Like China itself, the Imperial Palace in Beijing has come a long way in 600 years. Once the home of Emperors of one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, it now houses a Starbucks. Fortunately, alongside the encroaching commercial enterprises, the terrible grandeur of those bygone empires has been preserved within its massive walls.
The more than 800 buildings comprising the complex were first constructed in the early 15th century as a home, center of government and fortress for the Ming, and later Qing, emperors. For 500 years, until the establishment of the short-lived Chinese Republic in 1912, the grounds were the center of Chinese power.
The popular description for the Imperial Palace, Forbidden City, derives from the royal rule forbidding entrance to any but the royal retinue. Violation of the rule brought a sentence of death. That era is long gone, happily, and the palace is now one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
And there is enough to see here at Zijin Cheng in Beijing to occupy all of a short vacation.
Covering 720,000 square meters (178 acres), and surrounded by ten meter (33ft) high walls, there are seventeen palaces. Surrounding the grounds are several Royal gardens. The colorful gardens are a perfect complement to the palaces themselves, as the Royal yellow dominates their rooftops.
Entrance is either through the north wall or the south wall. At the southern end is the Meridian Gate at the infamous Tiananmen Square. The northern entrance is via the Gate of the Divine Might, which faces Jingshan Park. The distance between the two is nearly a kilometer.
Within that space is the Outer Court encompassing three halls, once used for coronations and Imperial weddings. Given China’s turbulent history the names are deeply ironic. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which leads to the Imperial library, is just one example.
The Inner Court, on the northern and eastern end, holds another three halls that were used for daily administration of the country. Within the court is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, near the residence of the Emperor and his family and servants. Also at the northern end is one of the main Imperial gardens, home to many trees that are centuries old.
Within the walls are housed rare treasures collected over the centuries. Among these are a collection of unusual timepieces held in the Hall of Clocks. The Chinese were among the world’s leading artisans and clock makers, owing to their (for the time) advanced level of science and mathematics.
The Palace Museum, one of the more popular attractions, holds over a million artifacts, both rare and unusual. Everything from Royal robes to unique porcelain are displayed. Earthenware from the Stone Age, bronzes and jade artifacts from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and pottery tomb figurines from the Han are part of the collection. Ancient and more modern paintings adorn the walls, along with scrolls and samples of calligraphy from down the centuries.
The Forbidden City in Beijing is only one of the many attractions of this ancient and dynamic city. But no visit to the capital of China would be complete without a day spent here.