Why Is It Called The Forbidden City In China

The Forbidden City is a fortified palace complex in Beijing that served as the home of Chinese emperors and their households for 491 years, between 1420 and 1911. The relatively lesser-known name of the palace complex is “The Imperial City”, which accurately reprsents its main function and purpose as an exclusive residence of the emperors through the ages. The term Forbidden City has become widely known outside of China, as it has a mystical and captivating history, shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, that helps to explain why it earned its mysterious name.

The grand palace complex first became the sacred and secluded imperial residence during the Ming Dynasty, in 1420, under the reign of emperor Yongle. He wished to commemorate his place as a divine ruler over the Empire, by constructing a palatial shrine to himself, which was forbidden to enter for any one without permission from the emperor himself. As with many types of restrictive regulations throughout history, this led to the term Forbidden City entering popular speech and usage, although the actual palace never acquired the name officially.

The impressive palace grounds took 18 years and manpower numbering up to a million to construct, covering a total area of 720,000 m2 and containing over 9000 rooms. The inner court, or the palace complex proper, spanned over 150 acres and was surrounded by a 10 metre high wall and a 52 metre wide moat. It symbolized authority, while also making it a prison of sorts for the emperor and his family. The emperor was a virtual authoritarian ruler bound by rules of courtly etiquette that regulated his very movements.

The purpose of the Forbidden City was to establish separate and exclusive quarters for the emperor and his courtiers, where the emperor could rest and reside, secluded from the common folk and the general public. As a centrally located court of high rank, the Forbidden City held unimaginable treasures, prized works of art, and rare artefacts from all over the ancient world of China, from jade vases to porcelain plates to golden trinkets that lined the walls of the palace chambers. Even the plants and flowers were carefully selected to suit the strict and regal environment.

The customary reverence that surrounded the Forbidden City was etched in the way in which it was mapped out and designed. As the city had to represent the idea of a divinely ordained emperor, a feng shui master was consulted during its construction and design, so as to elevate its spiritual importance and power. This is why the Forbidden City was not only a complex structured along rules of architecture, but was also one that allowed an emperor to access a certain power or aura thanks to the feng shui elements that were used in its construction.

The Forbidden City remained the home of Chinese emperors and their households until the last imperial dynasty was overthrown in 1911. It became a museum in 1922 and continues to function as such today. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country.


Every nook, corner, wall and pillar of the Forbidden City reflects its royal past and is painted in vivid colors, perched with mythical creatures like dragons and phoenixes, interspersed with good luck symbols like roses and ivy. While the inside walls of the palace chambers are mainly painted in red and yellow, the color of the official status of the emperor, the outside walls are usually painted in blue and green, colors that signify the power of water to resist fire and the invigorating presence of nature.

The main entrance of the palace complex is a magnificent edifice known as the Gate of Supreme Harmony. With the iconic nine-dragon guard columns, it was originally the main gathering area for court ceremenies, up until the mid-15th century. It is flanked by two smaller gates, known as the gates of Central Upright and Central Peace, which still preserve the original design elements of the traditional gates of imperial China.

Other famous structures within the Forbidden City include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is the grandest hall of both the palace complex and China, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the emperor used to reside, and the Hall of Preserved Harmony. All the structures within the city are designed according to traditional rules of architecture, with each hall having its own purpose and each space being carefully thought out to adhere to specific architectural tenets.

Legendary Artifacts

The Forbidden City has many legendary and historical artifacts on display, including some of the most famous works of art in the world. These include the Jingxuanda Yuanbao, the first ever exchangeable currency produced in China in the 12th century, and the lanterns from the Lantern Festival, dating back to the Ming Dynasty from the 16th century. Visitors also get to view the Yintu Jicheng, a wooden rail road cart used by the emperor Yongle for transit, and dozens of other priceless treasures that were collected by the various emperors residing there.

The most iconic artwork of the Forbidden City however is probably the giant ‘Nine Dragons’ battle mural, which was created during the early days of the Ming Dynasty, depicting a fierce dragon battle in the lake. The mural has become renowned in Chinese culture and symbolic of the power of the emperor and his residence.

