Palace Museum or ‘Forbidden City’ 故宫博物院

Part of A Better Guide to Beijing’s coverage of the Imperial City

NB It is reported that from late-October 2017 all Forbidden City ticket sales may be on-line. It is also possible that timed entry may be introduced. See below for details, and plan ahead.

Back in 1915 the price of a ticket offering general admission to the palace’s outer halls was said to cost one third of an ordinary worker’s monthly salary. Relatively cheaper today, although still not a sum to be spent casually by the majority of China’s population, the entrance ticket includes admission to several temporary and permanent exhibitions.

Strolling vendors at the main gate offer bi-lingual if typo-strewn maps for ¥5 showing which areas of the palace are open (the majority of it remains shut). These maps are not kept fully up-to-date but they offer detailed itineraries around more labyrinthine sections. Note that in August 2015 new areas opened in the northwest, and in 2018 it became possible to walk atop long sections of the palace’s wall, so allow extra time. Maps in pdf format may be downloaded for free from the palace’s website, and in 2015 the Palace launched a free iPhone app, although no more accuracy should be expected from that than from any other official source. No two English-language sources, whether maps, signs, guides, apps, or audio tours, agree on translations of the names of various buildings.

Audio guides are available for ¥40 including up to two headsets and a vast choice of languages including Esperanto. The guide detects your location and starts itself automatically to provide relevant commentary when needed rather than making you walk a particular route. These audio guides are available at the main south entrance, and you can return the equipment and reclaim your deposit at any exit gate. But note caveats under Guides, in Practical A–Z. The quality of electronically stored material suffers from the same manipulation as that of the live guides who will pester you to hire their services (¥200!) and who should be avoided, even when they protest, ‘I’m only trying to make a living.’

Planning your visit

The palace faced its first mass invasion of foreigners after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. On 15 August, the day after the relief of the legations, American General Chaffee led an attack right up to the Wǔ Mén main entrance to the palace. He took it and held it, but proceeded no further for political reasons, although no formal arrangement to protect the palace had as yet been agreed by the representatives of foreign powers.

Nevertheless, the allies felt the need to assert their victory and to inflict at least some humiliation on the Qīng, and this led to the first organised foreign tour around the palace. At 7am on 28 August foreign troops paraded outside the Tiān’ān Mén, and a multi-national force around 3000 strong then marched through the palace from south to north complete with officers on horseback, a military band provided by the Russians, and British Indian pipers. There were Chinese officials on hand to open doors and usher them along a pre-arranged route through the main axis’s throne and audience halls, then up the eastern side of the private apartments, through the gardens and out again. Even The Times’ report of this excursion (also reprinted in the New York Times) described it as a ‘desecration’. The route taken was uncannily similar to that of most guided tours today, although megaphone-wielding guides now replace the pipers.

During 1901 while the Ninth US Infantry still held the Wǔ Mén, it was possible as a foreigner to obtain a permit to enter the Forbidden City by applying to an American officer stationed in a temple building at the Altar of Agriculture. After some delaying tactics, obsequious eunuchs at the palace would respond to the instructions of an American private on guard duty and would show yet another group of visitors around throne rooms and gardens.

According to one estimate the palace is now China’s most popular tourist attraction, receiving around nine million visitors a year. Fortunately, the complex is big enough to absorb vast crowds, and most are on guided tours that enter from the south and take them rapidly up the palace’s central axis, with a deviation to the northeast to see some of the treasure halls and the Well of the Pearl Concubine. Most of them visit in the morning, and they’re out of the north gate in around 1½ hours, which cannot conceivably do the palace justice. If you’re on such a tour you should strongly consider using any free time to return and explore the palace’s more intimate and human sections.

If you approach the palace from Tiān’ān Mén Square through the Tiān’ān Mén itself don’t be confused into buying a ticket at the first booth you see on the left, unless you want to climb it. The ticket office for the Palace Museum is some way ahead, down a path lined with souvenir vendors, pestering ‘guides’, entrances to ridiculous sideshows, dress-up photo opportunities, and boyish soldiers doing exercises in uniforms a few sizes too large as if their mothers expect them to grow into them.

During the occupation of Běijīng in 1900–01 by the forces of the Eight Allied Powers this area was turned into a barracks for the foreign troops who relieved the Siege of the Legations. Go straight on through the Duān Mén 
(端门, Gate of Correct Deportment) where from your right someone with a megaphone will attempt to get you to climb that for another ¥10. There’s little to see if you do so.

Ahead, across the moat, is the enormous Wǔ Mén (午门, Meridian Gate), which is the main entrance with ticket windows to left and right. If you come to the palace by taxi this is where you will be dropped. On the right just before entering there is a counter at which you may deposit bags, but this is not compulsory. For relative quiet, be there on a weekday after lunch sometime from November to March, noting that individual exhibitions may close at 3.30pm — some ushering towards the exits begins shortly afterwards. If starting from Tiān’ān Mén Square, head for the Palace’s Wǔ Mén main entrance via Zhōngshān Park, or better still via the usually deserted Tài Miào with its own magnificent halls. Both approaches avoid the crowds of the standard route through the Tiān’ān Mén itself.

CAUTION: Both on your approach to the gates and within the Forbidden City itself watch out for artificially friendly English-speakers. In general those who ask, ‘Can I help you?’ are only looking to help themselves to the money in your pocket (see Crime, Scams, and Nuisances). At the end of your visit do not board taxis that are waiting at the southeast exits, especially if the driver calls out to you, but walk away and flag down a passing vehicle instead. There are frequent problems here.

Exploring the Palace

The Míng Imperial Palace was originally constructed over a period of 14 years, As with the preceding Mongol Yuán dynasty, its layout and its relationship to temples to ancestors (the Tài Miào) and to the earth (Altar of Land and Grain) were much as prescribed in the Zhōulǐ (周礼, Rites of Zhōu) a classic text of probably around the 3rd century BCE. The palace was also known as the Zǐjìn Chéng (紫禁城), often poorly translated as ‘Purple Forbidden City’. But the character for purple in this case refers to the Pole Star on which the north–south axis running directly through the throne and thus the whole of the city was aligned, rather than true north.

