Why is the Palace called the Forbidden City?

Panorama of the Meridian GateThe Palace Museum

Behind the Name

The Forbidden City is situated in the heart of Beijing. Ancient China’s astronomers endowed the location with cosmic significance. They correlated the emperor's abode, which they considered the pivot of the terrestrial world, with the Pole Star (Ziwei yuan)—believed to be the center of the heavens. 

Because of its centrality and restricted access, the palace was called the Forbidden City. 

Gate of Supreme HarmonyThe Palace Museum

The History

It was built from 1406 to 1420 by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1420) who, upon usurping the throne, determined to move his capital northward from Nanjing to Beijing.

The throne inside the Hall of Supreme HarmonyThe Palace Museum

Over 200 years later, the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1644. Then, in 1911, the Qing were subsequently overthrown by republican revolutionaries. 

Interior view of the Hall of Supreme HarmonyThe Palace Museum

The last emperor, Puyi (who ruled from 1909 to 1911 under the reign name Xuantong), continued to live in the palace after his abdication until he was expelled in 1924. During nearly five hundred years of imperial operation, the palace served as the residence and court of twenty-four emperors

The Forbidden City - Three Ceremonial Halls (2016) by The Palace MuseumThe Palace Museum

The Outer Court

Known as the Outer Court, the southern portion of the Forbidden City features three main halls – the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian), Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe dian), and Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian). The Outer Court was the venue for the emperor’s court and grand audiences

Palace of Celestial Favour (Chengqian gong) by Zhang LinThe Palace Museum

The Inner Court

Mirroring this arrangement is the Inner Court, which is the northern portion of the Forbidden City. The Inner Court is not only comprised of the residences of the emperor and his consorts but also venues for religious rituals and administrative activities.

Bower of the Spirit Pool (Lingzhao xuan) by Jin YuepingThe Palace Museum

In total, the buildings of the two courts account for an area of some 163,000 square meters. These structures were designed in strict accordance to the traditional code of architectural hierarchy, which designated specific features to reflect the paramount authority and status of the emperor.

Square of the Gate of Supreme Harmony under snow by Yedao LiuThe Palace Museum

Ordinary mortals were forbidden—and most would never dare—to come within close proximity to this imperial city. 

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