Built in the 15th century, the Forbidden City of Beijing has a history spanning six centuries, including five as an imperial residence, the last century having undergone the lives of modern history.
The Forbidden City is the third imperial palace to be built in Beijing. The first was built during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the second during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and the Forbidden City was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). To understand the history of the Forbidden City, it is necessary to begin a century and a half before its construction, at the time of the seizure of the power of the Yuan dynasty.
Historical and Political Context
It was Emperor Yongle who decided to build an imperial palace in Beijing, he made this decision after moving his capital to his city, the previous capital being Nanjing. Yongle was the 4th son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the 2nd of the Ming lineage. He was not destined to reign, but the vagaries of history caused the death of the first son, the new emperor having to be, according to the rules established in China at that time, his first grandson. But as he was about to ascend the throne, his uncle Yongle took power by force and made himself crowned Emperor in his stead.
But in the Chinese world, the legitimacy of the emperor is an essential thing. Yongle will spend his life legitimizing his post, multiplying the constructions supposed to be beneficial to his people to attract the good grace. One of its first actions will be to move its capital from Nanjing to Beijing, the former capital of the Yuan Mongol dynasty, which had subjected the Chinese for a century and thus a priori little inclined to become a Chinese capital. 'he did. The aim was to get closer to the enemy, since the Mongols, who always had vestiges over China, were in the north. Moreover, Nanjing was a city which was badly protected, and especially full of persons subjected to the grandson of the emperor, whose place he had taken from it.
When he arrived in Beijing, he built a strong rampart around the city and launched the construction of his new palace, The Forbidden City.
The construction of the forbidden city took only 14 years, which was relatively fast for so much work. It began in 1406 and was completed in 1420.
The first work was to clear the ground and dig the foundations. The earth extracted from these works was piled up to the north of the complex, at a short distance. It ends up forming a consequent hill called "The Coal Hill", because of its dark color.
The construction of the thick walls went hand in hand with that of the pavilions, which advanced together. There was a great and painful and regular work to mount the ramparts, and another one of precision and meticulousness for the pavilions. The result suggests the quality of work carried out at that time, which did not have powerful building materials.
In 1420 one of the main works was the construction of the Meridian gate, the main gateway to the forbidden city.
Learn more about the construction of the fobidden city.
After the revolt throughout the country, a new dynasty settled in China, the . They were of Manchu origin. Then a new period begins for the forbidden city.
In 1726 the emperor moved his residence to the palace of the formation of the heart. In 1731, he built the pavilion of abstinence. Just before the beginning of the nineteenth century, in 1798, the palace of heavenly purity is transformed, it takes the form that we know it today.
At the end of the 18th century King George III of England sent a mission to improve relations between his country and China. We were then under Emperor Qianlong, at that time. The problem that presented itself was that in the Chinese imagination the Emperor was at the center of all things, so the other peoples depended on the Emperor. Of course the English ambassador, Lord Macartney, refused to follow the rituals of submission imposed upon him, and the mission therefore failed. A second attempt was made in 1816 by Ambassador Lord Amherst, but the result was the same. The ancient text tells us that the Emperor would then have written to George III to say to him:
If you loyally accept our sovereignty and show yourself submissive, it is not necessary to send a mission to this Court every year to prove that you are truly our vassal.
In 1860 Beijing was occupied by the French and English forces, their armies organized the plunder of the forbidden city. Then, in 1900, a century later, the revolt of the boxers provoked a war between Chinese nationalists and occupying forces. The city of Peking is then burnt down.
It was not until 1949 that Beijing became, for the last time, the capital of China.
During the history of the Forbidden City there were some renovations, but nothing really important as work. The most important were more repairs because as the complex is wooden, it was fairly subject to fires that broke out on a regular basis.
The largest renovation took place in 1436, more than a century after its construction. That year a new Emperor ascended the throne, Zhengtong (1436-1449). But he was only eight years old, so it was his adviser who directed the empire, until his maturity. It was the eunuch Wang Zhen, who initiated work to strengthen the defenses of the city as well as others on the Great Wall. On the forbidden city he added archers' towers, gates of towers and gates to control the flow of water in the ditches and in the river crossing the Forbidden City. It did not look like anything but the ability to control the water level made it possible to always have a water tank in hand in case of fire, which was common.
