one arrives at an open rectangular courtyard. This space divides the Purple Forbidden City into the front and back parts. To the south of the square are the three main Halls and, to the east and west of them are the Wenhua Hall and the Wuying Hall. These are commonly called the "Outer Court," where the Emperor primarily conducted affairs of the state. To the north of the square, inside the Qianqing Gate, was the Inner Sanctum. In the Qing dynasty, this is where the Emperor and his Empresses and Concubines lived. The main buildings include the Qianqing Palace, the Jiaotai Hall, the Kunning Palace, and six palaces to east and west.
The Qianqing Palace was at one time where the Emperor slept. During the Qing dynasty, however, the emperors used this as a place for dealing with daily administrative affairs. Later the emperors also met foreign emissaries here. Behind the Qianqing Palace is the Jiaotai Hall, which is where memorials to the Empress were conducted and where she received congratulations on her birthday. It also is where the Qing dynasty's twenty-five "treasures" were kept, the twenty five seals by use of which the Emperor manifested his rule.
Behind the Jiaotai Hall is the Kunning Palace, which was originally a sleeping chamber for the Empress. Later in the Qing dynasty it was changed into a place where rituals for offerings to gods were conducted and also where the grand wedding ceremonies of the Emperors were held.
The East and West Six Palaces, where the concubines lived, were commonly known as the "Three Palaces and Six Courtyards." Today the Six Palaces of the East have been changed into exhibition halls in order to display the rare paintings, ceramics, bronzes, and various crafts that were collected and kept in the Palace. The Six Palaces of the West are basically as they were, unchanged, so that people can see the actual living conditions of the feudal period, the reality of how royal members lived.
The most notable building is the “Yangxin Hall”, which means the “hall for cultivating the mind". The Yangxin Hall therefore became the center of daily governing activities. Emperors often received Ministers here and issued decrees and orders. Two thrones were placed in the eastern room of the Yangxin Hall, to front and back; between them was suspended a golden-colored screen. This was where the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908 A.D) ruled from behind the screen.
From the Yangxin Hall moving northwards, one courtyard succeeds another in quiet elegance and serenity. Among these are the Changchun Palace and the Chuxiu Palace, at both where Cixi once lived. Right now, the display in the Chuxiu Palace maintains the condition as Cixi had it arranged on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday.
Emerging from the Chuxiu Palace, not far to the east, is the Yuhuayuan, or Imperial Garden. The area of the Yuhuayuan is small and intimate; its architecture and atmosphere are completely different from the front parts of the Palace. The pavilions and small buildings are set in the midst of pools and pine trees, fake mountains appear to be made of grotesque stones, there are potted garden landscapes, wisteria and bamboo. In the northeast of the Palace is also the Ningshou Palace Garden, where the Emperor Qianlong (Qing dynasty Gaozong Aisin-Gioro Hongli, reined 1736-1795 A.D) cultivated his mind after returning to power.
Coming out of the Yuhuayuan Garden and following the passageway, one arrives at the northern gate of the Purple Forbidden City called the Shenwu Men. Opposite this gate is Jingshan Hill. This small hill was built from the dirt derived from digging out the moat in the Ming-dynasty building of the Purple Forbidden City. Standing on the top of the hill and looking out over the Palace one sees wave after wave of buildings, crest after crest of rooflines and walls.
Selected from China’s Museums: Treasures of Civilization (China Intercontinental Press, Beijing, 2010)
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