Constructed from 1406 to 1420, the Forbidden City complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 hectares (over 180 acres). The palace exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere.

When Hongwu Emperor’s son Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and construction began in 1406 on what would become the Forbidden City.

Construction lasted 14 years and required more than a million workers. Material used include whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood (楠木) found in the jungles of south-western China, and large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing. The floors of major halls were paved with “golden bricks” , specially baked paving bricks from Suzhou.

The Forbidden City is a rectangle, with 961 metres (3,153 ft) from north to south and 753 metres (2,470 ft) from east to west. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,886 bays of rooms. A common myth states that there are 9,999 rooms including antechambers, based on oral tradition, and it is not supported by survey evidence. The Forbidden City was designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the Outer City.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 7.9 metres (26 ft) high city wall and a 6 metres (20 ft) deep by 52 metres (171 ft) wide moat. The walls are 8.62 metres (28.3 ft) wide at the base, tapering to 6.66 metres (21.9 ft) at the top. These walls served as both defensive walls and retaining walls for the palace. They were constructed with a rammed earth core, and surfaced with three layers of specially baked bricks on both sides, with the interstices filled with mortar.

Traditionally, the Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The Outer Court (外朝) or Front Court (前朝) includes the southern sections, and was used for ceremonial purposes. The Inner Court (内廷) or Back Palace (后宫) includes the northern sections, and was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was used for day-to-day affairs of state.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (G) is the largest, and rises some 30 metres (98 ft) above the level of the surrounding square. It is the ceremonial centre of imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China.

At the centre of the Inner Court is another set of three halls (L). From the south, these are:

  • Palace of Heavenly Purity (乾清宮)
  • Hall of Union
  • Palace of Earthly Tranquility

Smaller than the Outer Court halls, the three halls of the Inner Court were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, would occupy the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, would occupy the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. In between them was the Hall of Union, where the Yin and Yang mixed to produce harmony.

The north-eastern section of the Inner Court is taken up by the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (寧壽宮) (O), a complex built by the Qianlong Emperor in anticipation of his retirement. It mirrors the set-up of the Forbidden City proper and features an “outer court”, an “inner court”, and gardens and temples.

The Forbidden City is surrounded on three sides by imperial gardens. To the north is Jingshan Park, also known as Prospect Hill, an artificial hill created from the soil excavated to build the moat and from nearby lakes.

The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power.

The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Edited by staff

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