Palace of Abstinence (Zhaigong)

Palace of Abstinence (Zhaigong) is south to the Six Eastern Palaces and west to Yuqing Palace in Forbidden City. It was built in 1731 in Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). Every time before the grand ceremony of worshiping heaven and earth started, emperors would stay in Zhaigong for two days as an abstinence. Now, Zhaigong is a temporary exhibition hall and tourists can appreciate various cultural relics here.

When and why was Zhaigong built?

In Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911), emperors were supposed 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, so as 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 as vital importance. 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 to conduct assassination. In order 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 attached with a piece of yellow paper, on which the date of abstinence was written. Other ministers would also wear the badges made of silver or ivory. By the way, apart from Zhaigong, all the other palaces inside the Forbidden City were required to hang this badge onto their curtains, so as to create a solemn atmosphere through the entire Forbidden City. Most importantly, once living in Zhaigong, the emperor must abstain from alcohol, meat, banquet, entertainment, and other spicy foods like spring onions and leek.

What to see inside Zhaigong?

Zhaigong is a rectangular palace made up of a front hall and a back hall. The front hall has five rooms, three east side halls, three west side halls, and three attached corridors in connecting these halls. The saddle roof of the front hall is paved with yellow glazed tiles. And the two smallest rooms are equiped with hollowed-out wooden windows. The back hall of Zhaigong has seven rooms covered by saddle roof, and two adjacent rooms on both sides. The front hall and the back hall are linked through corridors.
Special attention should be paid to the largest room of front hall in Zhaigong. In this room, the octagonal caisson ceiling called “Zaojing” is most worth appreciating. This caisson ceiling features with a gilded relief of a dragon swallowing a bead. In ancient China, dragon refers to the emperor, and dragon flying on the ceiling stands for the emperor’s respect to 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. Besides, this largest room in front hall also has a west partitioned room and an east partitioned room. The former used to place the statue of Buddha, and the latter was a study room for the emperor.

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, Chinese ancient furniture, redwares, terracotta figures and other cultural relics with dragon and phoenix pattern. The latest information of exhibition in Zhaigong can be found on the official website of Palace Museum.

Being Stolen 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 on the wall in the back hall. Obviously, it was a sign of forcible entry from the 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 were 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 between 1930s and 1980s. Most of them were inlaid with diamond, emerald, enamel or sapphire. Although the handbag and one cosmetic case were found near Zhaigong, they were partially damaged.
On May 11th, police arrested the burglar Shi through his fingerprint 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. Up till now, three exhibits are still not found.

​ 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 modified on Jun. 10, 2020 -
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