FORBIDDEN CITY: ITS HISTORY, TREASURES, TOURISM AND ISSUES

FORBIDDEN CITY

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The Forbidden City (near Tiananmen Square) was the home of 24 Ming and Qing emperors, their families, and their coterie of eunuchs and servants for 600 years from 1406, when construction began, until 1911, when the Qing dynasty was ousted and the Imperial era ended. Ordinary people were not allowed inside its gates---which is why it was called the Forbidden City---until 1925 when members of the public entered it for the first time.

Officially known as the Palace Museum and also called the Imperial Palace, it is surrounded by a 16-meter (52-foot) -wide, two-meter-deep moat. Its chambers and storehouses contain 1,052,653 rare and valuable objects that aren’t even displayed. The walls that surround the court are 2,428 meters long. In the Imperial era there was residential quarter outside the walls where courtiers and government officials lived. The Forbidden City was the place where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties lived and ran their Imperial bureaucracy. It is the largest and best-preserved mass group of palaces in China. The palaces are surrounded on four sides by red, 10-meter-high walls which extend 760 meters (0.47 miles) from east to west and 960 meters (0.6 miles) from north to south. Built by tens of thousands of people, the palace took over 14 years and 32 million bricks to complete. Twenty-four Ming and Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) emperors worked and lived but few of the original buildings remain. The last emperor Puyi, known in the West for the film "The Last Emperor," moved out of the complex in 1925.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The palace had been off-limits to the public until the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, in 1911. The walled city has 980 buildings in a geometric layout, many with poetic names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Studio of Exhaustion from the Diligent Reign. Almost everything is painted a dusty hue of vermilion, and there is an air of faded grandeur about the place, with tall grass growing through cracks in the vast stone courtyards and yellow tile roofs. Still, the Palace Museum is the most popular tourist attraction in China, with 8 million visitors a year, most of them Chinese. The modern capital of Beijing is laid out around its walls. In many ways, the Forbidden City is the psychic heart of the nation; it is at the intersection of imaginary north-south and east-west axes that ancient geomancers thought marked the center of China, hence the world, with the optimal feng shui. It is no coincidence that the Communist Party chose to rule from the adjacent Zhongnanhai compound that hugs its western walls — today the true forbidden city.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011]

Location: 4 Jingshan Qianjie Beijing 100009, Tel: +8610 8500 7421. +86 10 8500 7420, 86-10-65132255; Travel Information: 1. At Meridian Gate, visitors can rent a multilingual walkman guide that introduces the history and architecture of the palace. The tape and player should be returned at the north gate of the Palace Museum upon exiting. 2) Don't forget to visit the Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park, opposite to the palace's north gate. From this location can see the splendid layout of the palace. Hours Open: 8:00am-4:00pm (May-September); 8:30am.-3:30pm (October-April);; Admission: 60 yuan (US$9.46) per person (summer); 40 yuan (US$6.31) per person (winter); ; Some of the museums have additional charges. Getting There: By Subway: 1. Take Line 1 and exit at Tian'anmen East; 2) Take the Loop Line and exit at Qianmen; By Bus: Bus No. 1, 4, 5, 10, 20, 22, 52, 57, 802; The Forbidden City is within walking distance from Wangfujing, Xidan or Qianmen; Web Sites: Official website: Palace Museum Official Site dpm.org ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Map UNESCO World Heritage Site ; Wikipedia article: Wikipedia ; Book: Forbidden City by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist.

Imperial Palaces in Beijing and Shenyang: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO: Seat of supreme power for over five centuries (1416-1911), the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its landscaped gardens and many buildings (whose nearly 10,000 rooms contain furniture and works of art), constitutes a priceless testimony to Chinese civilization during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang consists of 114 buildings constructed between 1625–26 and 1783. It contains an important library and testifies to the foundation of the last dynasty that ruled China, before it expanded its power to the centre of the country and moved the capital to Beijing. This palace then became auxiliary to the Imperial Palace in Beijing. This remarkable architectural edifice offers important historical testimony to the history of the Qing Dynasty and to the cultural traditions of the Manchu and other tribes in the north of China. [Source: UNESCO]

“As the royal residences of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from the 15th to 20th century, the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang were the centre of State power in late feudal China. The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing known as the Forbidden City was constructed between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Zhu Di and witnessed the enthronement of 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors over the following 505 years. The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang was built between 1625 and 1637 by Nurgaci for the Nuzhen/Manchu forebears of the Qing Dynasty, which established itself in Beijing in 1644. Also known as Houjin Palace or Shenglin Palace, it was then used as the secondary capital and temporary residence for the royal family until 1911. The Imperial Palaces of Beijing and Shenyang were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987 and 2004 respectively.

