The Imperial Abode Of The Son Of Heaven

Our first sight of the Forbidden City from the panoramic vantage point of Jingshan hill (above) was a great introduction to its immense scale! This place is huge…..I mean HUGE! Considered the world’s largest palace complex, consisting of nearly 8704 rooms across 980 buildings spread over more than 72 hectares of land!! Did I mention huge?

We started our tour in reverse from the Northern Shenwumen gate (Gate of Divine Might) closest to Jingshan hill.

Forming the core of a central axis extending southwards to Yongdingmen and northwards to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower the series of palaces and courts are divided into the Northern inner (private) court and the Southern outer (public) court. Its royal status proclaimed by the yellow roof tiles and vermilion walls.

The 950 metre trek from the Shenwumen Gate in the North to the Wumen Gate (Meridien Gate) in the South is forbidding if not forbidden! Not least because it seemed to us like China’s entire population of one point something billion had decided to keep us company.

We fell prey to an art scam at the very start near the imperial gardens! Led to a substandard exhibition by a young man who struck up a conversation (Our scam antenna did not go up since it was inside the complex.) we were even introduced to a “descendant” of the last emperor dressed in shabby “emperor” costume.

We beat a hasty retreat wondering all the while whether the museum authorities were in on the scam. All things imperial were booted out with the revolution, but they don’t bat an eyelid while exploiting symbols of the same imperialism to extract tourist dollars! Never mind that the last emperor Pu Yi himself was briefly reduced to being a gardener in the Beijing botanical gardens.

Weaving in and out of the halls of Supreme Harmony, Peace and Tranquility…one can’t help but wonder how harmonious or tranquil life really was in the imperial court! Thousands of people lived here but only one of them was an adult male!! Locked away from the outside world and victims of palace intrigue, was the plight of the Emperors – 24 in all from 1420 to 1912 – any better than that of their many concubines or eunuchs who forever left behind their families when they entered these hallowed portals?

This excerpt (reflections of a palace concubine) from an 18th century classic Chinese novel ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’ is evocative of life in a gilded cage!

 How much happier are those whose home is a hut in a field, who eat salt and pickles and wear clothes of cotton, than she is who is endowed with wealth and rank, but separated from her flesh and blood.

Pu Yi himself felt imprisoned. He writes about his early years on the Dragon Throne:

Every evening at dusk when all the people who had come to the palace on business had gone away, a spine chilling call came from the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the still centre of the Forbidden City: “Draw the bolts, lock up, careful with the lanterns.” As the last drawn out sounds of this died away there arose waves of ghostly responses from the eunuchs on duty in all the corners of the palace…..I did not dare go out of doors for the rest of the evening and felt as if all the ghosts and the demons in the stories were gathered around the windows and doors

He was after all only a child!

Regardless of the chequered lives of its inhabitants the Forbidden City was the repository of Chinese imperial might and political power for over 500 years and would have likely fallen victim to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution but for the foresight of Premier Zhou En Lai. The Qing dynasty is long gone but ironically, their opulent home remains an enduring symbol of the Peoples Republic of China.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

67 thoughts on “The Imperial Abode Of The Son Of Heaven

  1. You are so lucky to have had a nice day! I went back in November and all my photos are covered in smog. I especially love your header photo! It is amazing! I loved the Forbidden cIty. DId you go to the park on the hill overlooking down on it?

    1. We climbed all the way to the top! It was a lovely sunny day and I could kick myself for deleting those pics!

  2. Chinese art is so interesting. I love that concrete raised relief panel they have separating the stairs … it is awesome. I also that that tiled relief blog, colorful and interesting. This was a great share, so thank you!

  3. The header picture is amazing, but so are yours. My husband would say to me when I delete stuff…your fingers are too quick, you must be patient. LOL

    The carvings are out of this world, just beautiful. Funny how behind every opulent castle/mansion, etc., there is always a lot of sad stories; part of their allure. I guess.

