Forbidden City FAQ

The Forbidden City is the largest and most well-preserved imperial palace extant in China. Twenty-four emperors of the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 - 1911) lived here. It represented authority, and at the same time, it was always a mystery to the common people. Do you wonder at the mysteries of this grand palace? Those which used to be secrets are now no longer to be hidden.

 Does it really have 9,999.5 rooms?
 It was said that it has totally 9,999 and a half rooms, because only the celestial emperor could be so well qualified to have entire 10,000 rooms. The emperor declared himself the son of the celestial emperor, so his palace couldn't be larger than the celestial. Therefore, it had a half room less when it was built. However in ancient Chinese architecture, one room refers to a square space among four pillars in a hall. Therefore, it is impossible to have a half room among four pillars. By the last count, including big and small palaces, halls, towers, pavilions, belvederes, there are 8,707 rooms. The 9,999 rooms and a half is just a myth.

Hall of Supreme Harmony
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Headgear of the Empress of Ming Dynasty
Headgear of the Empress of Ming Dynasty

 How many cultural relics are collected in the Palace Museum?
 There are plenty of cultural relics. Other than those transferred to Taipei's National Palace Museum in 1948, most of the relics are still stored in this one. There are nearly one million articles in the Palace Museum, including some 350,000 ceramics; 150,000 jade pieces, cloisonné, glass, stationery, carving and lacquer wares; 130,000 textile embroideries; nearly 100,000 jewelries, accessories, martial weapons, musical instruments, clocks and daily-use appliances; 100,000 paintings and calligraphy works; some 60,000 inscriptions; 30,000 metal wares; as well as some 20,000 sculptures.

  Why are the doornails counted by 9?
 Many gates inside the imperial city, especially the huge red gates of the major structures, are decorated with gilded doornails. If you study them carefully, you will find that most of the gates have nine rows of doornails and each row consists of nine. Why is the doornail number associated with number '9'? That's because '9' was regarded as the biggest number in ancient China and it was used to imply the emperor, resembling the imperial power in a symbolic sense. 

 Why are no trees in the three grand halls in the Outer Court?
 The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony and Hall of Preserved Harmony are the grandest structures and they were built to hold important rites and celebrations. To show the imperial dignity and supreme authority, it was forbidden to plant trees. In fact, it was not permitted to plant trees along the imperial pavement from the Tiananmen Gate to the Meridian Gate either. All the trees you see now were planted after the Qing Dynasty fell.

Doornails in the Forbidden City
Doornails Counted by 9
Three Grand Halls of the Outer Court
Three Grand Halls of the Outer Court

 How to keep warm from winter chilliness in the former imperial palace?
 The buildings in it were built to face south with thick roofs. Apart from this heat preservation property, they could be kept warm by burning good charcoal in fire pans and fumigating furnace. Bedchambers for the emperor and empress were built with independent spaces called warm cabinets. About 1.5 meters underground the cabinets were holes equipped with brick stove and tunnels to conduct heat.

 How to keep cool from summer heat in the former imperial palace?
 The high roofs and thick walls of the buildings could help shield the heat. Big windows in the front and back of the palace were good for ventilation. They hung curtains under the porch and built shelters built inside the yard against the sunshine. In addition, there were five ice cellars in there with ice cubes collected in winter. Ice could be used to cool food, the air and to make cold drinks. Emperor Kangxi would spent every summer in Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace), Summer Palace or Chengde Mountain Resort, so did all succeeding emperors.

 How to drain waters in it?

Inner Golden Water River Forms the Drainage System
Inner Golden Water River 
Forms the Drainage System
 The Inner Golden Water River was brought in from the moat outside the northeast corner of the imperial city and flowed from the palace through the southeast corner. Drainage was one of the reasons to dig out the river. The construction of each palace considered the method of drainage, higher in the middle and north side of the courtyard. Rainwater flew through stone grooves, surface and underground water drains into the river.

 Why are yellow and red the most common colors in it?
 The most prominent impression is the red walls and yellow roof tiles. Yellow represents earth elements and a central position. The emperor believed that the imperial palace was in the world's center and then his reign could radiate in all directions. Hence, yellow was an emblem of imperial dignity and for the exclusive use of the emperors. Pillar, windows, doors and walls are mostly red which symbolizes auspicious events, happiness and celebrations. It was the most favored color by the Chinese.

