The Forbidden City: A Snapshot


The story of the Forbidden City begins in the fifteenth century. It was built by a Ming emperor. At that time, the capital of China was in Nanjing, situated in the lush and verdant Yangtze River Delta, but the Ming emperor was already making plans to build a new capital in the north.

Returning to the 'Great Capital' as it was called under the previous Mongol empire was just as important to the Great Khan Khubilai as Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming. The imperial capital in Nanjing was too far away from the Inner Asian Frontier.

The Ming rulers needed to control the Mongols in case there was any sniff of revolts or rebellions. It would be much easier to send troops and mount an offensive from what is today Beijing than from the Yangtze River Delta. Ming rulers were also concerned that their own generals and frontier forces were just too far away from their own imperial base of power. The north has also long been considered the cultural heartland or wellspring of so much of China's past. When Mao Zedong chose Beijing as the capital he was drawing on these historical antecedents.

During the Ming, Beijing was a thriving metropolis--diplomatic envoys from China's tribute states, officials, examination candidates, merchants, missionaries, laborers, and artisans. It was also the global age of exploration in China, It was Yongle who sent the Moslem eunuch admiral Zheng He on his legendary oceanic expeditions and helped transform China into a fifteenth century superpower. Zheng opened up and expanded trade routes and developed a taste abroad for Chinese porcelain and silk. Yongle was also responsible for basic layout of Beijing we see today. He ordered repairs to the Grand Canal to supply the capital with grain, cloth and building material needed to construct the Palace.

The large-scale construction began in 1406 and involved an ocean of people: 100,000 artisans and some one million conscript laborers. The north Vietnamese capital of Annam which fell under Ming rule for twenty years beginning in 1407, provided a huge pool of artisans and craftsmen. The principal building materials to construct the palace were wood, stone, marble, brick and glazed tiles. The stone and white marble used for bridges and other structures in the palace came from a quarry in Fangshan located about and hour southwest from Tiananmen Square. The bricks used to pave the courtyards were fired in the capital and in southern provinces. Kilns were set up in several places in the capital to make the bright yellow glazed tiles to build the roofs of the imperial structures.

The large slabs of stone and marble were transported during winter so the stone and marble could be hauled over a route frozen by water drawn from wells dug along the way. Other building materials like timber came from the forests of south and northeast China; logs of timber, fir, elm, camphor from the south transported by water drifting eastward along the Yangtze River and then northward along the Grand Canal.

Yongle restored the Canal in 1415 which greatly facilitated its super speed construction. It was an extraordinary logistics operation. Armies of people involved, transporting logs from mountain forests, down rivers and along unpaved roads. China has a knack of mobilizing oceans of people for any project. If a Forbidden City was built in the early twenty-first century, it would be the migrant labourers chipping away at those large lego sets we see in the capital at breathtaking speed.

Construction of the Forbidden City was finished in 1420. The following year the Ming capital which was in Nanjing, moved to Beijing. Twenty-four emperors of the Ming and Qing ruled from the palace. The Ming rulers were Han Chinese; the Qing rulers were originally tribes that came from Manchuria, ancestors of the Manchus. They ruled China until 1911 when the last imperial capital collapse. The last emperor Pu Yi abdicated the throne in 1912 in one of the halls in the inner court. The Palace Museum was officially opened to the public in 1925, but with only limited access. With the pending threat of Japanese occupation in the 1930s, the most valuable art collections, including documents and rare books, were transported out of the capital for safekeeping. The collections, assembled in thousands of crates, were moved in stages from Beijing to Nanjing and from there to the nationalist capital of Chongqing. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and the Eight Allied Forces occupied the capital, the empress dowager Cixi fled the palace with the Guangxu emperor from the west gate of the palace.

The Ming rulers used the southern part for highly elaborate ceremonies and to receive formal audiences while the northern part was the private, residential space for the imperial family, and its servants. The vast, imposing structures in the outer court were meant to impress and instill a sense of awe and respect for the rulers of the day. Four gates, located in each of the compass directions provided access into the Forbidden City. The three top degree-winners in the palace examinations, military commanders returning from victorious battles and ready to share the battle wounds with the emperor, the Mongol nobility and tributary envoys who had blood allegiances with the Qing empire, and the empress on her wedding day were allowed to walk in and out from the southern gate. Civil officials with business at court entered by the east gate and their military counterparts by the west gate. At these gates there were steles that read: 'Dismount Your Horse Here.' The east gate was the exit for the emperor's coffin, and for this reason, it was called 'the gate of the ghosts.' Consorts entered and exited from the northern gate, the Gate of Military Prowess. You will see one of these steles still standing at the eastern gate.

Anyone approaching one of these four large 'Gothic' gates would see two guards carrying bows, arrows, quivers and spears. Their job of course was to keep unauthorized people out. At night time, imperial messengers dispatched by the emperor could leave the Forbidden City with their own imperial ID card in the form of bamboo tallies. The messenger, something like an imperial runner—carried a tally inscribed with the character yang--yang representing the emperor—and when he arrived at one of the external gates, a keeper or guard on duty had a tally inscribed with the character yin. If the two parts matched to form a unity of yin-yang opposites, the guard on duty opened the gate. The tally system was also used for the management of imperial audiences. Most of the tallies were less than a foot long and there was space to inscribe the name of an official who was in charge of escorting individuals or delegations to an imperial audience. A brief resume could also be inscribed on these tallies of a person the emperor was going to interview for a potential position or appointment.

The tally system has a long history in China. It was used around the first millennium in times of war to communicate messages between military commanders and the emperor. This particularly tally was made of bronze in the shape of a tiger and divided into two halves along its center. An imperial edict was inlaid in gold on both the left and the right side of the neck and back of the tiger. The emperor would dispatch the left side to his commander via an imperial runner and keep the right one. When the emperor wanted to move his troops, he would send his messenger with the right half of the tiger. The order would only be considered valid or real if the two halves of the tally matched.

This is a delicious topic. We could spend an entire lecture just talking about these tallies and their crucial importance in the art of Chinese warfare, not to mention the particular routes and potential dangers the imperial runners encountered along the way.

Because the Forbidden City was off limits to most people, the life of the emperor and his imperial family, as well as maidservants, eunuchs, and concubines provided fertile ground for gossip, rumours and all kinds of fantasies about what went on within the palace walls.

Each snapshot of the Forbidden City tells another story....

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