    1. Thanks Marcia! You are right about the stories! And I seem to be drawn as much to the inherent sadness in these stories as to the pomp and glory!

  4. Hi Madhu–going through tons of e-mails, saw your post, and skipped right to the top of the list. I am never disappointed! The photos are lovely, and you gift us with such a nice blend of personal story, history, and I love the quotes you chose–so thought-provoking. I have not been to China, and this makes me really, really, really want to go! Thanks for another great post.

  5. Great pics, Madhu. I also found the size of the Forbidden City to be mind boggling. It was such a fascinating place to visit. I love those Chinese dragons.

    1. Thank you! Fascinating but a wee bit monotonous if one is not into history! I could sense my husbands interest waning by the time we were midway through 🙂

  6. I guess you all haven’t heard the story of the Wai So Dim.

    Wai So Dim was the chief architect of the Forbidden City. He was also very skilled with feng shui. He went to a fortune teller, who told him that “when the dragon faces the hill, the dynasty shall fall.” It turns out that the forbidden city is build exactly north of a hill. Interpreting this to mean that the palace must not face the hill exactly, so he built the palace a little bit slanted. Thus the dynasty was preserved for hundreds of years more.
    Okay, I totally just made that up. 🙂
    Got you reading though!

    Great post and great pictures!

    1. It is HUGE 🙂 We found ourselves repeating that word all across China! They don’t do anything small scale…..not then, not now!!

  7. All of the photos are lovely, but I’m particularly drawn to “Corridor leading to the Eastern Palaces” and “Detail of Nine Dragon Screen”.

  8. Temple are so cool to look at. You get to examine the details and the intricate design. And then wonder about them.
    I guess I can only settle for the Hsi Lai Temple here in LA unless I go to the country.
    Yours is so much spacious and big.

  9. Truly an impressive structure… I am amazed at the intricate art work that is found all over the palace. 🙂

  10. Wow Madhu, some of our pictures are identical – looks like both of us were lucky with the weather! I was very surprised at the number of shops inside the Forbidden City, apparently there even used to be a Starbucks (it was quite the controversy).

    I too loved the excerpts – what a great way to begin a series on Beijing!

    1. Glad you liked it! I seem to be struggling a bit with Beijing! The shops are the Asian practical approach – convenience over conservation! Thank God they were forced to close Starbucks!

  11. Love seeing your photos and stories of China? Are you there now, or was this in the past? I went to Beijing in September 2010 and I loved it! Did you go to Houhai Lake? The Forbidden City is amazing and HUGE!!! Thanks for sharing… 🙂

    1. It is the scale of the COMPLEX that is huge and hard to capture on camera. (That is the reason I borrowed that header image) Individual buildings are not that large.

  12. Incredible place. I have heard about this place but now Your lovely post “illuminated” it great. I love very much from the third photo from the top.

  13. What a fascinating place, great photos. I love all the quotes too. Imagine a scam artist inside the gates.. they have a lot of nerve.

  14. Thanks for the link and the photo credit! You’ve got some great shots, and will be following your blog from now on.

    Happy travels!


    1. Thank YOU Jason! Your photo added value to my post! That view was our first impression of the FC! Delighted to have you follow this blog! Thanks again!

  15. I was there last summer, and you have told me much more than I had known before. Thank you for including the quotes from the emperor and the concubine.

    Your pictures are fabulous. You have a great eye.

  16. I actually gasped at the marble relief in the staircase. The work that went into these palaces are astounding. Thanks for the ‘tour’, Madhu. 🙂

    1. Here is some more fantastic trivia about that relief:
      It was carved out of one single slab of marble weighing 250 tonnes, and they sprinkled water on the streets in winter, so the slippery ice would facilitate the dragging of the monumental stone from Fangshan (70 km from Beijing) without damaging it!!! And anyone who was caught touching this stone would receive the death penalty! The detail actually shows nine dragons playing with pearls!

      Thank YOU for your interest Tita 🙂

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