Palace of Abstinence (Zhaigong)

Palace of Abstinence (Zhaigong) is south of the Six Eastern Palaces and west of Yuqing Palace in the Forbidden City. It was built in 1731 in Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). Before every grand ceremony of worshiping heaven and earth commenced, emperors would stay in Zhaigong for two days in total abstinence from earthly pleasures. Now, Zhaigong is a temporary exhibition hall and tourists can appreciate various cultural relics here.

When and why was Zhaigong built?

In the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911), emperors were required to worship the heaven and earth, in order to pray for either a bumper harvest or abundant rainfall for the country. Before the ceremony, the emperors needed to practice several days of abstinence, to show the imperial respect to the god. From 1368 to 1731, it was in the Temple of Heaven that emperors performed abstinence, which is more than 5km (3mi) away from Forbidden City.
However, after Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735), the 5th emperor in Qing Dynasty, just came into power, the place for abstinence changed. At that time, many other royal members still cast greedy eyes on Yongzheng’s throne, thus Yongzheng considered his safety vitally important. The long distance from Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven, as well as the several days’ staying alone in the Temple of Heaven, could create chances for others for assisination plots. To ensure his safety, in 1731, Yongzheng Emperor decided to build a new site for abstinence just inside the Forbidden City, and this place was Zhaigong. From then on, the emperors could stay in Zhaigong for two days and only spend the last day in the Temple of Heaven before the worship ceremony.

What did emperors do in Zhaigong?

As mentioned above, emperors would stay in Zhaigong for two days before moving to the Temple of Heaven. During these two days, a special wooden plate and a bronze figure would be placed on the stairs at the left side of Zhaigong. Emperor and his attendants would wear a wooden badge upon which a piece of yellow paper was attached, recording the date of abstinence. Other ministers would also wear the badges made of silver or ivory. As well as Zhaigong, all the other palaces inside the Forbidden City were required to hang this badge on their curtains, to create a solemn atmosphere throughout all the Forbidden City. Most importantly, once living in Zhaigong, the emperor had to abstain from alcohol, meat, banquets, entertainment, and spicy foods like spring onions and leeks.

What can be seen inside Zhaigong?

Zhaigong is a rectangular palace consisting of a front hall and a back hall. The front hall has six rooms, three on the east and three on the west, and three attached corridors in connecting these halls. The saddle roof of the front hall is covered with yellow glazed tiles. And the two smallest rooms have pierced wooden windows. The back hall of Zhaigong has seven rooms covered by saddle roof, and two adjacent rooms on each side. The front hall and the back hall are linked by corridors.
Special attention should be paid to the largest room of the front hall in Zhaigong. In this room, the octagonal caisson ceiling called “Zaojing” is most worth appreciating. This caisson ceiling features a gilded relief of a dragon swallowing a pearl. In ancient China, the dragon represents the emperor, and the dragon flying on the ceiling shows the emperor’s respect for the god. Thus, this design in Zhaigong symbolizes the unification of imperial power and religious authority, which skilfully fits the religious theme of this place. Also, this largest room in the front hall has a partitioned room on the west and another one on the east. The former used to accommodate a statue of Buddha, and the latter was the emperor's study.

Temporary Exhibitions

Temporary exhibitions in Zhaigong usually last for one to four months. So far, this palace have displayed cultural relics of various themes, including Longquan celadon, statues of Buddha, ancient Chinese furniture, redwares, terracotta figures and other cultural relics with dragon and phoenix patterns. The latest information regarding exhibitions in Zhaigong can be found on the official Palace Museum website.

Theft in 2011

At around 8 o’clock on May 9th, 2011, when the staff was routinely checking Zhaigong, they were shocked to find a big hole in the wall of the back hall. Obviously, it was a sign of forcible entry by a burglar. Staff members immediately asked the security department to block the East Glorious Gate and West Glorious Gate. And after the careful check, people found that nine cultural relics had been stolen.
At that time, Zhaigong was exhibiting overseas luxuries. The stolen exhibits included eight gilded cosmetic cases and one gilded handbag. These precious exhibits were made by Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Faraone, Tiffany and Hermes all created between the 1930s and 1980s. Most of them were inlaid with diamonds, emeralds, enamel or sapphires. Although the handbag and one cosmetic case were found near Zhaigong, they were partially damaged.
On May 11th, police arrested the burglar Shi as his fingerprint were on the showcase. Shi said that on May 8th, he hid in the west side hall of Zhaigong until 10 p.m. and then broke the window on the north side. Once entering the exhibition hall, Shi smashed the glass showcase and stole nine exhibits. Then he escaped along the roof. To date, three of the exhibits have not been recovered.

​ Go west to the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong)
​ Go north to the Six Eastern Palaces (Dongliugong)
 Go east to the Hall for Ancestry Worship (Fengxiandian)

 Further Reading:
How to visit the Forbidden City
- Last updated on Jul. 06, 2020 -
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