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Ming tribute
“The Forbidden City, located in the centre of Beijing is the supreme model in the development of ancient Chinese palaces, providing insight into the social development of late dynastic China, especially the ritual and court culture. The layout and spatial arrangement inherits and embodies the traditional characteristic of urban planning and palace construction in ancient China, featuring a central axis, symmetrical design and layout of outer court at the front and inner court at the rear and the inclusion of additional landscaped courtyards deriving from the Yuan city layout. As the exemplar of ancient architectural hierarchy, construction techniques and architectural art, it influenced official buildings of the subsequent Qing dynasty over a span of 300 years. The religious buildings, particularly a series of royal Buddhist chambers within the Palace, absorbing abundant features of ethnic cultures, are a testimony of the integration and exchange in architecture among the Manchu, Han, Mongolian and Tibetan since the 14th century. Meanwhile, more than a million precious royal collections, articles used by the royal family and a large number of archival materials on ancient engineering techniques, including written records, drawings and models, are evidence of the court culture and law and regulations of the Ming and Qing dynasties.”

The Imperial Palaces are special because: 1) they “represent masterpieces in the development of imperial palace architecture in China. 2) The architecture of the Imperial Palace complexes, particularly in Shenyang, exhibits an important interchange of influences of traditional architecture and Chinese palace architecture particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. 3) The Imperial Palaces bear exceptional testimony to Chinese civilisation at the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, being true reserves of landscapes, architecture, furnishings and objects of art, as well as carrying exceptional evidence of the living traditions and the customs of Shamanism practised by the Manchu people for centuries. 4) The Imperial Palaces provide outstanding examples of the greatest palatial architectural ensembles in China. They illustrate the grandeur of the imperial institution from the Qing Dynasty to the earlier Ming and Yuan dynasties, as well as Manchu traditions, and present evidence on the evolution of this architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang, particularly the Forbidden City, genuinely preserve the outstanding embodiment of Chinese hierarchical culture in the layout, design and decoration of the building complex. The highest technical and artistic achievements of Chinese official architecture, conveyed by wooden structures, are preserved in an authentic way, and traditional craftsmanship is inherited. Various components of the Palaces bearing witness to the court culture of the Ming and Qing dynasties are retained, reflecting the lifestyle and values of the royal family of the times. The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang genuinely preserves the historical arrangement of Manchu palace buildings, the style and features of local buildings and information on the exchange between Manchu and Han nationalities in lifestyle in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Design and Buildings at the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is the largest imperial residence in China today and some say it is the largest palace in the world (but some sources list it as eighth). Located in the center of Beijing, The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 under Ming Emperor Yongle, and served as the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ming Emperor Zhudi was the first emperor to live there. It is 960 meters (3,150 feet) long from north to south and 750 meters (2,460) feet wide from east to west. There are four entrances, the Meridian Gate to the south, the Shenwu Gate (Gate of Military Prowess) to the north, the Xihua Gate (Western Flowery Gate) to the west, and the Donghua Gate (Eastern Flowery Gate) to the east.

The Forbidden City was constructed to project the emperor’s connection to heaven and was designed to be a small model of the cosmos. The imperial north-south axis of Beijing that runs from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City, where the most important buildings lie on the axis and are symmetrically sided by lesser structures. The entire city of Beijing is a series of concentric circles around the Forbidden City. Many Chinese call the Forbidden City “The Great Within.” Its buildings contain 720,000 square meters of floor space, with 150,000 square meters of building space, and is said to have 9,999 rooms (the number 9 represents longevity), but actually there are only 8,707, of which around 8,000 have been restored.

Most of the Forbidden City's buildings have yellow-tiled roofs, red walls, gilded doors, vermillion colonnades and marble balustrades. As the residence for emperors and their families, most of the walls of the imperial palace were painted red and roofs were covered with yellow glazed tiles. The red and yellow combination forms a strong color contrast, representing the absolute authority, supremacy, and richness of feudal emperors.

The main structures stand on a foundation of crisscrossing bricks and clay intended to minimize damage in the event of an earthquake. Spaces between the buildings are occupied by courtyards and plazas and parks and gardens, where the Emperor romped with his family. The buildings face south in accordance with feng shui principals to absorb energy from the male yang forces in the south and extend along the 8-kilometer-long central axis of old Beijing city. The complex of buildings is so vast that it takes workmen 10 years to do maintenance on all the buildings and when they finish they have to start again.

