Code: FC05

Forbidden City along the Central Axis

Covering an area of 72 hectares and having been the imperial palace for 24 emperors in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Forbidden City is honored as the largest and the most complex royal palace in the world. It is composed of two parts, one is the Outer Court where the Emperor held court and lead the nation via his imperial power, and the other is the Inner Court where the Emperor resided with his family and performed religious rites. With rich architectural treasures and precious historical relics waiting for you, a well prepared itinerary will surely aid in your visit.

To explore this scenic spots along the Central Axis is ideal for those who want to soak up its overshadowing grandness and hidden charms within limited time. Groups of solemnly halls and palaces spread out along the 960 meters (1,049.9 yards) central axis, which is from Meridian Gate (Wumen) in the south to the Gate of Diving Prowess (Shenwumen) in the north.

With a height of 35 meters (114.8 feet), the Meridian Gate, where significant and formal ceremonies were held during the Ming and Qing dynasties, is the south gate of the Forbidden City. At present, tourists are only allowed to enter from this gate. You will find that there are three gateways on the Meridian Gate. In fact, it has five gateways with two others on the inner side of the east and west tower base respectively. The bigger main gateway in the middle was exclusively used by the Emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties. However, there were two exceptions: one was that the Empress could enter from the gateway in palanquin on the day when she married the Emperor; the other was that the top three men in the last imperial examination could exit from this gateway by riding horses to parade their success to the public. The imperial family members were allowed to use the gateway on the left, while the courtiers would use the one on the right side. The other two gateways were only opened when there were special events or ceremonies at the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

We suggest that you hire a professional tour guide from the office on your left as soon as you enter the Meridian Gate. The charge is CNY100 to have the guide lead you to the sites along the Central Axis. Alternatively, you can rent an audio guide, which only costs CNY40 with a deposit of CNY100 for one audio guide. After you return it at the Gate of Diving Prowess, you can get the deposit back.

Just a short walk northward along the central axis, you will find five parallel marble bridges, with a bow-shape river flowing beneath them in the square in front of Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen). They were called the Inner Golden Water Bridges and the Inner Golden Water River in order to distinguish them from the Golden Water Bridge and River in front of Tiananmen. Again, the bridge in the middle was only used by the emperor and empress. Why was such a river designed in the square? Its functions are explained below: creating an auspicious landscape benefits both imperial domination and the prosperity of the country according to Fengshui rules (Fengshui is a Chinese traditional discipline that studies how human beings could co-exist in harmony with nature.).

Next we will guide you to the Gate of Unified Harmony (Xiehemen) on the east side of the Central Axis and the Gate of Supreme Harmony. With bungalows on both sides for high-ranking confidential courtiers to attend official duties, the Gate of Unified Harmony is the entrance to the Hall of Literary Glory (Wenhuadian), the Imperial Cabinet Hall and other architecture in the east part of the Forbidden City.

Further to the east of the Gate of Unified Harmony, you can see the Hall of Literary Glory, its back halls and side buildings. Initially built with green glazed tiles roofs, it was the main hall of the Crown Princes. Later the roofs were replaced by yellow glazed tiles because the hall became the place where Emperors in both the Ming and Qing dynasties held reading reports on learning "the Four Books (the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius, and the Mencius) and Five Classics (Classic of Changes, Classic of Poetry, Classic of Rites, Classic of History, and Spring and Autumn Annals)", as well as going over the scholars' papers after the palace examinations. Nowadays this hall is open to public as a Pottery Gallery with more than 400 carefully selected pottery and porcelain treasures.

After leaving the Hall of Literary Glory, you are advised to walk back to the gate of Unified Harmony and move westwards to the Gate of Amiability (Xihemen). It is the entrance to the Hall of Martial Valor (Wuyingdian) and some other constructions in the western part of the imperial palace. Having the same architectural style as the Gate of Unified Harmony, the bungalows on both sides of the Gate of Amiability were used as the Manchu Language-Chinese Translation Office (Fanshufang), the Imperial Diary Office (Qijuguan) and the Dormitories for Imperial Guards.

Once up enter the gate, you will reach the Hall of Martial Valor (also called Hall of Military Prowess), which echoes the Hall of Literary Glory in the east wing from afar. The Hall of Martial Valor was built during the reign of Emperor Yongle in the Ming Dynasty and served as a living and working place for the emperors. Later in the early Qing Dynasty, the emperors held small-scaled ceremonies and religious rites here. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi and Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, it gradually became the official publishing house. Today the Hall of Martial Valor has turned into Calligraphies and Paintings Gallery. You may also enjoy the Hall of Bathing Morality, in which there was a distinctive Arabic style bathroom.

