The Original Building of The Forbidden City in 1420

Shenwumen Gate of Forbidden City, Beijing

It was the Yongle Emperor (1403-24) who moved the capital from Nanjing ‘the southern capital’ to Beiping and renamed it Beijing meaning ‘the northern capital’. He ordered the construction of The Forbidden City from 1416-1420, improving upon the ‘Great Within’ palace that the Mongols had already built there when they had founded the city of Dadu, which had been later conquered by the Ming dynasty in 1368. Yongle also ordered the construction of an Imperial Garden and Lake Palaces.

Inspiration for the building of the Forbidden City

The design of The Forbidden City was most often viewed as culturally pertaining to the culture and people of China proper from Zhang Yuan, the Central Plains. However, not many know the Mongol cultural contribution to the building of the palaces. The Rites of Zhou had been followed by the Mongols exactly when they had built the original palaces of the ‘Great Within’ on the site, (the site from which Yongle drew inspiration from when building the new Forbidden City). This book dates from the second century BC and advises on regulations governing the scale and attributes of architecture, housing, clothing, jewelry, vehicles, sacrifices, funerary accessories and accoutrements for the emperor and all social estates. It also governed the behavior of those living in the palace like eunuchs and palace women and created an undeniable hierarchy.

The Design of the Forbidden City

The Meridian Gate was the most noticeable and startling addition to the Forbidden City. It was named after the central longitude of the Chinese compass and represented a true north-south orientation. On the gate were parapets from which the Emperor could foresee over military ceremonies, victory parades and the annual proclamation of the calendar. It remained one of the tallest structures in Beijing up until the nineteenth century because no other building built was allowed to exceed its height. It was matched to the Southern Gate of Heavenly Peace which was the entry gate to the Imperial City. Watchtowers had been built on the gate twelve centuries earlier which originally acted as symbolic entries to heaven for souls of the aristocrats buried within. These gates were painted with decorations of the dragon and the phoenix, which were twin symbols of imperial power. The nickname ‘Five Phoenix Towers’ (Wufeng Lou) came from the fact that five pavilions were built on its uppermost level.

Entrance to the Forbidden City

The Meridian Gate consisted of three passageways each punctured by red-lacquered doors with metal studs upon them. This central archway was preserved for the sole use of the Emperor who would travel in a yellow palanquin. Foreign ambassadors were also allowed to enter this way as were the three top graduates in the most recent imperial examinations. Once through the gate visitors were met by a large forecourt. A canal called The River of Golden Waters (Jinshui He) ran through the forecourt on a bed made of marble. Fengshui required that water had to flow in the front and a mountain had to rise protectively at the rear to be fortuitous. This hill was called Prospect Hill (Jing Shan) and was built by Yongle using soil and rocks that were removed following the excavation of the Forbidden City’s moat.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The second gate on north-south axis is called the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Men). Through this door is another forecourt decorated by flagstones that represented the ranks of various ministers. The Hall of Supreme Harmony dominates this court, whose ornate balustrades and marble platforms are called ‘Mount Sumeru stages’ after the mountain which stands at the centre of the universe in Buddhist mythology. The wood of the columns of the hall were attained from forests of the Sichuan Province where there was a supply of gigantic trucks of close-grained and fragrant hardwood. The tiles were manufactured by kilns established at Luili Chang in the capital. The buildings were also paved with dark ‘metal bricks’ from the south that reverberated when struck.

The Completion of Building in 1420

By 1420 the building was complete, having been supervised by the Annamese Eunuch Nguyen An and the Minister of Public Works Wu Zhong. Work on more lavish projects continued into the end of the Ming dynasty until those woods favored by the Imperial court like zitan red sandalwood were made extinct. The Hall of Supreme Harmony emerged as the most important place in the palace. It became the venue for enthronements, coronations and major imperial birthday celebrations. The imperial palace examinations also took place there prior to 1798.