Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

The Forbidden City: Official Spaces and Private Quarters

When I arrived in Beijing on my first visit to China in 1981, one of my first goals was to see first-hand the legendary home of China’s last emperors — the Forbidden City. It did not disappoint. Entering through the main gate of the Forbidden City north of Tiananmen Square, I found myself in an enormous courtyard surrounded by magnificent Chinese-style buildings topped by yellow roof tiles that seemed to glitter in the sun. While awestruck by this vision, I soon learned that this was only the first of a series of gates, courtyards, and palace halls, each more splendid than the last. While I never grew tired, or less impressed by subsequent visits to the Forbidden City, with each visit I have become more aware of how its architecture can only be appreciated by placing oneself in the position of the various viewers for which it was intended. The Forbidden City is a massive complex of structures serving a variety of purposes. The initial courtyards, gates and halls that originally impressed me so much were mainly constructed for ceremonial purposes — and my reaction was exactly what the builders intended. Anyone given the privilege of entering these quarters, whether a Chinese official or a member of a visiting diplomatic mission, was supposed to be awestruck, and even a little overwhelmed, by the structures presented, and thus appreciate through this architecture the power and glory of the ruling Chinese dynasty. Even so, this architecture was in some ways simply a stage for grand ceremonies meant to drive this point home with even greater finality. 

But one must not forget that the Forbidden City was not just ceremonial space. At one point you pass through a gate that marks the border between this more or less “public” ceremonial space and the very private living quarters of the emperor, and his empresses and concubines. While the architecture of this inner space remains brilliant, its purpose is no longer to impress outsiders but to give pleasure to its inhabitants. To appreciate these areas you have to reposition yourself to view them from this perspective. Despite the overall grandeur of the Forbidden City, then, it is interesting to see how the bedrooms, studies, and sitting rooms of the emperors were actually quite modest in size — much smaller than any living room in today’s McMansions. Although clearly more elaborately decorated, the layout of interconnected courtyards and surrounding rooms also follows a model not that different from the Chinese homes seen in traditional Beijing residential areas (hutong). The simply beauty of these spaces with their gardens and painted corridor remains a reminder of the how they were intended not to to enhance the living experience of their residents.  Roaming these quarters gives you at least some impression of what this life must have been like.

The size of the Forbidden City means that it is impossible to visit every nook and cranny of the sections open to the public on any one visit (or even over many visits!). That means that in every visit I not only appreciate again the overall architecture that has been so deeply imprinted on my memory, but also see something new that helps me understand better either the City’s ceremonial and residential functions. Thus, on my most recent trip as a study leader for Smithsonian Journeys, I was able to see, for the first time, the stage where the Empress Dowager enjoyed performances of Beijing opera (of which she was a big fan) in the final years of the last imperial dynasty. Although the stage is now quiet, sitting in its surrounding courtyard I could not but imagine the lively entertainments that enriched the lives of China’s imperial families in this bygone age.