Return to the Inner Golden Water Bridges on the Central Axis, cross over it, and you will get to the main entrance of the Outer Court Palace, the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen). It is the grandest and newest palace gate in the Forbidden City. This new gate was built in 1889 and one year after was destroyed by fire. It was here that the emperors of the Ming Dynasty held morning courts. You can see two vivid bronze lions symbolize "dignity" and "authority" standing majestically outside of the gate. It was said that the male lion on the east teasing a ball with its right paw indicates the omnipotent imperial power, while the female lion on the left side has its left paw dangling a baby lion tenderly, which implies the prosperity of the royal family.

Continuing the tour, you will find yourself at a stately square after going through the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The Pavilion of Embodying Benevolence (Tiren ge) and the Pavilion of Spreading Righteousness (Hongyi ge) respectively standing at east and west side of the square blend in well with the imposing Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). The Pavilion of Embodying Benevolence now displays weapons of the Qing Dynasty, most of which were imperial articles. The Pavilion of Spreading Righteousness is opened to the public as an exhibition hall on Music of court rites. Both of the pavilions are well worth a visit.

You will feel more surprised when you get closer to the architecture on the Central Axis at the north end of the square. At more than 8 meters high with three tiers, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian) and Hall of Preserved Harmony (Baohedian), stand on the central axis from south to north.

As China's largest existing wooden building, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is also the highest and grandest structure at the key position in Forbidden City. It was dedicated to important ceremonies and momentous imperial decrees, such as the enthronement of new emperor, the emperor's wedding, birthday, as well as banquets on every Winter Solstice, Chinese New Year Day, etc. On the terrace in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the marble Ri Gui - an ancient sundial and the Jia Liang - an ancient grain measuring container stand separately at the southeast corner and the southwest corner. Both of them symbolize that supreme power of the emperor. When you first look at the double-eave roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, you may first notice the sculpture, which is called Chiwen, on both ends of the top roof ridge. Legend has it that Chiwen is one of the nine sons of Dagon who could keep fire away, so it was widely used as roof ornament in ancient times. In addition, you can see there are 11 delicate animal-like sculptures, which were powerful, lucky, and honorable figures drawn from myths and legends. These sculptures were also for the purpose of fixing the tiles and identifying the grade of halls. The more sculptures it has, the higher grade the hall is. Your eyes will be amazed by the dazzlingly decorated hall. Made in the Ming Dynasty (1522-1566), the significant sandalwood throne, one of the must-sees here, is placed on a two-meter-high platform in the center of the hall.

On your way to the Hall of Central Harmony, you will notice a big cauldron with gold gilding on either side of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. In the imperial palace there are 308 cauldrons, large and small, among which there are only 18 of such kind and size. In addition to being ornamental, the cauldrons were also for storing water in case any hall was on fire. As the smallest one among the three main halls, the Hall of Central Harmony is a square building with single-eave pyramid roof. This time you will find only 9 sculptures standing on each corner of the eave, which indicates that this hall is of lower grade in comparison with the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It was mainly a hall for the emperor to take a rest on his way to the Hall of Supreme Harmony when there was a ceremony.

The Hall of Preserved Harmony is the next building you will see. With 10 animal-like sculptures on each corner of the roof eave, this hall was the place where the emperors gave banquets to high court officials, Mongol and Xinjiang princes on New Year's Eve and the fifteenth day of the first lunar month during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Also, it was here that the celebration of a princess's wedding was held. Millions of royal collections, historical and cultural daily necessities of the Qing Dynasty are now exhibited in the west bungalows and northwest side hall. When going down the stairway behind the Hall of Preserved Harmony, one should not miss seeing the famous marble relief sculpture in the middle of it. Delicately carved out of one huge piece of marble measuring 16.57 meters (18.12 yards) long, 3.07 meters (3.36 yards) wide and 1.7 meters (1.9 yards) thick, the marble relief sculpture shows a vivid scene of nine dragons playing with pearls and striking through the seawater, cliff and clouds.

So far you have finished the visit to the most important sites of the Outer Court. You could get to the Inner Court via the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqingmen). Emperors attended to the state affairs here every few days or every month from the region of Kangxi to Xianfeng in the Qing Dynasty.