Tourism at the Forbidden City

null The Forbidden City is China’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than 8 million visitors a year, and one of teh biggest tourist sights in the world. It has been operated as a national museum since 1925 and the treasures are supposed to belong to the Chinese people as part of their national heritage. In 2005 the entrance fee were doubled to 80 yuan ($9.60) in the low season from November to March and 100 yuan in the high season. The money is supposed be used for upkeep and restoration. Audio tours are available different language. The English one is read by the actor Roger Moore.

Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in Art News: “Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City is the most iconic structure in all of China. The sprawling, 178-acre complex, officially known as the Palace Museum, was once home to the imperial Chinese court and is now one of the world’s largest open-air museums. But after nearly 90 years as Beijing’s most popular public attraction, the museum is facing accusations of poor management, with many observers and insiders calling for dramatic changes. Some of these are already underway, like the decision, effective since April, to adopt shorter visiting hours for easier upkeep. And Palace Museum director Shan Jixiang recently declared the premises smoke-free.” [Source: Ilaria Maria Sala, Art News, July 31, 2013]

Some days more than 125,000 visitors show up, more than double the daily capacity. The large numbers of visitors are taking their toll on the palace:Floors are being worn out by shuffling feet; the color on walls is fading from exhaled carbon dioxide. Sometimes there are huge lines to buy tickets and get into the bathrooms. Such crowds prompted authorities to introduce an e-ticket system in 2011 that is supposed to replace paper tickets. Under the system once the daily allotment of tickets is purchased no more tickets will be available. Having trouble getting access to a computer; don’t want to spend the time navigating the site; if there are some glitches or delays and too many users accessing the site then you’re out of luck.

A Starbucks opened in the Forbidden City in 2000 in a building where court officials used to wait for a morning audience with the Emperor. Starbucks had been invited to open up there by palace managers who wanted to raise money for the upkeep of the 72-hectare site. In 2007, the Starbucks in the Forbidden City was closed down---in part because of an Internet protest that claimed the presence of the coffee chain “undermined the solemnity of the Imperil Palace” and was “a symbol of low-end U.S. food culture” and “an insult to Chinese civilization. The total number of stores has been reduced from 37 to 17 and those remain have been required to follow strict rules.

History of the Forbidden City

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Yongle Emperor

For five centuries, it functioned as the administrative centre of the country as well as being the residence of Emperors and Empresses of the Ming (1368 – 1644) and the Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties. Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1407 and was completed fourteen years later in 1420. It was said that a million workers including one hundred thousand artisans were driven into the long-term hard labor to complete the complex.

In 1409 the Yongle Emperor, the son of the Ming founder. moved the capital of the Chinese Empire from Nanking back Beijing in his effort to dominate the Mongol empire, the same way the Mongol's dominated Chinese empire. He oversaw the construction of the "Violet-Purple Forbidden City" (the Forbidden City). Thousands of craftsmen, millions of laborers and building material from all over China were utilized in the project. Some scholars estimate that over two million laborers and craftspeople took part in the building of the great palace.

The Forbidden City was built in on the spot used a century and half before by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan for his winter capital Khanbalik. The basic outline of the palace was built between 1406 and 1420 under the Emperor Yongle. The majority of the five halls and 17 palaces were built after 1700. The West Flowery Gate (Xihua Gate) was the primary gate use by the imperial court to go in and out of the palace. The East Flowery Gate (Donghua Gate) is sometimes called the “Gate of the Ghost” because after the Emperor died his coffin was carried out this gate.

The Forbidden City had stables for elephants that were given as gifts to the Ming emperors from the rulers of Burma. Dung from the elephants was made into shampoo, promising glossy hair. When an elephant died the emperor declared an official period of mourning. Suppliers for the Forbidden City lived in neighborhoods outside its walls. Among these were Wet-Nurse Lane, inhabited by wet nurses recruited from all over China to breast-feed the Imperial nursery, and Clothes-Washing Lane, the home Imperial laundry, manned by workers who were often exiled to far off provinces when their careers were over so they wouldn't reveal secrets about imperial underwear.

In 2014, Archaeology magazine reported: “Countless words have been written about how the Egyptians moved the large stone blocks of the pyramids into place, but less attention has been paid to how the Chinese moved the massive blocks of the Forbidden City in Beijing in the 15th and 16th centuries. A new analysis of historical records and mechanical tests shows that stone could have been moved 40 miles, from quarry to the Forbidden City, on ice roads lubricated with water. Just 46 men would have been needed to move a 123-ton block. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2014]

The present empty squares and spaces in the Forbidden City were filled with small houses, courtyards and narrow streets that gave the city a lively lived-in character until they were destroyed by the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Zhou Enlai gave orders to spare the Forbidden City. What remains is impressive but has a theme park quality.

