Beijing's imperial palace withstood fires and sabotage in its first 500 years; more recently, it's been beseiged by political extremists and hordes of tourists

NO place epitomizes old Beijing more than the Forbidden City.

One of the Chinese capital's few remaining pockets of imperial pomp amid vast proletarian sprawl, the palace overlooks Tiananmen Square and sits astride Beijing's central axis running north and south.

Off-limits for more than 500 years, the complex was opened to the public after the Communist victory in 1949.

The largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient structures in China, the complex was begun in 1406 by an estimated 1 million laborers and craftsmen.

The throne room was positioned so that the seated emperor, known as the Son of Heaven, could have an unobstructed view down the narrow corridor that was then Tiananmen Square to the far walls of the imperial city. Today the royal view is broken by the mausoleum of a latter-day emperor, Mao Zedong.

The Forbidden City, with its 800 buildings and 9,000 rooms, was designed to keep interlopers out and emperors in. Over the course of five centuries, 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors held court and lived in royal seclusion here, served by 70,000 eunuchs and 9,000 ladies-in-waiting. Puyi, China's last official emperor, was deposed in 1912 when the country became a republic; he was forced to leave the palace 12 years later.

Most of the buildings are post-18th-century, given the palace's proclivity for burning down. Parts of the compound were periodically destroyed by fires from lightning, fireworks, and lantern displays or set by court eunuchs hoping to get rich off repairs.

Every day about 30,000 tourists, one-third of them foreigners, are permitted to file under Tiananmen Gate (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) into the inner sanctum of China's imperial past. They enter the Three Great Halls, the heart of the palace, where the emperor would conduct ceremonies and imperial examinations, sponsor banquets, and hold imperial audiences of up to 100,000 in the massive courtyard outside. Visitors were restricted starting in 1989 to protect the buildings from wear.

Tourists flock to see one of the world's largest collections of Chinese art. As Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan from the advancing Communists in 1948, he took some of the finest jades, bronzes, and paintings with him. Today they are in Taipei's fortress-like Palace Museum.

The Forbidden City suffered a second modern onslaught in the ultra-leftist, anti-tradition hysteria of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The palace was saved from destruction by Red Guards only through the personal intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai.

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