Construction is said to have involved 100,000 artisans, but this is the kind of round figure the Chinese love to use when they just mean ‘many’. The palace was completed in 1420, and the Míng Yǒnglè emperor moved in shortly afterwards, the first of 24 Míng and Qīng emperors resident up to 1924, kept secure by 10m-high walls surrounded by a moat. The number of rooms in what is still the largest and best-preserved group of historic buildings in China, occupying approximately 1km by 0.75km, is given as 9,000 or more, although this count could only possibly be applied to bays — the spaces between pillars in courtyards and facades and within the halls.

That the palace complex survived after 1949 is, as with much of what’s left standing in China after mass campaigns of destruction, more accident than design. Proposals in the 1950s to demolish it altogether luckily came to nothing, and a 1960 plan to put a cross-city highway straight past the Wǔ Mén main gate and to convert various halls to facilities for the masses (as did happen to the neighbouring Tài Miào) was shelved because the disastrous economic consequences of Máo’s Great Leap Forward (大跃进, Dà Yuèjìn) development plan had caused mass starvation, and there was no energy spare for cultural destruction. Plans to build a highway straight through the palace were revived in 1964 as the economy recovered, only to be lost again in the chaos, starvation, and further economic contraction of Máo’s next big campaign, the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, Wénhuà Dà Gémìng).

Exhortations to ‘smash the old’ led to not only the lethal beating of teachers and destruction of books, but to the taking of sledgehammers to thousands of historic buildings. The staff largely managed to keep marauding Red Guards out of the palace, but nevertheless in 1966 the Hall of Middle Harmony was turned into the People’s Lounge for revolutionary debate, and the Deputy Director of the museum was put on exhibition in what is now the Hall of Clocks and Watches and beaten so badly he lost the sight of one eye. Red Guards erected a sign over the northern entrance to the complex, reading 
血泪宫 (xuèlèi gōng, palace of blood and tears), and there were several attempts to break in, including a ram-raid using a lorry. In August 1966 the museum closed for what would turn out to be five years, and the People’s Liberation Army was brought in to prevent Red Guards from taking over or causing further damage.

Encouraged to visit China by the American archaeologist and art historian Langdon Warner, Sinophile George Kates lived in Běijīng between 1933 and 1941 in the style of a member of the Chinese scholarly class. While there he was determined to see as much as possible of the Forbidden City, which then had only two small areas open to the public entered separately from the north and south ends.

It was a pursuit, almost a wooing; it carried me through the seasons; it became an absorption. After two or three years, some weed-overgrown courtyard, apparently destined to remain sealed for ever with a rusty Chinese padlock, through chinks in whose rotting doorways I had long peered in vain, would one day be wide open, while unconcerned masons went about some simple task. My reward would then be great.

George N. Kates, The Years that Were Fat, New York, 1952

Kates eventually obtained a pass to use the two libraries then located in the palace, which allowed him a quarter of a mile further in than most visitors, he estimated. Few today will have the time that Kates did to devote to sleuthing, but by following him around the edges of courtyards, by peering through windows and loosely chained doors, and by taking every side turning that you find, you will discover dusty rooms and overgrown peeling corners with crumbling stonework.

In 2018 the Palace administration claimed that 80% of the total floor space of the Palace was now open, with plans to reach 85% by 2025.

Signs and symbols

The heavily restored towering palaces and broad open spaces on the main axis, impressive though they may be, are comparatively lacking in atmosphere. It is in the smaller, more human spaces of the residential quarters, a more luxurious version of the hútòng outside, that any ghosts of drowned concubines and Machiavellian eunuchs must reside.

The palace itself is an architectural reference work, full of elements that you will see repeated in hall after hall, and in other imperial buildings across Běijīng.

Most of the halls have yellow roof tiles, a colour that could only be used with imperial consent. Lesser buildings, and those assigned to princes, had green tiles (in fact most not on the main axis were green during the Míng), although upon attaining maturity the emperors’ sons were usually evicted. One library had a black-tiled roof, the colour being associated with water and seen as an aid to fire-fighting. Those buildings reserved for functionaries had the same grey tiles as buildings throughout the rest of the city.

The huge wooden doors from the Tiān’ān Mén onwards are studded with large golden knobs. These have been likened to golden fish eyes, bowls, mushrooms and mántou (馒头), Chinese steamed bread rolls. One story has it that they were inspired by conches, symbols of tightness and security. The number of knobs, usually arranged nine by nine, seven by seven or five by five, indicates the importance of the door.

Looking up you’ll see ceramic figures on the spine and eaves of the roof of each building. The two beasts facing inwards along the spine of each roof are water dragons, supposed to resist the attacks of lightning and fire. A row of ceramic figures runs down the eaves; at the tip is the figure of a man followed by a succession of animal figures. Traditionally the human figure is the tyrannical prince of an early pre-Qín state who was overthrown by the combined forces of his neighbours and hanged from the roof of his palace. The people erected images of the prince on their roofs, mounted on a chicken unable to fly down to the ground below, and with a son of the Chinese dragon called a chīwěn (鸱吻) at his back to prevent escape over the roof. The other figures are said to date from the time of the Forbidden City’s builder, Yǒnglè, and can include another lesser dragon, a phoenix, two types of lion, unicorn (kylin), and two types of horse, with the chīwěn always last. Often the middle figures are all lions. Halls used by the emperor have nine of these figures, with the exception of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which has ten.

The large dog-like creatures to either side of the main entrances of major buildings throughout China are guardian lions. The beast on the right is male, his right paw placed on top of a ball, said either to represent the world or to be full of milk supplied by the female. She sits on the left, a cub lying on its back beneath her left paw, apparently taking suck from one of her claws. Most of these lions are of stone, but there’s a particularly fine bronze pair, as well as pairs of qílín (麒麟, kylin, or ‘Chinese unicorns’).