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace (within the Forbidden City) is the largest palace in the world. Established in the early 14th century and periodically hit by fire, rebuilt and expanded over the years, it covers 178 acres (a rectangle measuring 3,150-x-2,460 feet) and contains the world's largest moat (161 feet wide and 10,794 feet long and built according to French design). Now called the Palace Museum, it occupies most of the Forbidden City and is covers almost twice as much area as Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world.

On each of the four corners of the wall is a watch tower. The basic design of the watchtowers---with 9 roof beams, 18 pillars and 72 ridgepoles---appeared in a dream of one of the emperors, according to one story. Craftsmen were asked to make watchtowers that fit this design and feared they would lose their heads when they couldn’t Just when they feared all was lost an old man---Lu Bam , the Grandfather of all Chinese carpenters’showed up with a grasshopper cage that was designed exactly according to the specifications of the Emperor’s dream.

Palace Museum

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The Palace Museum, founded in 1925, is a national museum housed inside the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming (1368-1683) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. The Palace Museum holds over 1,807,558 artifacts, including paintings, pottery, inscribed wares, bronze wares, and court documents. There are over a million rare and valuable works of art in the museum's collection.

Palace Museum displays some of the most impressive jewelry and art in all China. Among the treasures are silver and jade kitchen utensils, musical instruments, silk screen paintings, glazed tiles, imperial seals, paintings, calligraphy, lacquerware, porcelain, enamels, gold vessels, silverware and ancient jade articles and bronzes. Although the collection is impressive and vast the collection in National Palace Museum in Taiwan is much better. It has a better assemblage of quality pieces.

The Palace Museum objects are mostly in the buildings of the Six Eastern and Western Palaces and the Eastern Outer Palaces. Highlight include a gold dragon robe made of peacock feathers, pearls and coral beads and several gem-inlaid, gold towers that each weigh over 225 pounds. The Golden Pagoda of Hair was made under the orders of the Qianlong Emperor to preserve the hair lost through daily combing. Web Site: Palace Museum Official Site

Treasures of the Palace Museum

Yaxu Rectangular Vessel (Bronzeware Hall of Chengqian Palace) is a bronze Xu wine container popular from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C) to the Warring States period (475 B.C.-221 B.C.). It is 38 centimeters wide, 45.5 centimeters tall with a caliber measuring 33.6 * 33.4 centimeters. The vessel weighs 21.4 kilograms and has four handles on each side in the form of an elephant's head. Between the two handles are decorations of other unknown animals. The body is covered with motifs of dragons and animal masks against a thunder pattern. [Source: Elaine Duan, China.org, May 9, 2012]

Gray Jade Stove Carved with Dragon in Cloud (Jadeware Hall of Zhongcui Palace) is considered a jadeware masterpiece among the Palace Museum's collection. Made in the Song Dyansty, the stove is 7.9 centimeters tall and 12.8 centimeters in diameter. The surface is carved with floating dragons, auspicious clouds and the oceanic waves. Carved at bottom of the piece is a classical poem written by Emperor Qianlong.

Lang-Kiln Red-Glazed Vase (Pottery Hall of Wenhua Palace) was made at the request of Qing Emperor Kangxi. This red-glazed vase was produced in China's "porcelain capital" of Jingdezhen, under the supervision of Jiangxi governor Lang Tingji. It is regarded as a rare jewel among the porcelain collections in the Palace Museum due to the artists' exceptional craftsmanship and use of superior materials.

Carved Lacquer Plate By Zhang Cheng is one of the Forbidden City’s most prized pieces. Zhang Cheng was the lacquerware carving master of Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) and his masterpiece is traditionally regarded as the gem of carved lacquerware works. This plate is the representative masterpiece of lacquerware collected in Palace Museum. It is 3.3 centimeters tall and has a caliber measuring 19.2 centimeters. The body of the plate is made of wood and painted black. The inside and outside of the plate are both carved in the shape of clouds. There are many explanations about why the bronze ox was placed by the lake.

