‘Tiger Caves’: Secret Passages in the Forbidden City

The ‘Tiger Caves’ is actually a passage instead of caves. It was called ‘Tiger Caves’ just for good luck and safety purpose, not for that once having a tiger in the cave or having the tiger pattern on it. It runs underground in the east-west direction at the northern end of the Danbi Bridge, one part of the imperial road in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong). The passage is 1.8 meters (1.97 yards) high, 1.1 meters (1.2 yards) wide and 10 meters (11 yards) long. It is ventilated on both sides, barely enough for one person to pass through. The main functions of ‘Tiger Caves’ are walking passage for servants, construction materials transportation, shelters from fire and maintaining the stability of the palace foundation. Nowadays, visitors to the Forbidden City are not allowed to walk on it, but can have a look above them.

What were the ‘Tiger Caves’ used for?

1. A passage for the Palace Maids and Eunuchs

The ‘Tiger Cave’ was originally built mainly for the convenience of palace maids and eunuchs. In ancient China, there was a rigid hierarchy in the Forbidden City. The royal road on the ground can only be used by the emperor and people with status. The palace maids and eunuchs were generally not allowed to walk on the royal road, while it was too far to bypass the square in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, so these ‘tiger caves’ were built for them to reach the other side quickly.

2. Transport Construction Materials

At the same time, workers can also send some construction materials through this passage, saving the trouble of bypassing the royal road.

3. Shelter from Fire

The ‘Tiger Caves’ is also a temporary shelter. If there is a big fire and people cannot get out temporarily, they can take shelter in it.

4. Maintain the Stability of the Palace Foundation

From the architectural function point of view, the ‘Tiger Cave’ can also play a role in maintaining the stability of the palace foundation. Qianqinggong is on a high foundation, and in the middle of the square in front of the palace, is the Danbi Bridge above the ground. If the water is stored when it rains heavily, two large pools will form on either side of the Danbi Bridge. If the water level on both sides is not the same high, then the pressure on the foundation is not equal, and the foundation may have problems. At this time, the ‘tiger caves’ becomes a culvert to transfer water, so the water level on both sides keep at the same level, which plays a protective role on the palace foundation. Meanwhile, the Danbi Bridge is not filled with water for the emperor to walk on.

Used by Ming Emperor Tianqi to Play Hide-and-Seek

The emperor Tianqi of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was very young when he became emperor. In the evenings with bright moonlight, he often played hide-and-seek with the palace eunuchs. He liked to hide in ‘tiger caves’ best, but he was always caught. This was because he had a sachet in his sleeve, in this way the eunuchs could find him following the scent.

Go on visisting on the central axis, see the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian) and then the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong) to the north.

 Further Reading:
How to visit the Forbidden City

- Last updated on May. 25, 2021 -
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