Several of the palaces sit atop marble plinths of up to three layers, with elaborately carved balustrades and projecting water spouts carved in the shape of dragons. The main pillars are (or were) single tree trunks, heavily lacquered in red, the colour of prosperity, used also for the walls. All the important buildings on the main axis face south, giving them maximum sunshine and turning their backs to baleful northern influences. They were heated with braziers of charcoal, different quantities allotted to members of the imperial household according to rank: careless handling of them caused many fires.

The major halls are arranged ahead of you along the north-south axis which bisects the entire city from the recently rebuilt Yǒngdìng Mén, once in the middle of the southern wall of the Chinese city, through the gates of the Qián Mén (Zhèngyáng Mén), Tiān’ān Mén and north of the Forbidden City through the Drum and Bell Towers. These halls have brief introduction signs in English.

Getting lost in the labyrinth

The Wǔ Mén (午门) or Meridian Gate, where you buy your ticket, is also called Five Phoenix Tower, with five pavilions on top, and is the main entrance to the Forbidden City proper. In the early days of the Palace, Museum these five pavilions were used as exhibition spaces, and have recently been re-opened in summer for temporary exhibitions from overseas, some (from the Royal Academy, British Museum, Versailles, etc.) good enough to be worth the entrance ticket all by themselves, but perhaps a distraction from your main purpose. Once through the gate turn left to find the stairs to the top, which also now offers access along an overgrown section of palace wall towards the defensive arrow tower at the southwest corner, and much of the southeast, east, and north sides’ walls are now also accessible. But if planning to return to exit at the southeast Dōng Huá Mén nearby, it’s perhaps best to leave any temporary exhibition until later, and to concentrate on what’s unique to the Forbidden City, rather than on what’s foreign and might be seen elsewhere at a later date.

During the Míng dynasty a lance used in battle by the Yǒnglè emperor was preserved on the Wǔ Mén, reminding the dynasty of its martial origins, although later Míng emperors, under pressure from officials not to repeat the mistake of the Zhèngtǒng emperor (see Where are They Now?, an account of the final resting places of the Míng and Qīng emperors), rarely left the capital. The Míng Lóngqìng emperor left the city only once in his lifetime, for a four-day trip to the Míng tombs to inspect progress on his own mausoleum.

Drums on top of the gate were struck when the emperors visited the neighbouring ancestral temple (the Tài Miào). Trips to the Temple of Heaven were marked by the striking of bells. Ceremonies performed here included the announcement of the calendar, and the punishment of lax or unfortunate officials, many of whom would die from beatings received. Only the emperor and his accompanying retinue passed through the gate, and of the five doors, the middle was for the emperor alone, the right for senior civil officials, the left for senior military advisers, and the outer gates for lesser personages accompanying him. Officials otherwise used gates to the east and west north of the Wǔ Mén, and household servants that at the north end of the palace.

Beyond the Wǔ Mén, offices to the right originally housed the imperial secretariat and historians, and those to the left (west), through the Xīhé Mén (系和门, Gate of Amiability), translators, censors, printers, and publishers. Through the Xīhé Mén there are three bridges over a stream to the right leading to the Wǔyīng Mén (武英门, Gate of Martial Valour) and two linked halls (may close in winter), the Wǔyīng Diàn (武英殿 and Jìngsī Diàn (敬思殿, Hall of Respectful Thought). The layout of these halls mimics in miniature those of the halls on the main axis, but their connection is actually a German construction of 1915, intended to unite the two buildings as the first museum on this site.

When the Manchu regent Dorgon reached the Forbidden City in 1644, much of it had been destroyed by the retreating rebels, including the main throne room of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. So he initially ran the empire from the Hall of Martial Valour before transferring to what later became the Mahakala Temple, outside the palace to the southeast.

These halls have only reopened to the public in recent years, and their paint is dazzling. Exhibitions here are mostly on printing and related matters, with little English, but are very keen to make the political point that the invading Qīng entirely accepted Chinese culture, and used the Chinese classics to help them govern wisely. You may catch sight of The New Calendar by Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, first printed in 1636 during the reign of the last Míng emperor, and reprinted in 1645 during the reign of the first Qīng emperor in Běijīng. The Jesuits used their superior prowess in science and technology to gain attention at the Míng court and to remain influential following the transition to the Qīng, in particular demonstrating their greater understanding of astronomical and calendrical matters (see Ancient Observatory).

Just to the west the decaying red house in vaguely Italianate style, with flaking green-tiled roof and downspouts, is the Bǎoyùn Lóu (宝蕴楼, Hall for Accumulated Treasures), looking completely outlandish here. It was built around 1915 to display further parts of the collection, but is now inaccessible. If plans to remove all modern buildings are honest, it may disappear before long.

You can go no further north on this axis, but as you pass back through the Xīhé Mén, note on the right the odd collection of guardian lion statues awaiting repair or reinstallation, or simply abandoned.

Return to the main axis and cross a stream by one of five bridges matching the Wǔ Mén’s five doors, where a gallery to the left houses an exhibition of court insignia, a painting of thousands of courtiers at an imperial ceremony, and bronze markers once used to show different ranks their places. Straight ahead is the Tàihé Mén (太和门, Gate of Supreme Harmony). During the Míng dynasty this was used for imperial consultations, but under the Qīng these took place further into the complex.

Beyond the gate is the largest courtyard in the palace, used for ceremonies. Tradition has it that the paving tiles are 15 layers deep to prevent anyone tunnelling a way in. Storage areas run down either side, and around the courtyard are large water vats for use in fire fighting, and which are numerous throughout the palace. Fires were not always accidental, the eunuchs able to benefit by stealing the contents of buildings before setting them alight to hide the theft and then fiddling the repair bills, too.

To the left, galleries contain exhibitions of Qīng weapons, and the Hóngyì Gé (弘义阁, Pavilion of Spreading Righteousness) has displays on music for rituals.

