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The Forbidden City

By Dr. Ying-chen Peng
Northwest corner tower of the Forbidden City and moat, Beijing, China (photo: A_peach, CC BY 2.0)
Northwest corner tower of the Forbidden City and moat, Beijing, China (photo: A_peach, CC BY 2.0)
The Forbidden City is a large precinct of red walls and yellow glazed roof tiles located in the heart of China’s capital, Beijing. As its name suggests, the precinct is a micro-city in its own right. Measuring 961 meters in length and 753 meters in width, the Forbidden City is composed of more than 90 palace compounds including 98 buildings and surrounded by a moat as wide as 52 meters.
Aerial view of the Forbidden City, Beijing (© Google Earth 2021)
Aerial view of the Forbidden City, Beijing (© Google Earth 2021)
The Forbidden City was the political and ritual center of China for over 500 years. After its completion in 1420, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors, their families and servants during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The last occupant (who was also the last emperor of imperial China), Puyi (1906–67), was expelled in 1925 when the precinct was transformed into the Palace Museum. Although it is no longer an imperial precinct, it remains one of the most important cultural heritage sites and the most visited museum in the People’s Republic of China, with an average of eighty thousand visitors every day.

Construction and layout

The construction of the Forbidden City was the result of a scandalous coup d’état plotted by Zhu Di, the fourth son of the Ming dynasty’s founder Zhu Yuanzhang, that made him the Chengzu emperor (his official title) in 1402. In order to solidify his power, the Chengzu emperor moved the capital, as well as his own army, from Nanjing in southeastern China to Beijing and began building a new heart of the empire, the Forbidden City.
Drawn plan of the Forbidden City, Beijing
Drawn plan of the Forbidden City, Beijing
The establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644 did not lessen the Forbidden City’s pivotal status, as the Manchu imperial family continued to live and rule there. While no major change has been made since its completion, the precinct has undergone various renovations and minor constructions well into the twentieth-first century. Since the Forbidden City is a ceremonial, ritual and living space, the architects who designed its layout followed the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology that had held Chinese social structure together for centuries. This layout ensured that all activities within this micro-city were conducted in the manner appropriate to the participants’ social and familial roles.  All activities, such as imperial court ceremonies or life-cycle rituals, would take place in sophisticated palaces depending on the events’ characteristics. Similarly, the court determined the occupants of the Forbidden City strictly according to their positions in the imperial family.
The architectural style also reflects a sense of hierarchy. Each structure was designed in accordance with the Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards (Yingzao fashi), an eleventh-century manual that specified particular designs for buildings of different ranks in Chinese social structure.
View of the Meridian Gate from outside the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0)
View of the Meridian Gate from outside the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Public and private life

Public and domestic spheres are clearly divided in the Forbidden City. The southern half, or the outer court, contains spectacular palace compounds of supra-human scale. This outer court belonged to the realm of state affairs, and only men had access to its spaces. It included the emperor’s formal reception halls, places for religious rituals and state ceremonies, and also the Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south end of the central axis that served as the main entrance.
Looking to the Meridian Gate from the north (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: inkelv112, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Looking to the Meridian Gate from the north (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: inkelv112, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Upon passing the Meridian Gate, one immediately enters an immense courtyard paved with white marble stones in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). Since the Ming dynasty, officials gathered in front of the Meridian Gate before 3 a.m., waiting for the emperor’s reception to start at 5 a.m.
View of the Hall of Supreme Harmony from the south (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
View of the Hall of Supreme Harmony from the south (Imperial Palace Museum) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
While the outer court is reserved for men, the inner court is the domestic space, dedicated to the imperial family. The inner court includes the palaces in the northern part of the Forbidden City. Here, three of the most important palaces align with the city's central axis: the emperor’s residence known as the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong) is located to the south while the empress’s residence, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), is to the north. The Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian), a smaller square building for imperial weddings and familial ceremonies, is sandwiched in between.
Left: Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), Forbidden City, Beijing (photo: Xiquinho Silva, CC BY 2.0); Right: Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian) and Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong) (photo: R Boed, CC BY 2.0)
Left: Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), Forbidden City, Beijing (photo: Xiquinho Silva, CC BY 2.0); Right: Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian) and Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong) (photo: R Boed, CC BY 2.0)
Although the Palace of Heavenly Purity was a grand palace building symbolizing the emperor’s supreme status, it was too large for conducting private activities comfortably. Therefore, after the early 18th century Qing emperor, Yongzheng, moved his residence to the smaller Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) to the west of the main axis, the Palace of Heavenly Purity became a space for ceremonial use and all subsequent emperors resided in the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
Inner court showing the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, and residences for the emperor's consorts (map © Google Earth)
Inner court showing the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, and residences for the emperor's consorts (map © Google Earth)
The residences of the emperor’s consorts flank the three major palaces in the inner court. Each side contains six identical, walled palace compounds, forming the shape of K'un “☷," one of the eight trigrams of ancient Chinese philosophy. It is the symbol of mother and earth, and thus is a metaphor for the proper feminine roles the occupants of these palaces should play. Such architectural and philosophical symmetry, however, fundamentally changed when the empress dowager Cixi (1835–1908) renovated the Palace of Eternal Spring (Changchungong) and the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiugong) in the west part of the inner court for her fortieth and fiftieth birthday in 1874 and 1884, respectively. The renovation transformed the original layout of six palace compounds into four, thereby breaking the shape of the symbolic trigram and implying the loosened control of Chinese patriarchal authority at the time.
The eastern and western sides of the inner court were reserved for the retired emperor and empress dowager. The emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–96) built his post-retirement palace, the Hall of Pleasant Longevity (Leshoutang), in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. It was the last major construction in the imperial precinct. In addition to these palace compounds for the older generation, there are also structures for the imperial family’s religious activities in the east and west sides of the inner court, such as Buddhist and Daoist temples built during the Ming dynasty. The Manchus preserved most of these structures but also added spaces for their own shamanic beliefs.
Temple, Forbidden City, Beijing (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Temple, Forbidden City, Beijing (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Forbidden City now

