Forbidden City History

The history of the Forbidden City dates back to 1406 when Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty decided to build an imperial palace in Beijing, modeled after the one in Nanjing. Fourteen years later, the construction of the magnificent palace was finished. It functioned as the political center of China for over 500 years until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911. Later in 1925, the Forbidden City was transformed into the Palace Museum to display traditional Chinese architecture, rare treasures and curiosities. In 1987, it was declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.


Construction from 1406 to 1420

Upon ascending the throne, Ming Emperor Yongle decided to move the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing and ordered the construction of an imperial palace, which was called the Forbidden City, in central Beijing. The palace was designed by the great architect Kuai Xiang. More than 230 thousand artisans and millions of laborers participated in the construction. In1420, the splendid imperial palace was completed and Emperor Yongle moved in. Ever since then the Forbidden City functioned as the political center of the Ming Dynasty. Thirteen succeeding emperors of the Ming Dynasty also worked and dwelled there with their royal families.

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Who built the Forbidden City?

When was the Forbidden City built?

Why was the Forbidden City built?

Taken Over by the Qing Dynasty

However, during the late Ming Dynasty there were peasant uprisings all over the country. The Peasant Uprising led by Li Zicheng was the most broad-based and powerful one. The rebels defeated the imperial troops, and occupied the Forbidden City. In consequence, the Ming Dynasty came to an end in 1644 with the suicide of its last Emperor Chongzhen. Later, Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty, a regime from northeast China, ordered his army to fight southward. The troops led by Regent Dorgon defeated the army of Li Zicheng, and seized the Forbidden City. Thereafter, the ten Qing emperors exercised their supreme power from the Forbidden City.

Damage and Restoration

Fuyi - the Last Emperor of Qing Dynasty
Puyi - the Last Emperor 
ever Lived in Forbidden City

Before the retreat, Li Zicheng burned down most of the palaces and halls in the Forbidden City. After moving into the imperial city, Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty spent fourteen years renovating the major buildings along the central axis. Other damaged buildings were rebuilt and restored from 1683 to 1695. More importantly, Emperor Qianlong made some alterations and enlargements during his reign from 1735 to 1796, returning the Forbidden City to its previous scale.


Opened to the Public as a Palace Museum

After ruling the country for about three centuries, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911. Emperor Puyi abdicated, and the Forbidden City ceased to serve as the country’s political center. However, he was allowed to live in the Forbidden City until 1924. In 1925, the Forbidden City was transformed into the Palace Museum and opened to the public. Thus, the mystery of the imperial city was unveiled gradually, and became known to the ordinary people.

Removal of the Cultural Relics during War Time

After the Sino-Japanese War broke out, millions of rare treasures and curiosities were packed into over 15 thousand boxes, and transported to Shanghai, and from there to Nanjing to prevent them from being destroyed. Finally, they were transported to Sichuan province, and stored in three different locations until the end of the war in 1945. In 1947, these cultural relics were transported back to Nanjing. During the Civil War (1945-1949), about three thousand boxes of the 15 thousand boxes of rare treasures were moved to Taiwan, and were kept in the Taipei Palace Museum. In 1951, more than 10 thousand boxes of treasures were transported back to the Palace Museum in Beijing, while the rest remained in the Nanjing Museum. Finally, these national treasures came back home after a series of journeys and wars, and the Palace Museum was re-opened to the public.

Current Protection and Renovation

In 1961, the Palace Museum was declared a key national historical and cultural relic under state protection and was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. Because the museum had not been repaired for years, the palaces and halls had become worn-out. Some even collapsed. The Palace Museum was in dire need of repair and renovation. A large-scale restoration started in 2002, and will last until 2021. Hopefully, the imperial city will present its beauty and magnificence to later generations.
Map of Forbidden City History
Timeline of Forbidden City History (Click to enlarge)

Timeline of Forbidden City

Time Events
1406 The construction of the imperial palace begins
1420 The construction of the imperial palace is finished.
1421 The three main halls in the outer court are burned down in a fire.
1440 The three main halls and the Palace of Heavenly Purity are restored.
1459 The palaces along the west wing are built.
1557 The three main halls in the outer court, the Meridian Gate, and other buildings are burnt down in a fire.
The renovation lasts four years until 1561.
1597 The three mains halls in the outer court and the three main halls in the inner court are burnt down in a big fire.
The restoration lasts thirty years until 1627.
1644 Li Zicheng occupies the imperial palace, and the Ming Dynasty ends.
Li burns most of the buildings in the imperial city before retreat.
Emperor Shunzhi of succeeding Qing Dynasty move the capital city from Shenyang to Beijing.
Emperor Shunzhi rebuild the buildings along the central axis during the next fourteen years.
1683 The restoration of other buildings starts and lasts twelve years until 1695.
1735 Emperor Qianlong ascend the throne. He enlarges and alters the imperial city during his reign from 1735 to 1796.
1813  The Forbidden City is attacked during a peasant uprising led by Lin Qing.
1900 Beijing is controlled by the Eight-Nation Alliance Forces. They hold a military review in Forbidden City.
1911  The Qing Dynasty ends with the breakout of the Revolution of 1911.
Emperor Puyi is no longer emperor but still allowed to dwell in the inner court of the imperial palace.
1923 A great fire breaks out in the Palace of Establishing Happiness (Jianfugong).
1924 Emperor Puyi is driven out of the imperial palace in a coup.
1925 The imperial city is transformed into the Palace Museum.
1933  A large number of cultural relics in the palace are moved to south China for better protection after the Sino-Japanese war breaks out.
1948 About three thousand boxes of the cultural relics are transported to Taiwan during Civil War.
1949  The Palace Museum is reopened to the public after the war.
In the 1950s and 1960s Renovation of the museum is put forward by many people, but laid aside for various reasons.
1961  The Palace Museum is listed in the first group of the key historical and cultural relics under state protection.
1987  The Palace Museum is declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
2002 A large-scale restoration of the museum is begun, and will last until 2021.

Further Reading: Forbidden City Facts
- Last updated on Nov. 27, 2023 by Kate Liu -
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