Across the courtyard is the first of three halls that form the palace’s centrepiece, raised on triple-layer plinths, on which stand large, bronze incense burners. The Tàihé Diàn (太和殿, Hall of Supreme Harmony), the largest wooden building in China and 11 bays wide, was where the emperor sat to review the prostrations of his court at the celebrations of solstices, birthdays, the new year, etc. The columns were originally of Chinese hardwoods, but when the Kāngxī emperor came to renovate the building in 1695 there were none left and he had to use pine. Now China lacks even pine of sufficient stature (see Temple of Heaven). Trees were imported from Canada for some 19th-century repairs, and some say concrete was the material used in the almost complete reconstruction completed just in time for the Olympics in 2008.

Beyond, the smaller Zhōnghé Diàn (中和殿, Hall of Middle Harmony) was the antechamber where the emperor prepared himself for various ceremonies. The Guāngxù emperor was arrested here on the orders of Dowager Empress Cíxǐ.

Behind this again is the Bǎohé Diàn (保和殿, Hall of Preserving Harmony), which was used to receive the princes of vassal states, for New Year’s Eve banquets for high officials, and for the highest level imperial civil service examinations. These began during the Táng and were held every three years until cancelled on the orders of the Eight Allied Powers from 1901. They were abolished altogether in 1905 (see Confucius Temple). At the rear of the hall is the most magnificent of the marble ramps that run up the middle of the stairs to the palaces. These are carved with intertwined dragons of remarkable complexity, and this one is nearly 17m long and said to weigh as much as 200 tons. It was made in the Míng and brought 50km to Běijīng in midwinter on a combination of rollers and a path made from ice, wells having been dug every few hundred metres along the route. It was recarved in 1761.

The thoroughly refurbished buildings running down the left (west side) of the main Harmony halls display treasures ‘donated’ (their owners often had no choice) to the Palace Museum’s collection — they include ceramics, bronzes, and calligraphy. Buildings to the right are sometimes used for temporary exhibitions on subjects such as imperial wedding ceremonies. The management seems always to put profit before conservation or appropriate use of palace buildings, and the ‘Forbidden City Flying Tour’ offered in side rooms at two locations has nothing to do with helicopters but rather with dressing up in period costume and being videoed in front of a blue screen so as to be superimposed soaring over stock footage of the site on a take-home DVD.

Behind the Bǎohé Diàn to the left is the Lóngzōng Mén (隆宗门, Gate of the Flourishing Royal House) which has been turned into a café, the Gùgōng Cānláng, with modern tables and sun umbrellas in the shade of the gate. When open it offers coffee, beef curry with rice and other simple meals, and an assortment of smartly-boxed snacks. Beyond here and to the north lie the modern recreations now said to be operating as a clubhouse for the wealthy.

A little to the right behind the Bǎohé Diàn there’s China Tea (中茶), which until 2007 was a branch of Starbucks, and just through the Jǐngyùn Mén (景运门, Gate of Good Fortune), further to the right, the Gùgōng Cāntīng (Palace Restaurant №2) serves one-plate Chinese standards of modest quality for ¥25–35, with tables inside or in the courtyard. The food is at least hot and filling, and comes quickly (with spoons).

Most tours go straight on through the Qiánqīng Mén (乾清门, Gate of Heavenly Purity), which marks the border between the ceremonial and residential portions of the palace, but it’s possible to go off in four other directions from here: through the smaller Nèi Yòu Mén (内右门, Inner Right Gate) to the left or the Nèi Zuǒ Mén (内左门, Inner Left Gate) to the right leading to northbound passages parallel to the main route; or right through the Jǐngyùn Mén to the Clocks and Watches Gallery, a little to the left or straight on through the Xīqìng Mén (锡庆门, Gate of Conferring Blessings), past the Nine Dragon Screen to the easternmost axis and north up that.

North through the Nèi Yòu Mén

The ‘Inner Right Gate’, to the left, appears to be misnamed as do other points with similar names as far away as the Outer City wall. This is because the whole structure of ancient Běijīng was seen from the point of view of the emperor on his throne, who faced south, and the Inner Right Gate was indeed to his right.

Here you enter an area of smaller halls that functioned as household offices and residences and where the scale is more human. For all the magnificence of the great halls of the palace’s central axis and despite recorded announcements that repeatedly request, ‘Avoid pushing. Keep alive young children’ [sic], there is considerably more atmosphere in these labyrinthine corridors and interconnected courtyards, which echo in a more luxurious and orderly fashion the hútòng (alleys) outside. Several residences have been refurnished roughly in the style of the late Qīng.

Among them, through the Nèi Yòu Mén and to the left, the Yǎngxīn Diàn 
(养心殿, Hall of Mental Cultivation) was the main living and working space for the emperors and has a magnificent ceiling sculpture of a dragon playing with a pearl. When some of the last Qīng emperors gave audiences to officials in this room, the Dowager Empress Cíxǐ listened and controlled matters from behind a screen. Part of the building is now Palace Museum Snacks (1), serving hamburgers, coffee, tea, and drinks.

The far left-most accessible hall of smaller buildings on two axes behind here, the Chángchūn Gōng (长春宫, Palace of Eternal Spring) was formerly the residence of several well-known concubines, including those of the Guāngxù and Xuāntǒng emperors. Stand at the door with your back to the hall and look to the right and left along the passage to see clever trompe-l’oeil paintings at either end, which make the passageway appear infinitely extended. In other parts of the courtyard are paintings of scenes from the classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions or The Story of the Stone (see Grand View Garden, and Prince Gōng’s Mansion).

It is rumoured that it was in this sector of the palace that Cíxǐ ordered the burial of 100 million taels of silver (1 tael = 38g) before the court fled to Xī’ān in 1900, and which she found undisturbed on her return in 1902. According to a New York Times report of 24 June 1900, the treasure was in gold, not silver, and the eunuchs who knew where it was had mysteriously disappeared. Other eunuchs were smuggling out valuables that were turning up in antique shops and markets around the capital, despite the forces of Americans and Japanese on guard at the palace’s gates to prevent looting.

