Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen)

Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) is the north gate and the back gate of the Forbidden City. It was built in the 18th year of Ming Yongle in 1420, originally called Xuanwumen. Later, it was renamed Shenwumen, because Xuanwu offended the Kangxi emperor, whose name is Xuanye.  Shenwumen used to be the entrance and exit for the royal members, maids and eunuchs, and officials to deal with daily issues. Now, it is the main exit for tourists to visit the Forbidden City.

What does the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) look like?

Gate of Divine Prowess
Gate of Divine Prowess
Shenwumen is 31m (101 ft) high and its rectangle base is built by white marble blocks, with three openings for people to pass through. The gate tower is built on this white marble base, covered with yellow glazed tiles, and surrounded by corridors and white marble railings. On the eaves there is the plaque of “Shenwumen” with gold gilt blue bottom, written in Chinese and Manchu respectively.

What was Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) used for?

Telling Time

In ancient times, bell and drum were set on the gate tower of Shenwumen to tell the time. The bell was tolled 108 times after dusk every day, and the drum was beaten after the bell tolling to tell the end of the day. Later, every two hours the drum would be beaten until dawn, when the bell would be tolled again for 108 times to tell the coming of the daytime. But when the emperor was in the palace, the bell on the gate tower of Shenwumen would not ring. Because “bell” has the same pronunciation with “death” in Chinese.

Daily Entry and Exit

The Gate of Divine Prowess have three openings. The emperor and empress used the main one in the middle. Concubines, officials, guards, eunuchs and maids used the other two. When the emperor left the Forbidden City, he could also use the front gate, Wumen, but the empress and concubines going with him must leave the palace by Shenwumen. If the mother of emperor, empress dowager accompanied her son, she could go out through Shenwumen. When the emperor went back from excursion to the Forbidden City, he went in through Shenwumen. In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 - 1911), the empress entered and left by this gate when she held the ceremony of worshiping the goddess of silkworm, to encourage the people to be diligent in weaving. In 1924, Puyi, the last emperor of China, was expelled from the Forbidden City through the Shenwumen.

Entry and Exit for the Ladies Attending Beauty Selection

In Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), there was a beauty selection every three years, and the candidates went through this gate to the Forbidden City. Some of the chosen girls became the emperor's concubines, some were assigned to the prince or other members of the royal family, and some became the maids of the palace. On the day before the selection, the banner officers had to arrange the order of the wagons in advance, and then let them enter the gate in order. The carriage usually set out at dusk, passing through Di’anmen to reach Shenwumen. Then the ladies alighted in turn and entered the Forbidden City. The carriage they had taken then went out through the east gate of the Forbidden City, made a detour back to Shenwumen. At this time it was about the second day of the noon, and the ladies then exit through Shenwumen one by one and boarded the carriage back to their homes.

In the early Qing dynasty, the people of Manchu and Han were strictly classified. Manchu women are originally “celestial feet”, only Han women inherit the bad habit of “foot binding”. So in the reign of Shunzhi, the empress dowager Xiaozhuang ruled that anyone who dared to introduce a foot-binding woman into the Forbidden City would be beheaded. Because these ladies had to enter the Forbidden City by this gate, so the edict was hung in the gate of Shenwumen.

The Assassination near Shenwumen

On the 20th day of the 2nd lunar month of the 8th year of Jiaqing in 1803, emperor Jiaqing was taking a sedan to enter Shenwumen as usual from the excursion in Old Summer Palace. Suddenly, a man with a dagger rushed out from the west of Shenwumen and ran to the royal sedan chair. Though the emperor was accompanied by more than 100 guards, no one act timely to stop him. Luckily, the emperor’s nephew Mian’en quickly responded and immediately rushed forward to stop him. His brave behavior won the time for other bodyguards, who then quickly swarmed around the assassin and captured him. Emperor Jiaqing’s sedan was finally able to escape and smoothly enter the Forbidden City.

After the investigation, the man's name is Chen De, a Beijinger from a poor family. His wife had died and he had two sons. Chen De deliberately took the initiative to seek death because he was unable to find a job for a long time. But in order to die with vigour and vitality, he then had the idea of assassinating the emperor. Although failed, this assassination was a wake-up call for the Qing Dynasty rulers and a sign of the declining of the Qing Dynasty.
- Last updated on Dec. 13, 2023 by Kate Liu -
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