Art Work in the Palace Museum

Silk Tapestry of the Painting "Plum Blossom and Magpie" is a masterpiece, that 104 centimeters long and 36 centimeters wide. It is the work of Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279) master weaver Shen Zifan of Suzhou, who meticulously depicted this serene traditional landscape scene on silk. Silk tapestry, known literally as "cut silk" in Chinese, refers to a method of weaving on a flat loom in which colored vertical threads are passed back and forth through a fixed matrix of horizontal threads to form the desired pattern. The term "cut silk" is derived from the fact that the patterns often appear as if they were literally cut out of a larger piece of cloth. It is regarded as the noblest form of silk weaving craftsmanship. [Source: Elaine Duan, China.org, May 9, 2012]

Colorized Lacquer Clock with Eight Immortals (the Clock Hall of Fengxian Palace) sits on a rectangular table and is a representative masterpiece among clock collections in the Palace Museum. It is 185 centimeters tall, 102 centimeters wide in the front and 70 centimeters wide at both sides. The clock was made during the reign of Qing Emperor Qianlong, and took five years to complete. There are seven mechanical systems that control the timepiece and chimes. When the springs at bottom are wound, the scenes to the right and left of the clock panel will rotate. The clock strikes at every quarter hour and three doors on the second story will automatically open to show three figures holding hammers and bells. The figures on the right and left strike bells to announce the quarter hour and the central figure marks the hour. After that, the figures retreat into the tower, music plays and the scenes beside the clock panel begin to move.

Letter of Recovery (the Paintings and Calligraphy Hall of Wuying Palace) was written by Lu Ji, a famous calligrapher during the Western Jin Dynasty, who wrote to his friend inquiring about his friend's illness. It is one of the oldest manuscripts in China and a model calligraphic work collected at the Palace Museum. Some scholars believe it was a cursive form of official script. Characterized by a simple and vivid style, this masterpiece is 23.7 centimeters wide and 20.6 centimeters long. The letter had been handed down from collector to collector before it was donated to the Palace Museum.

Riverside Scene during Qingming Festival (Paintings and Calligraphy Hall of Wuying Palace) is one of the Top Ten Chinese classical paintings. It was painted in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by Zhang Zeduan, a royal-assigned painter who worked in the Imperial Art Academy, considered one of the greatest ancient Chinese painters. The masterpiece is 24.8 centimeters wide and 528.7 centimeters long, depicting real-life scenes of China in the 12th century. It displays the prosperous city of Bianjing (now called Kaifeng) on Qingming Festival, highlighting the developed economy of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Forbidden City Opened at Night

In January 2019, the Forbidden City was briefly opened at night. Claire Fu wrote in the New York Times: “The Forbidden City has not really been forbidden to the public for decades, except in one respect. It was closed at night to all but the privileged few — until this week. For the first time since 1925, when the former home of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties became a museum, the Forbidden City has opened its doors to the public at night for two days this week, allowing visitors the chance to see its palaces and temples bathed in ethereal lights. A webpage that the museum created for people to register for free tickets crashed because of traffic. The museum ultimately gave away 500 tickets for people to join 2,500 invited guests on Tuesday, and another 3,000 tickets for Wednesday night. Soon, tickets were being scalped online. Two sellers reached by phone offered tickets for 4,000 yuan each, or about $595. [Source: Claire Fu, New York Times, January 20, 2019]

“Those who managed to get into the event saw an array of light displays and projections, as well as a performance by the Peking Opera staged at the Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds, the Forbidden City’s largest theater. The music could be heard throughout the complex, which was far less crowded than it normally was during the day. Illuminated red lanterns were hung along walkways and a wall that surrounds the complex, which was also recently opened to visitors. The museum said in a statement that the Forbidden City had not opened at night before because of the cost and complexity of providing security for relics in nearly 1,000 buildings spread over 180 acres.

“The museum organized the openings to coincide with the annual Lantern Festival, marking the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year. It was part of an effort to revitalize the image of a museum complex that has been notoriously conservative. “The more the Forbidden City does, the more influential it will be,” said the museum’s director, Shan Jixiang. Yang Jie, who visited the museum with her husband on Tuesday night, described the illuminated complex as “electrifying.” “It makes it possible to see a different side of the Forbidden City,” she said.”

Conservation of the Imperial Palaces in Beijing and Shenyang

According to UNESCO: Since the collapse of the Qing dynasty, much attention has been paid to the conservation of the property. The designated property area includes all elements embodying the values in the creativity, influence, historic evidence, and architectural exemplar, with the historical scale, architectural types, and other components, as well as the techniques and artistic achievements of Chinese palace buildings after the 15th century, particularly in the 17th to 18th century, well preserved. Various embodiments of the court culture in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the features of the lifestyles of and the exchange and integration between the Manchu and Han peoples have been well retained. The buffer zone protects the spatial positions of the complexes in the cities and their settings.