Look up and to the west to see the top of a marvellous three-storey tower, the Yǔhuā Gé (雨花阁, Rain and Flowers Pavilion), part of the Tantric Buddhist Zhōngzhèng Diàn (中正殿, Hall of Rectitude) complex, with huge golden scampering dragons on its roof, beautifully blue tiles, and subsidiary dragons emerging from its eaves, only matched at the summer resort of Chéngdé. For some time sounds of repair work from this quarter suggested that this temple, rebuilt by the Qiánlóng emperor from a Míng original, might open to the public. But the work was also on brand new halls and gardens just to the north, built on the site of the 1742 Jiànfú Gōng (建福宫, Palace of Established Happiness), burned down in 1923, now reportedly opened as a private club. All remain closed to ordinary mortals. In 2016 the Palace administration reported an intention to pull down all modern structures (14,800sqm of them) within three years. It’s doubtful that this building will be included.

You can continue through the smaller courtyards on this side to the Imperial Flower Garden at the rear or return to the Bǎohé Diàn and set off in another direction.

North through the Qiánqīng Mén

The Qiánqīng Mén of 1429, leading to the inner court, was rebuilt in 1655 but is said to be the only building not to have been destroyed at least once since then, and is thus the oldest in the whole palace. Some Míng emperors gave audiences here, and the gate did not originally form such a solid block between the larger ceremonial halls and the inner palace. The connecting walls to either side were extended by Yuán Shìkǎi once the emperor had abdicated and been confined to residential quarters at the rear.

In the courtyard beyond the gate the galleries to left and right hold exhibitions on imperial birthday celebrations and weddings respectively. (May change.)

Unlike its luckier neighbour, the Qiánqīng Gōng (乾清宫, Palace of Heavenly Purity), through the gate, is said to have burned down and been rebuilt at least three times. Living quarters for emperors during the Míng and early Qīng, it was later also used as an audience chamber. The Guāngxù emperor’s secret discussions about reform are said to have taken place here, as well as his fatal briefing of Yuán Shìkǎi, and under the terms of the post-Boxer protocol this is where foreign envoys were given audiences. Being barbarians, they had not previously been allowed to sully the Imperial Palace, and had been received in a hall in what has become Zhōng Nán Hǎi, the now-separate government compound to the west. The last emperor carried out all his ceremonial duties here and it was also the site of his wedding ceremony in December 1922. This and the following two halls have the same relationship as the three large ‘Harmony’ ceremonial halls, but on a smaller scale and in reverse order.

The Jiāotài Diàn (交泰殿, Hall of Union and Peace or Hall of Vigorous Fertility) was the throne room of the empresses, who held various celebrations here. The hall also housed the 25 jade seals of imperial authority from the time of Qiánlóng onwards.

The Kūnníng Gōng (坤宁宫, The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity) was the living quarters of the Míng empresses. It was reconstructed and divided under the Qīng for use in Manchu shaman religious ceremonies.

At the Kūnníng Mén (坤宁门, Gate of Earthly Tranquillity) behind the palace there’s an exhibition of Qīng toys on the right. These are mostly musical boxes and automata, and some are exquisite steam-powered contraptions.

The rear courtyard is known as Yùhuā Yuán (御花园, Imperial Flower Garden) with small temples, ancient bamboo, and an enormous rock garden topped by a small pavilion. On the west side was the schoolroom used by the British tutor of the last emperor, Sir Reginald Johnston, with heavy Victorian furniture, Nottingham lace curtains, and Axminster carpets to make him comfortable. Johnston, Isabel Ingram (the empress’s American tutor) and the imperial couple would have al fresco lunches here. Exhibitions discuss the arrival of telephony, and, dishonestly, the Opium Wars.

NB: In peak periods, e.g. the October holiday, the garden may be divided in two and passage between the east and west halves forbidden.

The Shénwǔ Mén (神武门, Gate of Military Prowess) is now the rear gate of the Forbidden City, and can sometimes be climbed. The palace wall stretches away, overgrown and until recently inaccessible, to the corner towers. Looking down you can see an area of smaller halls and pavilions on the left (east) containing exhibitions, and small, secluded courtyards and gardens which are perhaps the most attractive in the whole complex.

Returning south to the Nèi Zuǒ Mén

Far more of the eastern side of the palace is open to the public, much of it the residences of senior concubines and retirement quarters of dowager empresses on a rather grander scale than those on the western side. Each group is contained within its own walls and reached down long, straight, red-walled passages to the left (east) as you return south.

The Yǒnghé Gōng (永和宫, Palace of Eternal Harmony) houses an exhibition on the lives of Qīng concubines, and the faded Jǐngrén Gōng (景仁宫, Palace of Great Benevolence), birthplace of the Kāngxī emperor, displays an exhibition of donated bronzes and stoneware. Neighbouring halls display ceramics, including 110 pieces of tea ware from the palace collection. Imperial patronage made the now ubiquitous red-brown Yíxīng (宜兴) ware popular.

The most interesting hall in this area was also the last to be constructed (until recent rebuilds). The Shuǐ Diàn (水殿, Water Hall) of 1909, also known as the Shuǐjīng Gōng (水晶宫, Crystal Palace), which is embraced by the arms of the Yánxǐ Gōng (延禧宫, Palace of Prolonging Happiness), was commissioned from a German construction company by the Dowager Empress Lóngyù. Never completed, and also bombed in the attack that brought the end of the brief restoration of the Xuāntǒng emperor in 1917, this frame of iron partly clad with marble and vaguely reminiscent of the Hiroshima A-dome was designed to be surrounded by water. Rusting picturesquely, the cast iron pillars have floral motifs matched by more elaborate carvings of flowers and bamboo in stone. The surrounding galleries were reconstructed as store rooms in the 1920s, and contain walk-in safes that were used as secure storage for precious artworks. You can now walk in yourself for changing exhibitions of painting, calligraphy, and ceramics. Upstairs on the east side detailed background information on individual artists and their works is available via touch-screens.