Wang Zhen also rebuilt the bridges that cross the river of golden waters, he made them made of stone instead of wood, as it was before.
Attacks on the forbidden city were also sources of destruction. Thus in 1458 the Mongolian officers of the Chinese army provoked a coup d'etat and burnt down the gates of the city, but without succeeding in entering it because of heavy rains which were annoyed at the time of the city. It was then necessary to reconstruct the partly destroyed entrance.
During the long reign of Qianlong (1735-1799) the emperor did great work in the imperial city. He created a palace independent of the rest of the city, on the northeast corner, a series of buildings 400 meters long by 200 in which he built a palace, ancillary buildings, and a garden. These were the biggest work done on the complex, from all time.
The recent epoch
In the 20th century the dynasty died under the reign of the last emperor, Pu Yi. It happened in 1912, a year in which an army of rebels managed to organize to take Beijing. Pu Yi left the Forbidden City in 1924, which will be open to the public at the same time as the Palace Museum ("Gugong Bówùyuàn").
A UNESCO-listed artwork since 1987, the Imperial Palace of Beijing is China's largest comprehensive architectural ensemble. It is also a wooden set, necessarily fragile. Much more than it seems.
The maintenance of the forbidden city is rigorous and regular. It is necessary to constantly check the quality of the building which is gradually damaged, especially if the maintenance work is poorly done. The paint is regularly remade on the most damaged parts.
As regards the transformation of the Forbidden City into visiting sites, it should be noted that the authorities in charge of its preservation have restricted the marketing of tourism objects to the full. Of course it exists, as in all the tourist sites of the world, but here it was limited voluntarily so as not to spoil the architectural whole. The most notable example is the opening of a "Starbuck" coffee in 2000, which was forced to close in 2007 in order to limit the visual impact of local merchandising.
The palace seen by a European
In 1777 a book was published, the "Memoirs concerning the Chinese". Written by an anonymous missionary, he describes the forbidden city in these terms:
The palaces of the emperor are real palaces and bear witness to the grandeur of the lord who inhabits them by the immensity, symmetry, elevation, regularity, splendor and magnificence of the innumerable edifices which compose them. The Louvre would largely stand in one of the courtyards of the palace of Peking, and there are many from the first entrance to the more secret apartment of the Emperor, not to mention the lateral edifices. All the missionaries we saw coming from Europe were struck by the air of grandeur, wealth and power of the palace of Peking. All have confessed that if the various parts which compose it do not enchant sight, as the finest examples of great European architecture, their whole constitutes a spectacle to which nothing of what they had seen before had prepared them. This palace measures 236 toises and 2 feet from east to west, and 236 toises and 9 feet from north to south. To this must be added the three former courts, which, although surrounded by buildings larger than the others, are not included in these measures. Thousands of toises [Note: the Chinese toise is equivalent to ten feet], all occupied or surrounded by towers, galleries, porticoes, halls and important buildings, produce all the more effect that forms are very the proportions more simple, the planes more assorted, and the whole tending towards the same end: everything, in fact, becomes more beautiful as one approaches the throne room and the apartments of the emperor.
The lateral courtyards can not be compared with the central courtyards, nor the first ones to those which are situated further back. The same goes for everything else. The last courses, which are neither porcelain nor gilded as in tales, but clad in a coarse majolica, enamelled in golden yellow, and loaded with relief ornaments, surpass all others by their cornices and their angles in ridge decorated. We shall say nothing of the golden colors and varnishes which confer such splendor on the great edifices, lest they give the impression of a snuff-box or a sweet box. It would take whole volumes to describe in their entirety the palaces which the Emperor possesses in Peking, in the neighborhood, in the provinces, and beyond the Great Wall. But as some imaginations are easily ignited, and make a fire of a single spark, we will immediately tell them that although politics have willed them to support majesty, and to give an idea of the power of one of the greatest princes of the earth, she took care to make them all smaller, less magnificent, less ornate than that of Beijing
Life of an emperor in the forbidden city