Imperial Icehouse in the Forbidden City

Imperial icehouse in the Forbidden City was the place where the ice cubes were stored. There was no air-conditioning or refrigerator in ancient time. These ice cubes were mainly used to cool down the summer heat, keep food fresh and refrigerate sacrificial offerings. Now, these icehouses are used as a restaurant to provide food for visitors.

Where is the Imperial Icehouse?

There are 4 existing icehouses in the Forbidden City nowadays, all set to the east of the Garden of Compassion and Tranquility (Garden of Cininggong).

Location Map of Imperial Icehouse in the Forbidden City
Location Map of Imperial Icehouse in the Forbidden City

What does the Imperial Icehouse look like?

These icehouses are constructed in a north-south direction, and partially underground. The subterranean part is about 2.0 meters (6.6 feet) high. Each icehouse has a length of about 11 meters (36 feet) and a width of about 6.4 meters (21 feet). Inside, the floor is covered with large stones, and a ditch is set to one side of the floor where the melted ice water can flow away. There is a well near the ditch to facilitate drainage. For the walls from the bottom to the top, they are firstly 1.5 meter-high stone walls, then 2.6 meter-high brick walls, after, an arch ceiling gradually forms. The height difference between the ceiling and the highest point of the roof is about 2 meters (6.6 feet), between which lime soil is filled to keep the temperature inside the imperial icehouses stable. The walls are about 2 meters thick, with no windows and only doors on the north and south sides.

Where did the ice come from?

All the ice came from the Moat outside the Forbidden City. After the solar term Beginning of Winter (Lidong), the Moat was cleaned up before freezing. How did the ancient people do that? People took boats to collect, water plants and driftwood. Then a dam of ten layers of planks be built. But first only the bottom seven layers were piled up, so that the water could still flow and the flotsam would flow away. After the whole river was cleared, the last three layers of dam would be built up. At this time, the river would be frozen as soon as it was still. Around the Winter Solstice, the coldest time of the year in Beijing, the river was completely frozen. Then, workers were sent to dig the ice out of the river, and cut it into cubes of 0.5 meters (1.6 feet). Then the ice would be pulled into the palace and placed in the imperial icehouses as specified. An icehouse can hold more than 5,000 of these ice cubes. After the river was frozen again, the ice mining would repeated three to four times in a winter. The ice supply time was clearly defined, that is, from the beginning of May to July 30 in the lunar calendar.

Used as Tourist Service Areas Nowadays

Now the Imperial Icehouses have been transformed into a restaurant. The original structure of the ice houses has not been changed. Only wooden floors and walls are added for protection purpose. Tourists tired of walking in the Forbidden City can feel cool as soon as they enter the restaurant and can taste fabulous imperial food and drinks. Outside, a book bar and a coffee shop stand nearby. The book bar sells books and creative products related to the Forbidden City. Sitting in the cafe, you can see the red walls, yellow tiles and bamboo woods through the window.

 Further Reading:
Three Chimneys in the Forbidden City
Are there toilets in the Forbidden City?

- Last modified on Sep. 07, 2020 -
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