Vast sums were spent preparing the Forbidden City for the television cameras in 2008, but not everything unrestored was screened off. The Zhāi Gōng (斋宫, Palace of Abstinence), with its overgrown roof and peeling beams, certainly shows an abstinence of care at least since the last emperor was expelled in 1925. Until recently much more of the Forbidden City looked like this, and much more of what’s not on display either looks the same or has been modernised beyond recognition to suit its current occupants. Once through the Nèi Zuǒ Mén, turn left (east) for the palace’s major exhibitions.

East through the Jǐngyùn Mén

The Clock and Watch Exhibition Hall ticket office (钟表馆, ¥10, selection of clocks wound for demonstration at 10am and 2pm) is straight ahead a little to the left. The exhibition, possibly the best in the entire museum, has recently been expanded and is housed in the magnificent I-shaped Fèngxiān Diàn (奉先殿, Hall for Worshipping Ancestors), which once held the spirit tablets of Nurhaci, the founder of the Qīng dynasty, and his descendants. The vast main supporting pillars had been extensively damaged by a leaking roof and have been replaced, although much of the original painted coffer ceiling is still there, unmolested and peeling, high above.

The majority of the timepieces on display are British, mostly 18th-century, with a substantial number of Chinese clocks and contributions from France, the USA, and elsewhere. There are also some vast early Chinese clepsydra (water clocks). Some of the emperors were avid collectors, and at one point a clock factory was set up in the palace. Many other clocks were gifts from those hoping to gain favour at court. While the Chinese probably invented the world’s first escapement mechanism, during their self-imposed isolation they slipped behind Western technology. The clocks are now well-lit and displayed, and a video shows them in operation, many being more automata than clock.

Perhaps the most impressive is a British clock made by Williamson in 1780, with the figure of a man holding a calligraphy brush, who writes the eight characters 八方向化九土来王 (Bā fāng xiàng huà, jiǔ tǔ lái wáng) meaning ‘People come from everywhere to pay their respects to the emperor’. Perhaps the ruler being flattered was Qiánlóng, who was to receive a vast number of clever mechanical contrivances and pieces of technological wizardry from George III’s trade envoy Lord Macartney a little over ten years later and who was on the throne until 1795. Another clock is towed in a circle by an exquisite miniature mechanical elephant that waves its trunk and rolls its eyes. Some are miniature palaces or pagodas of silver, gold, enamel and precious stones; others in the shapes of ships, hot air balloons, and lighthouses.

The interior floors of this and some other halls in this area are said to be made of ‘gold bricks’, which might be named for the cost of their production rather than the sheen over their grey colour. Manufactured at special imperial kilns in Sūzhōu, the bricks spent 230 days in the kiln, and it took nearly a year from collecting the mud from which they were made until they were delivered to the palace via the Grand Canal. The same kiln supposedly still supplies replacements to the palace, but the original techniques of production have been lost. After the bricks were laid, they were coated with a mixture of ink and alcohol, then a layer of paraffin wax, and finally polished with a little sesame oil. They are now supposed to receive a daily polishing with kerosene, but in the unlikely event this really happens it leaves no smell. (To see how golden they might have originally looked, visit the Aman at Summer Palace resort.)

The clocks that are wound for demonstration purposes are down the passage connecting the two sections of hall, against the back wall. Arrive a few minutes early to get a good view. Miniature jewelled pagodas go up and down, mechanical lotuses bloom to reveal praying figures, and figurines appear from behind tiny doors to parade and strike bells.

East through the Xīqìng Mén, then north

Back out through the entrance to the Clock and Watch Exhibition Hall and around its south side lies the Xīqìng Mén, with a ticket office just to its right for the Imperial Treasures Gallery (珍宝馆, ¥10). Here there are so many different halls, residences, and recreation areas for retired emperors and empresses that if there’s only time for one route around the rear of the palace choose this one.

Inside on the right is the Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁, Jiǔ Lóng Bì), 6m high and 31m long, of 1773. Blue, yellow, white, and purple dragons writhe on an assemblage of large tiles, one of which is said to have been broken during assembly and hurriedly replaced with temporary wooden copy before inspection by the emperor. There’s a similar screen in Běi Hǎi Park.

Left (north) through the Huángjí Mén (皇极门, Gate of Imperial Supremacy) and then straight ahead through the Níngshòu Mén (宁寿门, Gate of Peaceful Longevity) lies the substantial Huángjí Diàn (皇极殿, Hall of Imperial Supremacy) which is connected to the Níngshòu Gōng (宁寿宫, Palace of Peaceful Longevity) by a marble-balustraded causeway across a sea of pleasingly worn flagstones. Wells with elaborately carved rims stand to one side.

These substantial elevated halls are closed but once housed exhibitions of treasures which are now far better lit and displayed in the buildings surrounding the courtyard. To the left (west), passages contain domestic items including fabulously elaborate teacups, a bowl of translucent pink-flecked agate, a cup with a handle in the shape of a hydra, ornate snuff bottles and other curiosities such as a delicate rose quartz censer, and a set of green jade animals of the Chinese zodiac, robed and seated in a ring as if they might have been a model for the original Jesuit-designed clepsydra-fountain at the ‘Old’ Summer Palace. There’s also a jadeite cabbage-shaped receptacle for flowers which is faintly reminiscent of a far superior jadeite cabbage in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and which is that museum’s most popular attraction, to the chagrin of some of the curators.

Up the east side of the courtyard is a collection of brooding, gnarled and blackened stone drums from the pre-unification Qín (秦) state of the Warring States era (475–221 BCE), carved with the earliest stone inscriptions yet found in China and dating back to 374 BCE, nearly 1800 years before the Forbidden City was constructed.

