Architecture & Layout of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, imperial palaces in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), is famous not only because of the palaces themselves, but also its architecture style. It stands for the culmination of the development of classical Chinese and East Asian architecture and influences the development of Chinese architecture. The largest surviving wooden structure in China is surrounded by 7.9 meters (26 feet) high walls and 3,800 meters (2.4 miles) long moat. Containing more than 9,000 rooms, it covers 72 thousand square meters (178 acre). Four gates on four directions are the Meridian Gate on the south, the Gate of Devine Might on the north and two other Glorious Gates on west and east. There are delicate towers in four corners on the walls. All the major buildings are wooden structures roofed with yellow glazed tiles and supported by white marble terrace.

Axially Symmetrical Layout

 
Axially Symmetrical Layout
Symmetrical Layout of Forbidden City
It was constructed symmetrically along a central north-south axis, which is also the axis of the old Beijing City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony in the outer court together with Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility in the inner court were constructed on the central axis. Other palaces are in parallel with the central axis.

All the palaces were constructed based on The Book of Changes and Chinese traditional Confucian culture. “The union of human being and the nature” is the main idea in the Book of Change. In the names of the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, union of the heaven and the earth can be reflected. The gates were constructed based on the Chinese Eight Diagrams in hope of the harmony with the nature. Ancient people emphasized on the balance and harmony, so all the palaces are constructed along the central axis symmetrically. In Confucianism, the emperor had the supreme status. Emperors also thought they governed the whole nation, so they built the imperial city in the heart of the capital and their residence in the center of the imperial city. This shows the highest status of the emperors. Chinese traditional culture prefers that the left side means promotion or high-ranking and the right side means demotions or low-ranking, so the Altar of Earth and Harvests is on the right, while the Imperial Ancestral Temple is on the left. To some extent, the Altar of Earth and Harvest ranks higher than the Altar of Earth and Harvest.

Structure and Decorations of the Palace

 
Wooden Structure and Color Painting inside the Hall
Wooden Structure and 
Color Painting inside the Hall
The main frames of all palaces are built of wood. The wooden beams and columns (the column is the upright post; the beam sits on top of the column) are the most important elements, while the walls, using to separate space, are auxiliary structures. Therefore, windows can be designed flexibly and made for different needs. The bracket, using to bearing the weight, is also a typical structure in ancient architecture. In Ming and Qing Dynasty, these capitals were no longer used to support the house and absorb the effects of earthquakes, but only for decoration. Various categories of decorations used leaves people a feeling of mystery.

Color Painting is one form of decorations in Chinese ancient buildings, which is used not only decoratively, but also to protect the wooden structure from deterioration. The motifs of Color Painting are dragons and phoenixes. Three categories of color painting are used -  imperial pattern paintings, tangent circle pattern paintings and Suzhou style pattern paintings. The imperial patterns mainly with dragons and phoenixes are used on palaces on the central axis and other major palaces. Dragon patterns were used to stand for the emperors and there are 12,654 dragons in different styles. Phoenix patterns, standing for empresses were also widely used. Tangent circle patterns are inferior to the imperial patterns, which involve gyrate decorative patterns. This kind of pattern is always used on side halls, gates and subordinate halls. The Suzhou style patterns are used on pavilions, towers and so on in the gardens.

Roofs and Animal Decorations on the Eaves

The design of the roofs is also attractive. More than ten kinds of roofs exist in it and the three halls in the outer court have three different roofs respectively. The ten kinds of roofs mainly include single-eave hip roof, hipped-gable roof and pyramidal-hipped roof. The feature of the roof is big as well as the smooth lines and the eaves. The role as a symbol of rank soon replaced their original function of providing shelter.
Roofs of the Imperial Palaces
Roofs of the Imperial Palaces
Animal Decorations on the Eaves
Animal Decorations on the Eaves
The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest level of the roof with ten mythical animals at each of its roof corners, which shows the superiority. These mythical animals are characteristics in Chinese architecture, which has special purpose. The animals on the ridge of the ancient buildings include Chiwen, the kissing dragon, the phoenix, the lion, the heavenly horse and the sea horse, Suanni - the lion-like dragon, Yayu - the fish dragon, Haetae, Douniu - the bull-like fighting dragon and Xingshi, the flying monkey. The kissing dragon is said to be one of the nine sons of the dragon to watch fire; the phoenix is to bring happiness and good luck to the building; the lion indicates the power of the owner; the horses show their ability to reach both heaven and the sea; Suanni, also one of the sons of the dragon, is the king of the animal kingdom; Yayu, the fish-like dragon, is able to collect clouds and extinguish fire; Haetae, a unicorn, stands for justice and upright; Douniu, the bull-like fighting dragon, fights for peace; and Xingshi, the flying monkey, is an animal for prevent the destruction by thunder.

All these animals on the ridge come from the evolution of the nails or something heavy for the stability of the eaves when stuck by wind. This is their practical role in the ancient Chinese architecture. They, on the one hand, also create the mythical atmosphere for the building apart from their decoration functions. Besides, the number of the animals indicates the rank of the building and its owner. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest level of the building and was used by the emperor, so it has ten mythical animals on the ridge. Following the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony have lower status with lower status of roofs.

Terraces under the Palaces

 
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Hall of Supreme Harmony on the High Terrace
The terraces are exquisite, too. The terraces are used to support the building as well as avoid getting septic. The height as well as the decorations of the terrace is strictly limited by the hierarchy system. The three halls in the outer court are constructed with the grandest terraces - 8 meters high (26 feet) terrace with three layers. The terrace of the Hall of the Supreme Harmony is the highest level in ancient Chinese architecture, which shows the superior status of the hall. Other palaces or halls have their own particular terraces according to their status. The stone lions’ heads around the terrace are decorations as well as draining systems.

Imperial Colors

The color also has its own culture. Yellow and red are the two main colors. Yellow, meaning respect in Chinese culture, was widely used on roofs of most palaces. This color is only used by imperial families and makes these palaces looks gorgeous. Besides, the roofs of the residence of imperial children are green. The red walls stand for emperors’ hope of national stability.

 Further Reading
Facts & History of Forbidden City

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