Beijing – the Forbidden City
What did a Chinese Palace look like? The greatest Palace and certainly the best preserved Palace is the former Palace at Beijing known to the Western world as Beijing – the Forbidden City.
The Beijing Palace is somewhat unusual because it is late, for it was only in 1403 that the Emperor Yongle, the great emperor of the Ming dynasty, decided to make his capital at Beijing. True, Beijing had in the past been one of the capital cities, but from now on it was the only capital city. One of his first acts was to lay out a huge Palace of in the centre of the city on a monumental scale it was. It was oriented exactly north-south and it was said that a million men laboured for 14 years building it.
It is approached today through Tiananmen Square, the huge square enlarged by Mao Tse-tung and lined with Soviet style architecture. At the northern end the former city walls have been replaced by the inner ring road and beyond is the former gateway through the city walls, known as the gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) which is today mainly celebrated as place where on 1 October 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. The approach road from the city walls to the palace walls used to pass by the Altar to the Gods of Land and the Gods of Grain, though this has now been renamed Workers Cultural Palace.
We then come to the formal entrance to the Palace known as the Meridian gate through which only the Emperor and his close entourage could pass, though the top three scholars in the annual Civil Service examination were allowed to come out through the central gate.
This leads into the outer courtyard where surprisingly a river meanders through the middle, crossed by five bridges. You would have thought that they would have covered this over, but perhaps they liked the effect.
Then through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the main inner courtyard, with on the other side, the main building in the Palace, the Palace of Supreme Harmony. I was rather surprised by the inner courtyard: it reminded me of the great Durbar at Delhi where the moguls held court, and also the courtyards of the Egyptian palaces. Yet this is supposed to be the ‘Forbidden city’ – though this is a name given to it by the English foreigners– the Chinese simply call it the Former Palace. But if entry was tightly restricted, why have a great courtyard? Perhaps entry was not so tightly restricted as far as the nobility were concerned; entry thorough the main gate was strictly controlled, but there were side gates where the aristocracy – and indeed the workers – could and did enter.
On the far side is the great Palace of Supreme Harmony, set on an elevated platform in three terraces. The main front hall of Supreme harmony was the largest timber building in China and was where coronations and imperial weddings took place.
The Palace was set on an elevated terrace which was built in three tiers. This terrace formed the centre of the palace, and there were three palaces on it, one after the other. Building the elevated platform must have been a major undertaking, and this view of the sides gives some ideas of the effort involved.
Here we see the two palaces behind, first the small square palace of Middle or Central Harmony , and behind it the larger Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The smaller square Hall of Middle Harmony was where the Emperor robed, and the nobles made their kowtow, touching their heads nine times on the floor, but today it houses an elaborate throne.
The rear hall, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was nearly as large as the main Hall of Supreme Harmony, but it served as a banqueting hall, and also the place where the final exams for the civil service took place.
The interesting thing to me, comparing it with other palaces, is that there appears to be no redistribution element, nothing to compare to the Window of Appearance in Egyptian temples were the Pharaoh showed his magnanimity to giving out presents to the leading nobles. In China, the Emperor received gifts, but did not give out gifts: or am I missing something?
But where did people actually live?
29th July 2014