Straight on behind the Níngshòu Gōng and through the the Yǎngxìng Mén (养性门, Gate of Spiritual Civilisation), the Qīng-era Yǎngxìng Diàn (养性殿, Hall of Spiritual Civilisation) dating from 1776 displays sets of ceremonial bells, some gold items, and an impressive collection of official seals.

Just to the east of here is perhaps Běijīng’s finest opera theatre, the gaudy Chàngyīn Gé (畅音阁, Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds), with its ceiling of painted clouds, trapdoor mechanisms and other performance machinery, also built in 1776.

In the surrounding buildings are sumptuous costumes with extravagantly beautiful embroidery, photographs of Cíxǐ dressed up as if to take part in performances herself, gaudy sequinned head dresses, and photographs of how the halls used to look in her day. Cíxǐ used to sit in the two storey Yuè Shì Lóu (阅是楼, Tower of the Inspection of Truth), whose name suggests she may have been a harsh critic. What are now side corridors were divided into boxes. The displays include a note that ‘Operas were also used by the emperor as a means of control and conciliate [sic]. Themes of filial piety and loyalty or embellishing prosperity and peace were intentionally emphasised when editing dramas to cultivate family members and ministers.’ Look at modern Chinese television soap operas and you’ll see nothing’s changed.

Back through the Yǎngxìng Mén, right (west) and right again (north), is the Níngshòu Gōng Huāyuán (宁寿宫花园, Flower Garden of the Palace of Peaceful Old Age), with paths winding between small, secluded pavilions, trees and rockeries — one of the most pleasant areas of the entire complex. The Qiánlóng emperor had it built for his retirement after his unprecedented abdication in 1795 at the age of 85, so that the length of his reign would not exceed that of his august grandfather, Kāngxī. Some say that he never moved in but stayed in the western part of the palace, continuing to exercise authority.

Out of a total of 557 emperors of all or part of what is now China, Qiánlóng was the only one to live beyond 80, but like many another Chief Executive Officer he died only a short while out of harness, four years later. He decreed that the area should be used only by others who, like him, retired out of filial piety (although in fact he retained his grip on power from a distance), and so it remained undisturbed until occupied by the Dowager Empress Cíxǐ when she retired as the Guāngxù emperor came of age in 1899.

The interiors have since been entirely neglected, which has perhaps preserved them better than if the the authorities had taken an interest, but now the World Monuments Fund ( is in the middle of an originally 12-year project (now to be completed in 2020) using US$18 million of largely American funds, matched by the Forbidden City, to restore delicate paintings on silk and complex carved-wood interiors. Proper academic supervision of this process using experts from around the world is in complete contrast to the usual methods of ‘conservation’.

Restoration of the Juànqín Zhāi (倦勤斋, Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service) was completed in late 2008, including repairs to bamboo marquetry, double-sided silk embroidery, and vast paintings on silk using the European trompe-l’oeil techniques of Italian Jesuit Guiseppe Castiglione, covering the ceiling with floral decoration and the walls with landscapes. Although the WMF trumpeted that the halls would be open to the public for the first time ever, it seems that the Forbidden City administration has been running rings around it. Individual travellers are supposed to send a request by mail or fax (not email or telephone) one month in advance to: Central Museum Office — Office of the Director, Gùgōng Yuàn Bàngōngshì, The Palace Museum, Jīng Shān Qián Jiē 4, Běijīng, China 100009. f 6513 3119. Entrance is supposed to be free, and the justification for this inconvenient process is that the restored interiors are too delicate to support large numbers, which seems less reasonable when tour companies have advertised that they can provide access for large sums. In February 2019 it was finally announced that the complex would be opened to visitors in 2020, with no further details given.

The Xìshǎng Tíng (禊赏亭, Pavilion to Enjoy the Pure Water Ceremony) contains a snaking water channel for floating wine cups, where the nominally retired Qiánlóng emperor played literary drinking games. This is a reproduction of the long-vanished but recently rebuilt Lán Tíng (兰亭, Orchid Pavilion) outside Shàoxīng in eastern Zhèjiāng Province, where in 353CE China’s most celebrated calligrapher, the goose-loving Wáng Xīzhī (王羲之), invited 41 friends to a literary drinking session of the same kind, in which guests had to compose a poem in the time it took the cup to float past them. Wáng’s 28-line, 324-character preface to the collected poetic results is remembered not only for its musings on impermanence but even more for the alcohol-induced flamboyance of its lively calligraphy, and is considered the greatest masterpiece of its kind. There are at least three more of these drinking game channels in Běijīng, at the Tánzhè Sì, Prince Gōng’s Mansion, and tucked away in the ‘new Forbidden City’, the government compound of Zhōng Nán Hǎi.

Turning right (east) at the north end of the gardens brings you to the Lèshòu Táng (乐寿堂, Hall of Joyful Longevity) and behind it to the north the Yíhé Xuān (颐和轩, Pavilion of Well-Nurtured Harmony), also constructed for the retirement of the Qiánlóng emperor. It was in this hall that Cíxǐ’s body rested for a year after her death in late 1908, awaiting an auspicious burial date.

Unlikely as it may sound, there are claims that Běijīng’s second-ever railway line was set up by a pro-reform minister in this quarter in 1888, with the aim of persuading Cíxǐ not to tear up subsequent lines as she had the half-kilometre-long route built for demonstration purposes by a British merchant called Trent outside the Xuānwǔ Mén in 1865. Cíxǐ reportedly enjoyed the train, but in order not to disturb the harmony of the palace with excessive noise had its six cars pulled not by the engine, but by sweating eunuchs. Other accounts are clear that this line ran for 1.5km up the west side of the Zhōng and Běi Hǎi (now open as Běi Hǎi Park) connecting her preferred residence on the north bank of the Nán Hǎi with her dining room, the still extant and publicly open Jìngxīn Zhāi (静心斋, Studio of the Quiet Heart).