“The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties have been well protected in the past century. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the two palace complexes were declared by the state as the Palace Museums in 1925 and 1926 respectively. In 1961, they were among the first group of the State Priority Protected Sites designated by the State Council, and were repaired and protected according to the conservation principles of cultural relics. As a result, all the main buildings and majority of ancillary buildings have remained intact. Based on the strict implementation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage issued Regulations Concerning the Management of the Palace Museum in 1996, and the people’s government of Beijing Municipality demarcated an area of 1,377 hectares as the buffer zone of the Imperial Palace in 2005; in 2003, the people’s government of Shenyang City issued the Regulations on the Protection of the Imperial Palace, Fuling Tomb and Zhaoling Tomb of Shenyang. All of these laws and regulations have detailed prescription on the protection of the settings of the Imperial Palaces, providing legal, institutional and managerial guarantee to the maximal protection of the authenticity and integrity of the property, and ensuring a better safeguarding of this outstanding cultural heritage site for all human beings.

“In future, integrated protection of the values of the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties will be conducted through implementing and improving the conservation management plan, adhering to the conservation principle of minimal intervention, and improving the scientific and technological measures, so as to ensure the sustainable protection of the authenticity and integrity of the property. All the regulations concerning the protection and management of the Imperial Palaces should be strictly implemented, and the number of tourists, especially in the Forbidden City, should be effectively controlled, so as to reduce the negative impact on the property. The protection of the setting should be strengthened, especially that of the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang. The needs of the stakeholders should be coordinated to maintain the rational and effective balance between the protection of the Imperial Palaces and the development of tourism and urban construction. The research on interpretation and promotion should be enhanced to better showcase the scientific, historic and artistic values of the Palaces to tourists from home and abroad and provide spiritual enlightenment and enjoyment to people, in order to give play to the social and cultural benefits of the Imperial Palaces in a reasonable way, and promote the sustainability of the protection of the Imperial Palaces within the context of the development of the cities.”

In 1997, $24 million was authorized to renovate the buildings, replace two-foot-long grey brick in the walls and dredge the moat. The moat now has some fish and fisherman try to catch them There has been some discussion about building a three-story underground museum below the Forbidden City to house it million-plus valuable objects. As of 2006, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was covered in scaffolding. The World Monument Fund is involved in restoring the Qianlong Garden and some of the buildings where the Qianlong Emperor lived.

Problems with the Conservation and Restoration Work at the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City in recent years has undergone a major renovation project earmarked to be completed in 2020 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the imperial compound. Some of the restoration leaves much to be desired. In some places ancient bricks have been replaced with pale-gray slate and ocher-based flat finishes have been covered by acrylic paints.

Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in Art News: “According to the Palace Museum’s own guidelines, any part of the Forbidden City that has been left untouched since 1911 is considered “historical,” and all conservation efforts must use the best available techniques. But for those ancient pavilions, latticed marbles, wooden doors, or lacquered beams that have been repaired after the 1911 cutoff date—in more or less fortunate restoration attempts—the historical classification no longer applies. (Despite the fact that the last emperor moved out in 1924.) The objects in question might not even be considered “cultural relics,” and any further intervention could be done in a much less rigorous fashion. [Source: Ilaria Maria Sala, Art News, July 31, 2013]

“This has meant, particularly during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that the main areas of the Forbidden City—the ones most visitors are likely to see—were restored in ways that have appalled some experts. “They simply repainted the columns with contemporary acrylic paint similar in color to the red lacquer of imperial times,” says one Beijing insider, who prefers not to be named given the high sensitivity of everything connected to the Forbidden City. “A lot of ancient tiles disappeared and were simply substituted with contemporary ones. We know that there have been cases of ancient bricks and tiles being stolen and sold, but not much talk of this was permitted. The situation has not improved enough since then—even pieces of carved marble have disappeared.”

“At the Forbidden City, one of the most hotly debated topics recently has pertained to access, with some outside curators talking about a secretive mentality among museum staff, which hampers research. In 2002, the New York–based World Monuments Fund engaged in its most ambitious international conservation effort to date, when it launched a joint project with the Palace Museum to restore the Qianlong Garden . Comprising 27 buildings and various courtyards built for the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, that site has remained largely unchanged since the early 1800s. The $25 million restoration is scheduled for completion in 2019, but sections of the Qianlong Garden were finished five years ago and are, theoretically, open to the public.

“However, Palace Museum officials have made entry difficult by implementing a time-consuming screening process (one month minimum) for potential visitors to Juanqinzhai, the first of the Qianlong Garden pavilions to be fully restored. “We are beginning to work on this issue,” says Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund.

