China’s Forbidden City: 10 Things You Need to Know

Located in Beijing, the Forbidden City was once the imperial palace for the Emperor of China from the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century to the Qing Dynasty until 1912.

Jul 3, 2023By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History

forbidden city facts


Spanning 72 hectares, the Forbidden City in China bore witness to the monumental developments and, eventually, the demise of one of the world’s greatest empires. It was constructed in the early 15th century and housed 980 buildings and a whopping 9,000 rooms. Designed to function as the center of the ancient walled city of Beijing, the Forbidden City was cocooned by a larger Imperial City. Well-fortified and shrouded in mystery to commoners, the Forbidden City was at the heart of the political and ceremonial activities of the Chinese government for centuries. What are some of the lesser-known facts about this magnificent landmark?


1. The Forbidden City is the Biggest Imperial Palace in the World

Portrait of an official in front of the Forbidden City by Zhu Bang, 1522–1566 via British Museum, London


Over three times larger than the Louvre in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, the Forbidden City is the largest imperial palace in the world. At the start of the 15th century, the newly crowned Chengzu Emperor decided to relocate the capital and his army from Nanjing in south-eastern China to Beijing in the north. In an effort to solidify his power and guard against the Mongols, the Chengzu Emperor began constructing the Forbidden City. Said to be the tireless endeavor of over 1 million laborers, the Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420, during the peak of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).


The approach to the main gate of the Forbidden City, 1901, via Library of Congress, Washington


The Forbidden City is largely divided into three sections: the defenses, the Outer Court, and the Inner Court. The main gate of the Forbidden City is the 125-foot-tall Meridian Gate, a superstructure composed of five buildings, where the emperor issued imperial edicts. The Outer Court was where emperors used to attend grand state ceremonies and official functions, while the Inner Court was where they worked and lived.


2. A Stunning Evergreen Landscape Thrives in the Imperial Garden

One of almost two dozen buildings in the Imperial Garden, date unknown, via National Geographic

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Among its many scenic views, the Forbidden City was known for its well-manicured gardens designed for the leisure and relaxation of the emperors and their wives. The best-known of all is probably the Imperial Garden which is preserved today and situated behind the Palace of Earthly Tranquility in the Inner Court. Built in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, it was meant to be a peaceful place to relax and connect with nature.


Subsequently expanded and now spanning 1.2 hectares, the Imperial Garden accounts for 1.5% of the total land area of the palace. In the vast land area, the Garden houses an exquisite Taoist temple called the Hall of Imperial Peace, as well as the Piled Elegance Hill, a tall artificial rockery featuring winding stone step paths and stone-carved dragons. More impressively, over 160 ancient trees could be found in the Imperial Garden, including cypresses and Chinese wisteria which are all hundreds of years old.


3. Despite the Inner Court’s Lushness, the Outer Court Had No Trees

Gate of Supreme Harmony, date unknown, via The Palace Museum, Beijing


Arguably the most important political nerve center of Imperial China, the Outer Court of the Forbidden City was where stately public ceremonies and important functions of the emperor were held. There are three main halls in the Outer Court, namely, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The largest of all, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was reserved for coronations, investitures, and royal weddings. The Hall of Central Harmony was used for the emperor to rest and prepare for these ceremonies, a function shared by the Hall of Preserving Harmony which also doubled as the site of the imperial examinations. Despite the large spatial area it occupied, as well as the number of people who would be expected to pass through it, the Outer Court did not have a single tree planted on its premises.


While there was no official explanation given to explain this unusual phenomenon, experts have come up with two possible explanations. First, the Outer Court hosted solemn state ceremonies where the emperor’s supreme powers were displayed. As such, trees were thought to be a bad idea as they would overshadow the majesty of the emperor and the imperial court. Second, the lack of trees was also thought to be deliberate since it would make it difficult for assassins to hide in the midst.


4. Its Magnificent Roofs are not Exactly Bird-Friendly

The roof of a building at Forbidden City in Beijing by Harrison Forman, 1943, via University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries


Featuring glorious tiles in the royal color of yellow, the roofs of the buildings in the Forbidden City were a hallmark of the empire’s stateliness. They boasted unique designs and decorations such as animal statuettes and double eaves that only imperial buildings were allowed to have. However, these roofs were not meant for birds to perch on as the craftsmen had devised an ingenious way to retain the cleanliness and magnificence. Birds were unable to land on the roofs because of their steep pitch, which made the roof spines wider than the width between the birds’ claws. The glazed tilework also created a slippery surface that no birds would be able to perch on.


5. The Architectural Style of the Palace Wasn’t Limited to Chinese

The unique architectural style of the Lingzhao Xuan, date unknown, via The Palace Museum


Despite the prevalence of Chinese motifs, the architectural style of the buildings in the Palace was influenced by other cultures. Nestled within the western part of the Forbidden City is an unusual building with a bathroom that demonstrates a strong Arabic influence. Named Yude Hall or Hall for Cultivating Virtues, it was designed by a Persian architect and featured an arched dome and walls with white glazed tiles. On top of being a bathhouse during the Ming Dynasty, the Yude Hall was later used to steam paper used for the Qing Emperors’ calligraphy.