Cíxǐ went on to forbid construction of a railway line towards the Western Qīng Tombs, also for reasons of fēng shuǐ, although it was eventually built anyway, and the body of the last emperor’s adoptive mother, the Dowager Empress Lóngyù, travelled most of the way to her tomb by rail, the first and last empress to do so. Cíxǐ herself eventually took trains for part of her return journey to Běijīng from Xī’ān after the Boxer Rebellion.

The halls are preserved much as they were in Qiánlóng’s day. The first has magnificently carved doors on either side of its interior and houses two enormous pieces of jade, one carved into a dragon-covered bowl, the other into a mountain scene nearly 2m high that supposedly took ten years to make. Intricate screen doors with inset painted panels run round the interior on two levels, providing possibly the palace’s least gaudy and most tasteful interior. Fine Buddhist reliquaries and statuary are also on display.

Behind lies an area of several small courtyards, where you can search out details such as a moon gate (circular entranceway) inset with mother of pearl, and stelae carved with Qiánlóng’s poetry set into courtyard walls, before reaching the Zhēn Fēi Jǐng (珍妃井, Well of Concubine Zhēn).

Through the Zhēnshùn Mén (贞顺门, Gate of Faithful Obedience) just to the north, a passage leads west to the main exit on the north side through the Shénwǔ Mén (神武门, Gate of Divine Prowess).

Alternative Exit via the Dōng Huá Mén

Back south through the Tàihé Mén and across the marble bridges, turn left (east) through the Xiéhé Mén (协和门, Gate of Mediation) to the Wénhuá Diàn (文华殿, Hall of Literary Glory), opened in 2008 but originally built in the Míng for the use of imperial princes and reconstructed in 1683 for lectures on the classics. In 1894 this was the place where foreign diplomatic envoys were allowed to present their credentials to Cíxǐ during celebrations of her 60th birthday. There are various exhibitions of ceramics around the site, but this main hall, connected to the Zhǔjìng Diàn (主敬殿, Hall of Respect) and two side displays now house perhaps the most extensive display. Presented in date order and with English explanations, it provides a concise introduction to the development of Chinese techniques and styles and includes some truly exquisite pieces, well-lit and displayed. In 2013, the courtyard behind opened as a flower garden from which to admire, but not enter, the two-storey green-roofed Wényuān Gé (文渊阁, Belvedere of Literary Profundity) beyond. Built during the Qiánlóng reign, it once housed the largest library in the Great Qīng Empire.

You may use the alternate exit from the palace just to the east through the Dōnghuá Men, once reserved for senior officials. If, after your visit, you have any comments for the Forbidden City management (such as ‘Resign!’), a number is available for that purpose: t 8500 7027. But don’t expect any change to arise from even the most constructive suggestion.

Gùgōng Bówùyuàn, t 6513 2255,, Apr 1–Oct 31, Tue–Sun, 8.30am–4.00pm; Nov 1–Mar 31, Tue–Sun 8.30am–3.30pm; but entrance is often forbidden after 3pm; Also open public holiday Mons; opens 7.30am May holiday. ¥60 summer, ¥40 winter; free some off-season Weds; some individual exhibitions a further ¥10 each. nb Theoretical limitation of 80,000 visitors daily in high season, reported (unreliably) to have been triggered 32 times in 2015, 48 times in 2016, and 10 times by May 2017. Nevertheless in 2018 Chinese media claimed, with unlikely precision, that the Palace had become the world’s most-visited museum, receiving its 17 millionth visitor on 13 December. Timed entry may soon be introduced. The last tickets are sold an hour before closing, but special exhibitions close at the same time as the ticket office. Advance purchase of tickets on-line is now recommended, up to ten days in advance (including day of visit) at, but the site is in Chinese only, a promised English-language version having yet to appear (2018). A passport number is required, and the same passport must be shown when collecting tickets at entrance, along with the reservation number supplied. Eventually, all ticket sales may be on-line, although it is also claimed by some sources that a few ticket windows will continue to remain open for those who can’t manage on-line payments, which will be most foreign visitors since these typically involve electronic systems such as Alipay or WeChat wallet. A scannable QR code may be available for same-day tickets at the entrance, but this will have the same payment issues. m Tiān’ān Mén East exit A; Tiān’ān Mén West exit B (Line 1). b to 天安门东: 1, 专1, 2, 专2, 10, 52, 59, 82, 90电车外环, 90电车内环, 99, 120, 126, 728.

For far better background than can be provided by local guides, see The Forbidden City by Geremie R. Barmé.

A ‘second Forbidden City’ has begun construction on a 62-hectare site about 25km away between the ‘Old’ Summer Palace and the Míng Tombs, intended to put a far larger number of items from the Palace’s collection on display, and also ‘serve as an academic hub for the study of imperialism’ according to the Chinese press. Completion is forecast for 2020. Meanwhile, in October 2018, an agreement was signed to begin construction of an 8000 square metre Palace Art Gallery (故宫艺术馆) in the Qián Mén area.

Jǐng Shān Park is directly opposite the north entrance via an underpass, and Běi Hǎi Park and the Icehouse hútòng walk a short walk west. Outside the Wǔ Mén main south entrance immediately to the east lie the back entrances to the Tài Miào and to the west Zhōngshān Park, then the Tiān’ān Mén and sights around Tiān’ān Mén Sq.

Leaving through the Dōnghuá Mén or through the Wǔ Mén then walking east around the Forbidden City walls inside the moat to the Dōnghuá Mén brings you to further hútòng walking, and eventually to Wángfǔ Jǐng shopping and museums.

CAUTION: At any of these exits, if you need a taxi, walk away from main palace entrances and flag one down that’s passing by. Do not accept a ride from any driver who approaches you or calls to you, and do not take a cycle rickshaw.

See Forbidden City stories:
Monumental Mismanagement
The Two Palace Museums
Where are They Now?
A Storm in a Coffee Cup
The End of the Emperors
The Last Occupant of the Forbidden City
Pride and a Fall
The Ends of the Eunuchs

Next in Imperial City: Jǐng Shān Park
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

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