Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Forbidden City, China

by Steven Clarke

The Forbidden City, China

The third Ming emperor YongLe returned the capital to Beijing (from Nanjing) and in 1406 he began construction of a new and extremely grand imperial palace complex. The building work took 14 years to complete - and an estimated one million workers, including 100,000 artisans, were involved.

The Forbidden City gets its name from the fact that ordinary citizens were excluded from the complex. It is surrounded by a six meter deep, 52 meter wide moat. Inside the moat, the outer wall is 10 meters high and 3,400 meters long. The enormity of the complex, with the emperor hidden inside, added to the imperial mystique and air of legitemacy.

The Forbidden City, located at the exact center of the ancient city of Beijing, was the home and seat of power of 24 emperors during the mid to latter Ming and the Qing dynasties. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 9000 people were estimated to reside there. Apart from the royal family, these were eunuchs, concubines and maid-servants.

From Palace to Museum

The Forbidden City ceased being the political center of China in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. PuYi wrote an interesting autobiography entitled 'From Emperor to Citizen'. The film 'The Last Emperor' was the first foreign film made in China and was partly filmed on location in the Forbidden City.

Today, the Forbidden City is a public museum, drawing the attention of millions of travellers and tourists from around the world. Here you can see and feel part of a place with over 600 years of history. Now renamed as the 'Palace Museum' ('GuGong' in chinese, meaning simply 'old palace'), its extensive grounds cover 720,000 square meters (74 hectares); it is nearly 1km from north to south. There are 800 buildings that have in total about 9,000 rooms.

The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. It is a dazzling architectural masterpiece. The imperial palace grounds are located directly to the north of Tian'AnMen Square and are accessible from the square via Tian'AnMen Gate. Although no longer occupied by royalty, the Forbidden City remains a symbol of chinese sovereignty and the image of its entrance gate appears on the seal of the People's Republic of China.

Popular tourist destination

The Palace Museum is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Visitors can see the traditional palace architecture up close, enjoy the treasures of the imperial family and court, and learn of the legends and anecdotes about the imperial family and the court. White marble, walls of terra-cotta, roofs of glazed golden yellow tiles, and woodwork finished with paint, lacquer and gilding unite to create an effect of exceptional beauty (see http://www.ForbiddenCityChina.com for many photos).

The chinese government has invested a lot of time and money in the Forbidden City and it is now a fantastic place to wander and dream of times gone by. Recently, the site has been under a major renovation that has limited visitors to a few areas. However, it remains open and the great majority of places are still accessible.

The name Beijing translates as 'northern capital' and is close to the old northern border of China protected by the Great Wall - about 40 km away. So with a trip to Beijing one can take in not only the Forbidden City but also the Great Wall of China. Also, the world famous Summer Palace with its large man-made lakes (the country palace grounds of the emperor) is only 20 km to the west, near the popular Fragrant Hills. To the south is the equally famous, and beautiful, Temple of Heaven (TianTan). Beijing is close to the port city of Tianjin and therefore can be a stop on a cruise tour of China.

A dazzling architectural masterpiece that illustrates a long histoy now passed, the Forbidden City is a world cultural heritage 'must see'.

About the Author
Steve Clarke is a travel writer, photographer and founder of the Forbidden City China website that features over 200 high quality photographs of the Forbidden City.

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