Cultural Significance

The Forbidden City, with everything that it has to offer and every bit of mystery, fascination and awe-struck inspiration that it has provided throughout its long history, has come to signify excellence in Chinese architecture and the authority of the Former Chinese Empire. Its famed walls hold multiple courtly ceremonies and truly capture the spirit of a divinely chosen governing body, apart from the rest of the populace and isolated in its own sense of deliberate grandiosity.

As The Imperial City, it stands as a symbol for the unshaken power of the emperor and the mighty Chinese Empire. It is a living, breathing entity of a time long gone, frozen in time, to remind us of the regalia that was once part of life on Earth. This is our reason for wanting to protect the Forbidden City, for its majesty and architectural glory is sure to captivate us and bring us great joy for generations to come.

Tourism & Preservation

Countless tourists and photojournalists flock to the Forbidden City every year to revel in its sheer grandeur, as it continues to draw fascination and admiration. Preservation efforts, led by the Chinese government along with several international organisations, ensure that the buildings and structures remain intact and safe from the dangers of time and reckless tourism. The Forbidden City also remains a functioning museum, run by a professional curatorial and administrative team, that takes care of the maintenance and upkeep of the palace complex.

The palace complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and China continues to recognize its importance by adopting a strategy of careful and considered conservation. This means that the original elements and structure of the palace complex are preserved and restored whenever possible. The end result is usually a mixture of the old and the new, allowing for modern amenities and needs, but also respecting and capitalizing on the ancient and noble architecture of the Forbidden City.

Impact on Society

The Forbidden City continues to leave an indelible mark in Chinese society, as a metaphor for power, authority and the majesty of the Chinese Empire. Cultural representations of the Forbidden City have become popular in books, films and other media, further cementing its place as a symbol of Chinese culture and heritage. The power of the Forbidden City has reached far and wide, gaining adoration from all kind of people, from Chinese citizens to foreign tourists who come to pay homage to the palace of emperors.

Unfortunately, the importance and value of the Forbidden City has also led to rampant tourism, which has in certain ways damaged the original structures. However, conservation efforts have been successful in preserving a semblance of the old, while allowing for modern renovations to ensure safety and comfort.

Despite these limitations, the Forbidden City remains awe-inspiring and captivating, as it was upon its completion in the 16th century. Much of its mysticism still remains otherwise, helping to explain why it was given the ominous name of the Forbidden City.


The Forbidden City is now incorporating modern technology into its visitor experience, to enhance the preservation strategy used. This includes the ‘Forbidden City Digital’ project, which was established in 2014 to allow for more effective conservation efforts. The project has had a lot of success in restoring the structures and artwork of the palace complex, as well as giving visitors a more interactive way to explore the historic site.

The project involves the use of digital archives, managed by the palace museums and curators, as well as virtual reality simulations of the palace grounds and a digital successor to the Forbidden City, which visitors can interact with. This technology can also be used by experts and researchers from around the world, to gain access to the many nuances and details of the Forbidden City.

The project also allows for more effective collaboration between experts and the public, with scientists using various platforms to disseminate data and information about the palace complex, as well as cultural events, music and theatre performances that enhance the visitor’s experience.

Modern Day Significance

The significance of the Forbidden City has not diminished in modern times, and it continues to captivate and mesmerize people of different cultures and backgrounds. Fabulously embellished and majestically regal, the Forbidden City has maintained its relevance due to the increasing global awareness and appreciation of Chinese culture and heritage. Sites such as the Forbidden City serve to remind us of the importance of historic preservation and the lessons we can learn from ancient civilizations.

The Forbidden City is a shining example of the art, culture and architecture of imperial China, and has inspired other great works of architecture and art throughout the ages. Indeed, the Forbidden City remains an enduring symbol of China’s grandeur, and serves to remind us of the grandeur with which China cares for its own heritage and culture.

Herman Shaw is a passionate traveler and avid photographer who has seen many of the world's most awe-inspiring monuments. He has developed expertise in various aspects of world architecture and culture which he enjoys sharing with his readers. With deep historical knowledge and insight, Herman's writing brings life to these remarkable artifacts and highlights their importance in the grand scheme of human history.

Leave a Comment