Global History of Design/ Arch 324/ Spring 2013
Professor Phil Gruen
The Forbidden City: Symbol of Imperial Power in Ancient China
In ancient China, the Forbidden City was the palace for emperors of the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty. The third Ming emperor, Yongle, built it. When Yongle became the emperor and sat on the throne, he decided to change the location of the capital, moving it from Nanjing to Beijing. This meant that the emperor had to as well move to the new capital city, and therefore, it was necessary that a place of residence for the emperor be built, for his accommodation. Hence, a new giant palace was needed for him to settle and deal with the affairs of state, so the Forbidden City was constructed for this purpose. Additionally, this also served as a ceremonial and political center of the government. The Forbidden City was not merely a place of residence for the emperor and his family; rather, it was a representation of the power of the Ming Empire.
The origin of the name of the Forbidden City traces this city to a symbol of great royal power. The Chinese name of the Forbidden City is Zijin Cheng. Zi, means “purple”, which refers to the Ziwei Star. According to ancient Chinese astrology, the Ziwei Star is located in the center of midheaven eternally, so it refers to the celestial emperor. The surrounding celestial area, the Ziwei Enclosure, was thought to be the palace of the celestial emperor. Ancient emperors thought they were the sons of the celestial emperor, so the palace in which they live was an analogy of the Ziwei Enclosure. In addition, purple was a color represent dignity in even older age. In Qin dynasty and Han dynasty, purple was connected to the color of sky and this served as a representation of preciousness. In later years, the color became the popular ornamental color in royal palace and aristocracy residence. On the other hand, Jin, means “Forbidden”, which shows that the Forbidden City is a royal area, which is restricted, and no one could enter or leave casually but the emperor himself. Furthermore, Cheng means a walled city (Li, 2007). The name of the Forbidden City demonstrates that the emperor wanted the populace to respect him as revere the son of the celestial emperor, and to believe he has sacred and inviolable power. In addition, this meant to show the public that the palace was a place of royalty, and that they were not supposed to approach it. Therefore, it is clear that the name of the Forbidden City shows the importance of the royal family and imperial power.
In order to maintain their authority, dignity, and safety, the palace was elaborately built and strongly fortified. The Forbidden City was built with wooden structure, yellow glazed tile roof, greenish white marble base, golden ornament, and decorated with resplendent and magnificent paintings. There was a kind of technique of comparison used in the color arrangement of the structures. There were striking contrasts among the blue sky, yellow tiles, crimson window frames, white base and dark paving. (Strouse, 2005) The Forbidden City is a “gallery” of Chinese ancient art essence, and a concentrated reflection of imperial power. All the materials used here were luxuriant that were unaffordable for the common people. Typically, the yellow glazed tiles only permitted in the royal residence.
In addition to luxuriant materials, the Forbidden City was heavily guarded. Eight-meter high walls and fifty-two-meter wide moats made it impossible for common people and enemies to get in without permission. (Zhu, 1994) Moreover, soldiers guarded each entrance of the Forbidden City twenty-four hours a day, and there were walking guards to look around and keep the safety of the royal family. It was even hard for the common people to approach to the outer walls of the palace. The strong fortified structure and guard system reflect the unassailable power of the emperor. The luxuriant materials used in the Forbidden City and the strong fortification gave populace a sense that emperors held the power of the state, and that their power was indestructible.
The political and social importance of the Forbidden City is another aspect representing the great power of the emperor. In the Forbidden City, there were three main structures in the southern section of the ceremonial center, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Supreme Harmony was the largest among the three, and the largest surviving wooden structure in the whole China. It was built nine bays wide and five bays deep, the number “nine” and “five” symbolically refers to the majesty of the emperor in ancient Chinese literature. The Supreme Harmony was the place the emperor held court to discuss affairs of state and the ceremonial center of imperial power. The Hall of Central Harmony was served as a place for emperor to prepare and rest before the ceremonies. Behind it, the Hall of Preserving Harmony was the site of the final stage of the imperial examination, which decided the examinees’ future. It is also a place the emperor hold court banquet. As a special banquet, court banquet was used as a way to keep the dynasty stable. All the three halls featured the dragon thrones, and the dragon was the symbol of divine imperial power. (Dorn, 1970).
