“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
We always desire what is forbidden to us. Having grown up eternally questioning norms and traditions with the inability to accept them at their face value, some may call this rebellious, while others may call this righteous. Which is why, when traversing the enchanting Forbidden City in Beijing, China, it’s very name took on a poignant meaning considering it’s factual history, and my own temperament and inquisitive nature. To think that it took 14 years to complete the main structure from 1406 to 1420 by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. To unraveling uncommon factoids, of that which is forbidden.
Size Matters: The World’s Largest Imperial Palace
The Forbidden City is 720,000 square meters / 7,750,000 square feet, made of 90 palace quarters with courtyards, 980 buildings and a whopping 8728 rooms. This is about 3 times larger than the Louvre Palace of Paris, and larger than the Vatican in Italy (which is 440,000 square meters).
Pointing to Heaven
It was believed that the power of the emperor was a gift from Heaven, and so the palace was the center of the world. All the main structures were organized symmetrically on the north-south central axis of Beijing, with the Heaven pointer to the North Star (Polaris), the only stationary star. Pointing to heaven was considered the most noble of all.
The Power of Nine
Almost all the gates are designed in a 9X9 mathematical array of gilded door-studs, which is because 9 implies supremacy and eternity in Chinese culture. There are also 81 doornails on the gates of the Forbidden City (9X9). The Forbidden City is the world’s largest collection of medieval wooden structures, too, and a masterpiece of traditional Chinese architecture. Due to the wooden extensiveness, fire prevention is critical, and there are 94 underground hydrants, and 4,866 fire extinguishers.
The Power of Red
The main colors are yellow and red, which is a symbol of good fortune. The yellow was a symbol of supreme power and only used in the imperial family.
It is always fascinating to know that cultural demarcations were not as cut as they are at present. In the west of the Forbidden City, the Arabic architecture of the Yude Hall (built as a bathroom in the Yuan Dynasty) was under the influence of a Persian architect.
Cats, passed down from the Ming and Qing dynasties, are believed to be descendents of royal cats. They are the guardians, in reality, alongside the spirits of auspicious animal statues which bring prosperity and are placed on corners and edges of prominent roof ridges. Think dragons, phoenixes, and lions, which are also part of the feline family. As king of the animal kingdom, lions are regarded as symbols of strength and power, and are at the entrances of many halls. There were many others too – hawks, tortoises, elephants, and more, all symbolic of being at one with the world of nature.
Despite a plethora of animals, the roofs are bird-free. To retain their cleanliness and pristine look, each slope of the roof is higher and the roof spine is wider than a typical bird’s claw. So a bird is unable to land cling onto the roofs, and even if they do, the glazed tile does not hold the grip well, making it a naturally slippery surface.
Considering that it is a traditional dynasty structure made in an era when pollution and population were minimal, the Outer Court (distinct from the residential Inner Court) curiously has no trees. This is believed to be so that enemy armies did not have vegetation to hide in, or that the ceremonies held in the outer court were not disturbed by fauna.