Another prominent building in the Palace not built in a traditional Chinese style is the Lingzhao Xuan, or Bower of the Spirit Pool, located in the famed Yanxi Palace. Due to the incidence of fire at the Yanxi Palace, the Lingzhao Xuan was born out of a need to construct fire-proof buildings. Built on European architectural principles, it was to feature a pool at the bottom out of steel and stone. However, due to the lack of funding and political strife in the late Qing era, the project was halted.


6. Its Collection of Prized Artefacts Narrowly Avoided Destruction during WWII

The vast collection of pottery at the Palace Museum, date unknown, via The Palace Museum, Beijing


With the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912, the Forbidden City was no longer the political center of the Chinese government. However, the last emperor Puyi was allowed to reside in the Inner Court of the palace. After Puyi was expelled from the Palace in 1924, the Palace Museum was established a year later with many prized artifacts put on public display. However, the threat of the Japanese invasion in the 1930s soon forced the Chinese to evacuate the precious collection to safety. Some of the most important artifacts were shipped and sent to various locations such as Guangxi, Shaanxi, and Sichuan. After the war, they were recovered and returned to the Palace Museum. Today, the Palace Museum is known for its impressive collection of some 1.8 million artifacts of great historical value, including paintings, sculptures, and seals among others.


7. The Palace Escaped Destruction During the Cultural Revolution

A statue of Buddha in Ling Yin Temple in Hangzhou, via BBC


After 1949, China fell under communist rule, which precipitated drastic reforms such as the Great Leap Forward, a five-year economic plan designed to modernize the agricultural sector. In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution was launched by the Chinese Communist Party to purge existing capitalist and traditionalist elements in society. In particular, it sought to rid the Chinese society of the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs. The Palace Museum, which undoubtedly epitomized all of the Four Olds, became an unwitting target of attack.


With the support of Chairman Mao Zedong, the Red Guards stormed the Forbidden City, determined to destroy the bastion of the Four Olds. Luckily, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the palace, thereby preventing it from regrettable destruction. All the gates of the Palace were sealed shut to prevent further destruction from 1966 to 1971.


8. The Forbidden City is Home to a Lot of Cats

A cat in the Forbidden City, via China Global Television Network


Tales from imperial harems have long described dramatic catfights between the concubines as they clamored for the emperor’s attention. But did you know that real cats have been residing in the Forbidden City as well? Historically, concubines in the Ming and Qing Dynasties were indeed known to have kept them as pets. As such, some of today’s cats in the Forbidden City are believed to be descendants of royal felines. However, many of them here are strays who have either sauntered into the palace or have been abandoned at the main gate. Apart from humoring tourists, the felines in the Forbidden City play an important role in controlling the rodent population and keeping mice from destroying ancient structures. In return, the museum authorities take care of them by feeding, vaccinating, and keeping them warm during winter.


9. The Cold Palace does not Refer to a Specific Palace

Palace of Great Brilliance, via The Palace Museum, Beijing


Fans of Chinese period dramas would be familiar with the term Cold Palace. Often depicted as remote, rundown premises without the opulence typical of the imperial harem, these residences housed neglected concubines shunned by others in the palace. However, did you know that there was no palace in the Forbidden City that bore this specific name? This was because the term Cold Palace simply referred to the residences of concubines who had made mistakes or lost the favor of the emperor. This meant that it could be any concubine at any given time. The common Chinese saying da ru leng gong (banished to the Cold Palace) which refers to someone who has lost favor originates from this historical scenario.


Although there was no specific palace named The Cold Palace in the Forbidden City, the Palace of Great Brilliance, located on the northeastern side of the Inner Court, was often associated with it. Now home to royal goldware and silverware, the Palace of Great Brilliance was the place where Consort Gong, a Ming dynasty concubine of the Wanli Emperor, spent her miserable 30-year confinement. Despite giving birth to the future Taichang Emperor, Consort Gong was a source of embarrassment for the Wanli Emperor. This was because he refused to acknowledge their relationship due to her low status as a former palace lady. Not only was she not entitled to any privileges as a royal consort, but she was also often neglected and ignored by the emperor. It is said that she was so miserable that she cried herself blind while being locked up in her residence.


10. The Forbidden City is Said to be Haunted 

The Forbidden City during a special event in 2019 when the palace opened for night tours for the first time in history, via CNN


Beheading, warfare, chaos, politics, and neglected concubines confined to remote palaces. The Forbidden City had its fair share of misery and tragedy over the two dynasties. As such, it was not wholly unexpected that the palace would be home to tons of rumors and legends, especially those related to the supernatural. For years, stories of a weeping woman in white wandering around the palace at night have intrigued locals, tourists, and ghostbusters alike. Some tales also recounted how the palace was haunted by those who were killed or beheaded by the emperor.


Aerial view of the Forbidden City, Peking, 1912–1914, via Historical Photographs of China


One particularly striking location of such tales was a narrow walkway called the dong tong zi jia dao that was found in the Inner Court. Legend has it that this was the walkway used to transport dead bodies out of the palace in the dead of the night. Countless ghostly sightings along the walkway have been reported over the years. The persistent stories of the supernatural, along with the fact that the palace is closed from 5 pm in the afternoon, further fuelled popular imagination of the Forbidden City as a mysterious and haunted place.

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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.