 Do you know the fate of concubines of the Ming Emperors?
 It was not a good thing to be an emperor's concubine. Most concubines of the Ming emperors were pathetic. Burial alive to accompany their dead masters was the cruel fate they could look forward to in the ancient mausoleum system. Emperor Taizu (Zhu Yuanzhang), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty first started the suttee with his concubines. According to history record, 46 concubines were buried along when Emperor Taizhu died, and respectively 16 and 5 when Emperor Chengzu (Zhu Di) and Emperor Renzong (Zhu Gaochi) died. Emperor Yingzong, the 6th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, abolished the suttee when he was dying.

 How did the emperors have meals?

Fuyi - the Last Emperor of Qing Dynasty
Fuyi - the Last Emperor 
of Qing Dynasty
 There was a specialized agency (The Imperial Kitchen) responsible for the emperors' dining affairs. Mostly, the emperors dined alone in their bedchamber or elsewhere without accompaniment. For festivals, the emperors would invite their wives to dine together. They usually had two meals a day, at about 7:00-9:00 and 13:00-15:00. 17:00-19:00 was an evening snack time. Temporary demands would be satisfied at any time. At the dinner hour, eunuchs set the dinner table and brought in the dishes. Before eating, they would check the silver plates first to ensure the safety of the dishes. Then the eunuchs tasted first and the emperors began to eat then when the dishes were testified to be harmless. The water used for cooking was carried from the Jade Spring Mountain in the western suburbs. Other ingredients were delicately chosen and some rare foods were tributes from all over the country only for the emperors.

 Do you know anything about the emperors' sedan chair?
 The Qing emperors had four types of sedan chair (also called palanquin, litter, shoulder carriage) for different occasions. The ritual sedan chair was the highest in rank, which was used for observance in the Hall of Supreme Harmony or offering a sacrifice in the Temple of Heaven and the Imperial Ancestral Temple. It was made of Nanmu (Phoebe bournei) wood, 2.1 meters high and 1.8 meters long. There was a throne on the litter and it took 16 people to carry it, accompanied with an honor guard of some 1,500 persons. The promenade sedan chair was for the emperor to patrol the imperial palace, carried by 16 persons and accompanied with a guard of about 200 people. The light promenade sedan chair was for the emperor to patrol the area outside or to hunt. It was also borne on 16 person's shoulders and usually accompanied with an honor guard of about 300 people. The convenient sedan chair was carried by four or eight people. It could move easily and quickly for everyday activities inside the palace.

 How many wives did the Qing emperors have?
 There was a popular myth said that an emperor had wives living in the three palaces, six yards and another seventy-two concubines. The three palaces refer to the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union and Palace of Earthly Tranquility, while the six yards refer to the Six Western Palaces and Six Eastern Palaces. However, 'seventy-two' is just a vague amount to describe the enormous number. There was no regulation on how many wives the emperor could have until the reign of Emperor Kangxi. As per the regulation, the emperor could have one empress, one imperial noble consort, two noble consorts, four consorts and six concubines, and several concubines at three lower grades. The number was different for every emperor. Emperor Kangxi had the most wives, fifty-five in total. Emperor Guangxu had the least, only three – Empress Longyu, Concubine Zhen and Jin.

 How many eunuchs were in it?
 In the late Ming Dynasty, the emperors were fatuous and bowed to the eunuch autocracy. At the height of that period, there were more than 10,000 eunuchs in the imperial palace. The number was reduced greatly in the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Kangxi set up a special organ to manage all the eunuchs in the palace and each of them was given specific duties. There were 2,600 eunuchs during the Emperor Qianlong period and the number reduced gradually since Emperor Xianfeng. No more than 1,000 were left when the last emperor Puyi was dethroned.

 What was life like for the ladies-in-waiting?
 There were numerous rules to control the ladies-in-waiting. They had to carefully take good care of their masters. New lady servants were trained and taught the rules by their predecessors. The new comers provided face washing, feet washing and hair combing to the older ladies. They rose before dawn and slept late at night. They were simply dressed, not allowed to wear make-up and wear colorful clothes. Good food was provided but they dared not to eat much and even dared not to eat fish, shrimp, leek, onion, garlic in case of bad breath. They slept on one side because it was believed to be a crime to sleep facing the God over the hall. They could not gaze around or glance back, could not laugh aloud, nor did they grin. Their life was full of all sorts of possible hardships and deprivations.

 How did the people in it have a medical treatment?
 The Imperial Academy of Medicine (IAM) provided the medical service, responsible for diagnoses, prescriptions, preparing compound herbs and conducting therapy for the royal family members. The imperial doctor followed a eunuch of IAM to visit the emperor (or his family members). Both the doctor and the eunuch had to sign their names to the prescription and taste the medicine soup first. If the emperor did not heal, felt worse or even died, they would be punished or sentenced to death. The imperial doctor had to accompany the emperor on any journeys.