Visiting the Forbidden City

After a heavy downpour last night flushing away the smog, one can really see the difference in the sky the next day. I didn’t want to miss the lovely weather today and decided to visit one of the most historical monument in China, the Forbidden City.

For centuries, the Forbidden City (紫禁城) was the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty and served as home to emperors and their households. It was also the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.

In 1987, the Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum since 1925 and today, the site is most commonly known as Gùgōng (故宫) which means Former Palace.

Personally, I still prefer to call it the Forbidden City just because it sounds cooler!

Getting there is very easy because the Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West subway station and walk to the Forbidden City. The Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) is a famous monument in Beijing and is often used as the national symbol of China. In the center, is a a portrait of Chairman Mao. On the left of the portrait is a banner that reads “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” (中华人民共和国万岁) and the banner on the right reads “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples” (世界人民大团结万岁).

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Tiananmen is often referred to as the entrance to the Forbidden City but in actual fact, it is the Meridian Gate that is the first entrance to the Forbidden City. It is also where executions were carried out.

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Before entering the Forbidden City, you will need to buy an admission ticket. It costs 40 RMB (1st Nov to the next 31st Mar) and 60 RMB (1st Apr to 31st Oct).

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Before entering the Forbidden City, you will see this station that provides guide service and audio guide rental service. Audio guide costs 40 RMB and guide service costs around 250 RMB. As I am understand Chinese, I figured I would just hang around tour groups and listen to their tour guides explain the significance of the Forbidden City for free.

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The Forbidden City is divided by the Outer Court and Inner Court. The Outer Court was used for ceremonial purposes while the Inner Court was the residence of the Emperor and his family. If you watch a lot of TV series set in the Qing Dynasty era, you probably have seen the Hall of Supreme Harmony countless times. This is where emperors held court and have ceremonies like coronations, imperial weddings, etc. The interior of the hall is not open to public.

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Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Peace that is used by the Emperor to  prepare and rest before and during ceremonies. And behind these two halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for rehearsing ceremonies and also the site for the final stage of the Imperial examination. The Hall of Preserving Harmony is one of the few halls that allow visitors to view the interior of the hall through an open door.

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In the Forbidden City, there are around 200 water vats located near the main buildings. This is the first piece information that I eavesdropped from one of the tour guides. In their time, there were 308 water vats and they were filled with water to be used during the emergency of a fire. Besides being used as fire-fighting installations, they were also part of the ornaments that made up the grandness of the Forbidden City. Though they were made of iron or bronze during the Ming Dynasty, they became more elaborate and finely made in gold-plated brass during the Qing Dynasty, with rings and side knobs in the form of animal heads. The gold plate was scrapped off with bayonets by troops of the Eight-Power Allied Forces when they invaded China in 1900.

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Throughout the Forbidden City, you probably see many pairs of lion statues outside buildings and gates. According to another tour guide was that these are Imperial guardian lions. They are believed to have powerful mythic protective powers. The pair of lions consist of a male and a female. The lion on the left is a male, identified by his paw on the embroidered ball (representing supremacy over the world) and the female lion on the right is using her paw restraining a cub on its back.

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The Palace of Heavenly Purity is one of the palaces in the Inner Court. It is one of the few buildings open to visitors to view from the outside.

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Here’s’ the interior of the palace.

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The last piece of information that I managed to eavesdrop from a tour guide is about the ornaments on the corner of the roofs of the structures in the Forbidden City. There are many versions to this but I’m telling the tour guide’s version. The front of the sloping ridges is an immortal riding a mythical creature followed by a number of beasts (up to a maximum of nine) indicating the importance of the building. At the back of the beasts is the head of an Imperial dragon.

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Once you get to the exit at the end of the Forbidden City, it’s not this is the end of the visit. Behind is Jingshan Park which used to be part of the Forbidden City that offers a panoramic view of the Forbidden City. Jingshan Park consists of five peaks, each with a pavillion. Take a leisure height to the top of the hill to the highest pavillion to see the great view that I was talking about. It’s pretty impressive if you ask me.

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Overall, the Forbidden City is truly worth a visit if you are into old architecture or if you are a TV buff like me. The only problem I have with it is that the tour guides are quite expensive and according to online reviews, the audio guides were not very good. However, if you are not proficient in Chinese, good luck with the audio guides.

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