“Another dilemma involves the inherent fragility of the restored interiors. Juanqinzhai, or the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service, is decorated with unusual materials and in an intricate style that showcases the Qianlong Emperor’s love for the highest technical skills, as well as his interest in the Western style of trompe l’oeil painting that visiting Jesuit missionaries brought to the Chinese court. Its rooms contain painted-silk panels, bamboo-thread marquetry, and jade inlay.“Our goal is always to make the buildings fully accessible for learning,” Ng says, “but you need to balance this with how delicate the site is.”

Loss of Treasures from the Forbidden City

There is a long tragic history of depredations and loss at the Forbidden City. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The imperial treasures were looted many times, including during the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and the invasion of the eight-power allied force after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. As the Qing dynasty was collapsing early in the 20th century, palace eunuchs absconded with so many relics that they were able to open their own antique shops outside the palace walls. Former emperor Puyi, who was allowed to remain for 13 years after his abdication, also pilfered from the collection, sending some of the best pieces for safekeeping in the nearby city of Tianjin, in hope that he would live well in exile...Suits of armor of the imperial guards were stripped of their silk and cotton in the 1970s to make quilts. In recent years “more than 100 rare books from the imperial library, many of them from the 19th century, have vanished. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011]

The collection at the Palace Museum in Taipei — regarded as the best collection of Chinese art in the world — came from the Imperial collection of the last Qing emperors who resided in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The collection was built up over a thousand years by the Song (A.D. 960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors.

Hundreds of thousands of rare and valuable pieces originally housed in the Forbidden City were secreted away to Taipei's Palace Museum when Taiwan split from the mainland during a civil war 62 years ago. The story o how that happened begins in 1925, one year after the Last Emperor Pu Yi was forced to move out of the Forbidden City, when the collection became a possession of the Chinese people. Sun Yat-sen then ordered that the works from the Forbidden Palace be placed in China's first public museum. The museum was only open for three years before the Japanese invasion of China in 1931.

War and upheaval in China in the first half of the 20th century forced the entire collection to be moved several times. First it was taken from Beijing to Nanking, then it was taken to Sichuan, where most of the collection was hidden in caves during the Japanese occupation. China still claims Taiwan as part of its own territory and insists the art at Taipei's Palace Museum rightfully belongs on the mainland. The mainland Chinese complain the objects in the Palace Museum in Taipei were looted by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists and should be returned. However their presence in Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution no doubt saved many item from possible destruction by the Red Guards.

Beijing's Palace Museum lent dozens of items to Taiwan for an exhibition in 2009, but Taiwan is still hesitant to lend China artefacts out of fear that they will not be returned. An official with Taiwan's Palace Museum said the ownership concerns meant there were no immediate plans for an exhibition in China.

Thief Steals Gold Boxes from the Forbidden City

In May 2011, a thief broke into Beijing's Forbidden City and made with several objects made with jewel-encrusted gold. AP reported: “Guards saw a suspect fleeing the scene by the Palace of Abstinence, a part of the Palace Museum inside the Forbidden City, in the early hours but failed to nab him... An investigation found that nine pieces — all small western-style gold purses and mirrored compacts covered with jewels made in the 20th century — were missing from the temporary exhibition, which is on loan from the private Liang Yi Museum in Hong Kong. Two of the missing items were recovered nearby and were slightly damaged.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: On the night of May 8, a pint-size thief broke into an exhibit hall in the Forbidden City and made off with $1.5 million worth of gold-and-jewel-encrusted boxes, breaching a vaunted fortress designed to protect the long-ago emperors of China from barbarian invaders. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011]

“Shi Bokui, 28, a migrant worker with a sixth-grade education was caught three days later. Not the brightest of criminals, he'd left fingerprints on a glass display case and then went to an Internet cafe nearby and registered under his own name. Most of the loot, which was on loan from a Hong Kong museum, was recovered. Until the burglary, the Forbidden City was thought to be the best-defended place in this security-obsessed nation. The rectangular compound is protected by 1,600 burglar alarms, 3,700 smoke detectors, 400 closed-circuit cameras, 245 security guards, not to speak of its 52-foot-wide moats and 26-foot-high earthen walls.”

