Legend says the Forbidden City contains 9,999½ rooms, and the vast spaces and myriad courtyards do make it one of the most fascinating sites in China’s capital. Home to 24 emperors between 1420 and 1924, the Forbidden City offers an opportunity to plunge into China’s imperial power and symbolism. During this three-hour walking tour with a trained historian, we’ll provide a basic overview of this immense and complicated site, while strategically digging deeper into a few themes of imperial history.
Much of our time will focus on the Forbidden City’s sequence of courtyards and pavilions. We may discuss the symbolism of architecture and orientation, paying particular attention to how the courtyards are arranged around North-South Axis, which ran from the imperial throne through the succession of gates and yards and out through the southernmost gate of the city and into the emperor’s realm. It is the same axis that runs through the middle of the Olympic Green, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Our walk will take us through the Gate of Supreme Harmony and into the massive courtyard where the emperor’s civilian and military officials would line up according to rank and position facing the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The largest structure in the Forbidden City, it was remodeled in 2008 using plans drawn by the Kangxi Emperor in the 17th century, this is the centerpiece of the Palace complex and provides a sounding board for discussing the role of the emperor through successive dynasties. Though seldom used except for the highest of state occasions, few structures in Beijing give one the same sense of imperial grandeur and power.Before leaving, we'll visit the Inner Palaces, where the Ming Emperors resided, and Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the last several generations of Manchu rulers lived, worked, and held court. These chambers still house the furnishings and day-to-day household objects of the last emperor and empresses. While the style could be described as “Manchu Frumpy,” given the dearth of other authentic recreations of palace material culture, this glimpse into the past is not to be missed.
Wrapping up our scholar-led Forbidden City tour, we'll emerge with a strong understanding of how imperial rule worked historically in China and the role of the Forbidden City in solidifying that rule.