Today, the Forbidden City is still changing. As a modern museum and an historical site, the museum strikes a balance by maintaining the structures and restoring the interiors of the palace compounds, and in certain instances transforming minor palace buildings and hallways into exhibition galleries for the exquisite artwork of the imperial collections. For many, the Forbidden City is a time capsule for China’s past and an educational institute for the public to learn and appreciate the history and beauty of this ancient culture.
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Essay by Dr. Ying-chen Peng

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mai King
    Why did China practice isolationism
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Adams.F.Daniel
    How are the buildings engineered? Are there plans or blueprints? I ask because they are still standing and that skill should not be lost.
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    That Scholar's Rock looks really cool. What is the story behind the Scholar's Rock in the Imperial Garden i.e. what is it made of (Coral?), who put it there etc.?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Junru Zhou_astoria
      Like people in nowadays collect antique and watches, ancient Chinese, especially royals, officials and wealthy merchants, collected this kind of scholar's stone(called Taihu stone in Chinese, meaning that they were originally from the Lake Tai in south of China) to display their affluence and artistic taste. Scholar's stone is a form of art in ancient China, especially during Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Artists composed the multiple stones into different shapes to create visuals of animals or Chinese characters without any artificial or labor carve. Therefore, good artists and well-shaped Taihu stone are rare and super expensive. Due to the geographical location, scholar's stone is usually and mostly found in the houses in southern China(Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province).
      Having one of the best quality Taihu stone in Forbidden city really demonstrates the authority of the emperors in terms of transportation. The stone in the picture was discovered and collected in Song Dynasty(more than 1000 years ago), even older than Forbidden City. It looks like a giant fish from certain perspectives, and if you move to other sides, it would appear to be like other animals. Some people say that they are able to recognize twelve Chinese zodiac signs on this stone. And it is the most interesting part of Taihu stone: different people can see different views by using their imaginations. If you have time, go visit FC in Beijing! You are definitely gonna discover a lot more than you expect:)
      (6 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Falisha Khan
    How did the architecture of the forbidden city impact the Chinese culture?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 437mayd
    How does the government control the lives of the university students?
    (0 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      By granting or withholding scholarship aid. By having political security officers on campus. By paying students to spy and report on other students. We used to have ALL of these in Taiwan, but no longer. Now it's only the granting or withholding of scholarship aid that can be used to control students, kind of like in America.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Julia Kopell
    The palace museum website link is broken, you can still go on their page from google but it isn't the best resource unless you can read Chinese
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Daniel Maugh
    What is a Imperial City?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      An Imperial City would be the place from which the head of an empire (the emperor) would exert her power. You have to be careful, though, because the definition of a "city" is not necessarily a big population center. It may be a defined space within the population center, as
      The City of London is just one district (the financial district) in the capital city of the UK, or the Imperial City was just one district of Beijing.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Laine W
    Why did the Chinese create the Forbidden City and what was its impact on the role of the emperor?
    (0 votes)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user AnyaJ
    How would you cite this?
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lulu.laowcow.legs
    was there any specific place for the emperors to live before the forbidden city was built? where was it? what was it called?
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Forbidden_City
      The site of the Forbidden City was situated on the Imperial city during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty moved the capital from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the south, and in 1369 ordered that the Yuan palaces be razed. His son Zhu Di was created Prince of Yan with his seat in Beijing. In 1402, Zhu Di usurped the throne and became the Yongle Emperor. He made Beijing a secondary capital of the Ming empire, and construction began in 1406 of what would become the Forbidden City.[3] The Forbidden City's plan was designed by many architects and designers, and then it was examined by the Emperor's Ministry of Work.[4] The chief architects and engineers include Cai Xin,[4][5] Nguyen An, a Vietnamese eunuch,[6] Kuai Xiang, Lu Xiang and others.[4]
      (0 votes)