The Forbidden City was therefore, also a reflection of the principles in the society, which were based on philosophy and religion in society. These served as a symbol for the majesty of the power in rule. Thus, every architectural and design detail used on the Forbidden in the society, reflected great symbolism, including the symbolism of power and majesty of the Ming Empire. As observed earlier, the most dominant color used on the Forbidden City was the color yellow. However, this was used together with other colors such as crimson, different shades of blue, and white, among others (Strouse, 2005). The dominance of color yellow in the Forbidden City was not in vain, but served a purpose of symbolism. Yellow is one of the colors, which symbolize power. In ancient China, Yellow was the color of the emperor, and was a reflection of the central figure in China. The Forbidden City was constructed with most roofs, which consisted of glazed tiles that were yellow in color. All the roofs in the Forbidden City were constructed using yellow tiles, except the roof of the library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity and the residence of the prince of Crown. The tiles used on the library roof were black in color, while the tiles used on the Prince’s roof were green in color. Green is a color, which is associated with nature. Therefore, this probably symbolized continued growth and dominance of the Ming Empire (Dorn, 1970).
The Forbidden City, which is an example of a traditional Chinese architecture, comprised various different halls in the courts. The main halls, which served the inner and outer courts, are arranged in a shape of Qian triagram, as they are in threes. On the other hand, in the inner court, the residences formed the shape of Kun triangle. In ancient Chinese, the shape of a Qian triagram represented heaven, while that of a Kun triangle symbolized earth. This has a special spiritual symbolism, which relates to power of the Ming Empire.
The Chinese regarded their emperors as ‘sons of god.’ Emperors in China were considered as a link between the heavenly and the earthly. Therefore, these formed a link between heaven, which is a spiritual world, and world of the gods, and earth, where the subjects of the gods dwell. This belief among the Chinese therefore, resulted in the high status of emperors. Therefore, the dwelling of the emperor, which is the Forbidden City, served great importance among the Chinese, as this was a representation of a greater power, which linked the Chinese with the gods. Therefore, the Forbidden City was strategically placed, and symbolized power, just like the central position the Pole Star assumes in the heavenly universe. The Forbidden City was therefore, regarded as the center of the physical world, where the ‘son of heaven’ dwelt. Nonetheless, this city symbolized both spiritual and political power of the Ming Empire.
In conclusion, the Forbidden City was a representation of the great imperial power while it provided a residence for the emperor and his family. The origin of its name demonstrates his divine status in the country. The materials used and the fortification shows the imperial power is significant and inviolable. Moreover, the political and social influence suggests that the Forbidden City built was for the purpose of consolidating the imperial power.
- 1. Dorn, Frank. The Forbidden City; the Biography of a Palace. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970 ).
This book introduces the plan and structures of the Forbidden City, including the functions of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. In addition, Dorn says that the structures of the Forbidden City were elaborately planned and suggest royal supremacy. This is helpful to agree about the political and social role the Forbidden City played.
- 2. Li, Lillian M, Dray-Novey, Alison J, and Kong Haili. Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
This book provides the information about the origin of the name of the Forbidden City. As a private residence of the emperor and his family and a ceremonial center of the city, the name is an analogy of the palace of he celestial emperor, which shows the emperor’s divine majesty.
- 3. Taylor, Neil. “The Forbidden City”. Architectural history (2003): 58 -65.
This article covers the luxury materials and ornament used to build the Forbidden City. The wealth of the empire seems unbounded and the treasuries and granaries were amply filled at that time, so the emperor turned the maximum effect to the architecture of the capital. This helps to discuss the great palace served as the residence of the emperor and his family, at the same time, the emperor shows the wealth and power of him.
- 4. Yu, Zhuoyuan. “Palaces of the Forbidden City”. Architecture: the AIA journal (1985): 84- 86.
This article suggest that the Ming emperor Yongle decided to move the capital to Beijing and built a new palace after he usurp the throne from his nephew. In order to consolidate the power he usurp from the previous emperor, he need to show the populace his power is sacred and no one can seize it. The article helps to argue that the Forbidden City was built is aim to consolidate the imperial power, rather than simply provide a residence for emperor.
- 5. Zhu, JianFei. “A Celestial Battlefield: The Forbidden City and Beijing in Late Imperial China.” AA Files: annals of the Architectural Association School of Architecture (1994) 48-60.
This article argues the great closure of Forbidden City served the political interests by creating a great disparity in the power to observe. It says that the Forbidden City is surrounded by 8 meters high wall and 52 meters wide moat. Also, the palace is heavily guarded day and night. It emphasized the defensive function of the Forbidden City. This article helps to discuss the structure of the Forbidden City consolidates the imperial political power.
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