In regard to the thief, Shi Bokui:. “Much has been made of his childlike build (5 feet 2, 90 pounds) and apparent ignorance of art. The items he took, nine small Art Deco cases and powder compacts, contained gold and jewels, but were not as valuable as relics that belonged to the emperors: stone drums, calligraphy, jade carvings, porcelain, paintings and scrolls. "The thief was interested in bling-bling. He wasn't educated about Chinese antiquities, so he stole gold," said Han Yi, a tour guide at the Forbidden City. "Nobody thinks he really did it alone. He is a skinny little kid. ''

“In pretrial proceedings, state media reported that Shi confessed that he had hidden in the palace after closing hours, cut off the electricity in the exhibit hall to disable the alarms and punched a hole through a temporary exhibit space. He reportedly escaped by scaling one of the 26-foot walls, a detail that has inspired public incredulity. “When he was arrested, Shi had six of the pieces in his possession. The other three, he said, were lost during his escape, another tidbit that has raised suspicion.

“Probably the most embarrassing aspect of the episode came later: The Forbidden City's management presented a banner to the police to express thanks for "defending the motherland." But they wrote the wrong character for "defend," one that sounded the same but altered the meaning of the banner to "Shaking the motherland." How uncannily accurate it was, except that it is the Forbidden City's keepers who have discomfited the nation...The Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage ordered national museums to improve their security or face possible closure.”

Scandals at the Forbidden City

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Shortly after the May break-in, popular television host Rui Chenggang revealed in a blog that the Forbidden City was trying to open a private club for the super-rich with membership fees starting at $150,000. That rankled socialist sensibilities.” The Palace Museum “blamed its commercial partner, Forbidden City Palace Cultural Development Co., operator of the gift shops and snack bars.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011]

Corrupt employees working the admissions gates were captured on videotape pocketing the entry fees ($9 per head) from tour groups, and then got caught paying hush money to a blackmailer who threatened to blow the whistle. "The problems of Forbidden City today are connected with the whole societal background of corruption. What happened during the Qing dynasty is still going on today," said antiquities expert and blogger Pei Guanghui.

“Much of the criticism focuses on the Forbidden City's current director, Zheng Xinmiao, a former deputy provincial governor, long on Communist Party connections, short on experience with antiquities. The place is run like a fiefdom, critics say, with employees passing their jobs on to their children. "It's just like in the time of the emperors. You inherit your job from your parents," said Jia, the historian. "The Forbidden City needs a modern management, an outside board of directors. It needs transparency." “Zheng acknowledged "loopholes in management" in an interview last month with the official New China News Agency.

Luxury Club at the Forbidden City

Fierce criticism was generated after the discovery of an exclusive club in the Forbidden City's Jianfu Palace, where memberships were reported to cost as much as 1 million yuan ($153,846). It was reported that the management team of Beijing's White Dagoba, or Beita Temple, which has been selected as one of China's Important Historical Monuments under Special Preservation, has rented part of its temple houses to two companies. [Source: Mao Renjie, Global Times June 6, 2011]

One runs a high-end restaurant, where the average consumption per person is 920 yuan ($142.05) and non-dining tourists are not allowed to enter, while the other sells tatty artifacts like Buddha statues, persuading tourists to buy thousand-yuan goods with the threat of bad luck otherwise. He Pei, management director of the White Dagoba, responded Monday that the rooms in question do not belong to the protected area. He added that the restaurant has been appointed a Five Star Tourism Restaurant by the Beijing Tourism Bureau, and is an expansion of the temple's "service functions."

According to He, the White Dagoba collects 1 million yuan ($154,400) rent every year from the restaurant and most of it has been spent on "relic protection." He said that government funding for the temple is less than 100,000 yuan ($15,440) a year, while the actual cost of keeping the tourism site running and renovated exceeds 700,000 yuan ($108,08). The 20-year contracts have strict regulations, forbidding changes to architectural structures and the temple can immediately suspend contracts if any illegal actions are conducted.

Blogs Highlight the Forbidden City’s Troubles

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Acitadel built to withstand battering rams and catapults is less impregnable when it comes to the onslaught of modern technology. "All of these scandals were no doubt taking place in the past as well, but we just didn't know about them because we didn't have microblogs," said Cui Jinsheng, a blogger and cultural historian.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2011]

“Entire blogs have started up to document the palace's troubles. One of the more popular, Forbidden City Diary, disclosed in July that curators bought five rare Song dynasty letters at auction in 1997 for $1.5 million, which were resold in 2005 for more than three times the price, in violation of strict laws prohibiting anything in the palace collection from being sold. (Then the palace further embarrassed itself by denying ever owning the letters, despite the fact that they'd appeared in an official catalog. “"Incompetence exhibition," snorted the Global Times, a newspaper tied to the Communist Party, in an editorial last month.

Image Sources: 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site.

Text Sources: Tourist Literature from the Forbidden City,CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), UNESCO, Rough Guide for Beijing, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2021


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