A few minutes' walk after entering the Gate of Heavenly Purity unfolds thePalace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), which was served as the residence and venue for administrative activities during the Ming and early Qing dynasties. From the period of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, it was dedicated to significant inner court ceremonies or receiving foreign diplomatic missions. In the Qing Dynasty, the coffin of the emperor would rest in the Palace of Heavenly Purity for three days after his death. You may notice there is a gilding brass pavilion on either side of the palace. It was said that the left one represents territorial integrity while the right one symbolizes abundance and harvest. A stele reads "Zheng Da Guang Ming", which was copied by Emperor Kangxi from the original handwriting of the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Shunzhi, and hang on the north wall. From the reign of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, in order to avoid the power struggles among princes, the emperor would write two imperial edicts which stated the name of the next emperor in secrecy. One imperial edict was kept privately by the emperor and the other was put behind the stele of "Zheng Da Guang Ming". When the emperor passed away, the high courtiers would get the two imperial edicts, identify them and announce the decree. The east and west bungalows of the Palace of Heavenly Purity now are respectively turned into exhibition halls of the Qing Emperors' Wedding Ceremony and Birthday Ceremony.

Symbolizing that the emperor and empress should be deeply attached to each other and live in harmony as it has been called in Chinese, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian), between the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), was the empress's throne room to receive congratulations or have meeting with concubines, princesses, and wives of princes.

Further northward, you will reach the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. In the Ming Dynasty, it served as the residence of empress. After reconstruction during the reign of the first emperor, Shunzhi, in the Qing Dynasty, it became the nuptial chamber for the emperor and empress in the first two days after their wedding, as well as the site for sacrificial rites of Shamanism (the religious belief of Manchu).

While marveling at the mysterious palaces, halls and the splendid treasures, you are advised to go further north to the Imperial Garden (Yuhuayuan). Built in 1420 and having been through several repairs, it still keeps the original layout. The Imperial Garden was more than a place just for the emperor, empress and concubines to relax or observe the beautiful views, it was also used for sacrificial rites, book collection and reading. The garden is quite elegant with green and luxuriant old cypress trees and locust tress; beautiful potted landscapes; exquisite pavilions, terraces and corridors dot the area; colorful stone-paved paths crisscross, traversing among the pavilions and halls.

Soon after the visit to the Imperial Garden, you will get to the last stop of this route, which is the Gate of Diving Prowess (Shenwumen) in the north. As the back gate, it mainly used for the royal family members to enter and exit the palace. Bell and drum were set on the gate house to give the time signal from dawn to dark, while it was only allowed to beat the drum when the emperor was in the palace.

When you step out of the gate, it is time to say goodbye to the Forbidden City. We believe you will enjoy the tour with the help of our guideline.

 More Routes: 
Forbidden City along the Western Route 
Forbidden City along the Eastern Route
Forbidden City along the Outer Eastern Route

 Recommended itinerary with Forbidden City: 
Best Beijing: 4 Days to Forbidden City, Badaling Great Wall, Summer Palace...

Questions & Answers
Asked by Elizabeth Harvey-Foulds from CANADA | Oct. 26, 2019 18:12Reply
Guide vs audio guide
We want to do the central axis tour and I'm wondering if 4 people can share an audio guide or if we would each have to rent one for 40 Yuan. Can we hire an English guide for 100 Y and if so, for how long would they guide us? We are expecting it will take us three hours to go through the central axis.
Answers (1)
Answered by Cathy | Oct. 28, 2019 01:05

As I know, one audio guide has one earphone so that it can only be used for one person. For a visit through the Central Axis with an English guide, the price is CNY 300 and the duration is about 1 hour.
Asked by Marc Pelissier from FRANCE | Sep. 16, 2018 14:33Reply
How long is approximately the visit with this central axis itinerary
How long would be the walk with this itinerary of Forbidden City along the Central Axis (considering of course some stops to watch and take pictures) ? Thanks
Answers (1)
Answered by Elaine | Sep. 17, 2018 17:04

Normally, it takes about 2 to 3 hours to walk along the Central Axis of Forbidden City with some stops to watch and take pictures. But if you want to learn more about the Forbidden City and see the collection of cultural relics, you are suggested to slow down and spend half day in Forbidden City. Just remind you do not visit there on holidays or weekend to avoid the crowds. Besides, it is closed on every Monday. Have a nice trip.
Asked by Axel from USA | Nov. 02, 2017 00:43Reply
What to visit First?
We want to visit the Forbidden City and Great Wall on the same, is that doable? Or should we visit each place on different dates? We are trying to avoid staying over 72-hours in China to avoid getting a VISA. We don't know where to stay at, if closer to Forbidden City or closer to Great Wall.
Answers (1)
Answered by Sona | Nov. 02, 2017 19:34

The Forbidden City and the Great Wall can be visited the same day. The trip to each site usually takes about a half day respectively. It is suggested that you stay near the Forbidden City in downtown area. Badaling Great Wall is around 1.5 hours' drive from downtown.
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