FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING


FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING
   The Forbidden City, the name given the imperial palace complex in Beijing, China, was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and remains important today as one of the few large-scale architectural monuments to survive the centuries of warfare that ensued at the end of the rule of this powerful dynasty. It is the world's largest surviving palace complex, covering 178 acres with about 980 buildings. The previous Yuan Dynasty, established in Beijing by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, lasted from 1280 to 1368. It set the tone for a period of great cultural divisions in that these foreign invaders set up their own court in northern China to rival the southern Chinese courts of the previous dynasties. It was the court of Kublai Khan that Marco Polo visited in 1271, and his very positive, well-publicized, and documented impressions of Mongol court life formed the basis of western understanding of Chinese culture for several centuries. The Mongol court was profoundly influential. Its emperors reached out to the west by encouraging travel across the vast, relatively safe Mongol territories that began at the borders of modern-day Hungary and extended across the Ukraine and through the vast Asian continent to China. These rulers were continuously thought of as outsiders in China, however, and so the establishment of the Ming Dynasty was predicated upon the removal of the Mongols from power in Beijing. But the subsequent reestablishment of "Chinese" rule there was initially no improvement because the Ming rulers were themselves despotic. Despite this, they continued the courtly focus by cultivating a highly artistic culture epitomized by the famous Ming porcelain that was exported worldwide. Architecture during the Ming Dynasty was complemented by a highly developed garden aesthetic, as well as an emphasis on a cosmological organization of city streets and buildings. Beijing continued to be the capital through the Qing Dynasty.
   When the city of Beijing was constructed, the Mongols used traditional Chinese design principles in a grid-like layout. This geometrically organized city plan had first appeared in China in the seventh century during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Its capital was Chang'an, a rectangular walled city with streets laid out evenly on a grid and with a walled imperial compound on its northern side. The streets were aligned to the cardinal points, suggesting a cosmological emphasis. Indeed, the principles of feng shui, which means wind and water, developed very early in Chinese history and are evident at Chang'an, where the imperial palace, located on the north, faced the preferred southern direction, while a broad avenue stretched to the southern entrance of the city and allowed the ruler to look over his territory. Each of the 108 blocks was its own walled neighborhood. Markets were located on the east and west sides of the town and were open during specific days and hours. The entire city is built on a piece of land topographically conducive to a balanced qi, or primal energy, with hills located to the rear of the city and waterways, in the form of man-made rivers or pools, traversed by bridges prior to entering the city gates. Such detailed regularity was intended to protect the city from evil spirits.
   The Forbidden City was based upon the same principles when reconstructed under the rule of the third Ming emperor from 1402 to 1424, after the Mongol buildings had been razed by earlier Ming rulers. It is located in the center of the northern part of the walled city of Beijing and is surrounded by tall walls with towers in each of the four corners and with four doors, one at the center of each wall. The south side has the most impressive gated entrance with its long approach through the Meridian Gate, across the large open courtyard, and over a series of arched bridges that cross a curved waterway. After passing through another gated entrance, called the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the visitor enters another courtyard that has at its far end three buildings on raised platforms, one in front of the other, aligned on axis. The first building, called by the Qing name of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is where the emperor would be seated in his throne room facing south, to watch ceremonies that took place in the courtyard. This building is the largest ancient wood structure in China, and the ceremonial center of the complex.
   Beyond this building is the smaller Hall of Central Harmony, where the emperor could rest between ceremonies, and behind it, the Hall of Protecting Harmony, where royal ceremonies were rehearsed. Each of these buildings is constructed with a row of columns surrounding a continuous outer portico, and with a tiled, gabled roof. Following this axial direction, the next structures encountered after crossing a smaller courtyard are a set of three more buildings, one in front of the next, all smaller than the first architectural group but similar in design. Finally, the large Gate of Divine Might concludes the row of structures at the north end of the layered inner complex. These rooms form the core of the Inner Court, where Confucian lectures could be held and guests entertained. The central walkway, called the Imperial Way, was reserved for the emperor. Exceptions were the empress, who walked along the path at her marriage, and students after passing the imperial examinations. The Inner Court consisted of the main residential buildings for the royal family, with one structure for the emperor and the opposite building for the empress, while the central building, called the Hall of Union, is for both—that is, for the union of the yin and yang.
   These buildings feature double gabled roofs with sculptures located in the corners of the upper gables, and in traditional Chinese architecture, the roof corners tilt up slightly to give the impression of weightlessness. The original pillars used for the exterior colonnades of the buildings were made from whole logs brought from the jungles of southwest China, but were replaced in the Qing Dynasty by pillars made with multiple pieces of wood. The Forbidden City today contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wood in the world. The large stones used for the sculptures were dragged to the complex on ice roads. Finally, the mostly original floors of the buildings are smooth bricks made by a unique and very slow firing process; walking on these floors causes a ringing sound.
   The rigidly geometric layout of the entire complex symbolizes the role of the emperor as the Son of the Heavens, to maintain cosmic order that would then be translated into social harmony. The palace complex, surrounded by a moat, was enclosed by the Imperial City, then the Inner City, and then the Outer City. The highest officials lived closest to the royal compound and all commoners lived in the Outer City. While the early Ming emperors established their capital in the southern city of Nanjing and kept the Forbidden City as a secondary capital, Beijing gradually became the main capital of China in the 1400s. With the growth of Beijing, the complex is now located in the center of the city; since 1924, it has been open as a museum and houses the largest collection of Ming and Qing art in the country.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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