Touring the Forbidden City, home of the last Emperor of China

IMG_0911It was hard to believe that we were leaving Tiananmen Square to tour one of our can’t-wait-to-see locations, the Forbidden City.  After all, we had seen this site in The Last Emperor years ago and remembered it fondly. Filmed with the permission of Chinese authorities on location and awarded an Oscar for Best Picture in 1989, the movie showed us a China that few people knew and told the sad story of an emperor forced to leave this elaborate complex.  Now, here we were, thinking about what it must have been like to live in this spacious, beautiful, well-fortified architectural complex in the heart of Beijing.

According to what we’ve learned from our guide, from searching Wikipedia, and from studying a couple of other resources prior to our trip, construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 and lasted 14 years, requiring more than a million workers. Whole logs found in the jungles of southwestern China and marble from quarries near Beijing were used in the building of this site, known best perhaps as the home of Puyi, a two-year-old boy named emperor in 1908.  During part of his reign, Puyi had several wives and concubines who lived in the last of the buildings we toured. Puyi left the Forbidden City after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 when he was imprisoned as a war criminal and wrote his memoirs.  He is still known throughout the world as The Last Emperor of China.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Forbidden City

Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a huge rectangle containing 980 surviving buildings and (some say) 9,999 rooms.  (That number is cited primarily because the number 9 figures so prominently in the belief that odd numbers represent yang, one of the key Chinese design factors known as yin and yang.) Our guide told us that if you let a baby sleep each night of his life in a different room of the Forbidden City, he or she would be 27 years old upon the last night in the last room!  (Oh, what you learn on tours!!!)

We think the number nine is tied to good luck, but we’re not sure.  Even so, odd numbers, especially 9, are evident throughout; for example, there are 81 (9 times 9) brass studs on some of the doors, and the main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are arranged in groups of three.


The buildings we saw reminded us of the graceful designs found in the Lama Temple. (Click here for that post.) Since yellow is the color of emperors, almost all roofs bear these golden-colored glazed tiles with sloping ridges.



At the corner of each roof is a line of statuettes, beginning with a man riding a phoenix and ending with an imperial dragon. These groupings contain an uneven number of mythical creatures — ranging from 3 to 9 — but we read that the Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in China permitted to do so.

Here’s a close-up of one of the dragons from the Forbidden City.


We noted again the royal blues and reds that we saw at the Lama Temple as well as the gold embellishments, and the attention to detail and remarkable craftsmanship.

Detail under the roofline on one of the buildings in the Forbidden City

Detail under the roofline on one of the buildings in the Forbidden City

Detail of a dragon inset

Detail of a dragon inset

In the picture below, this central ramp is the Marble Carriageway reserved for the emperor’s entryway into the building. We were not allowed (understandably so!) to climb onto this carriageway to get a close picture, but we’ve read that there are scenes of dragons chasing pearls among clouds. Whatever is pictured here is beautiful even from a distance!


Bert wanted to examine the architecture more closely, so when we were dismissed from the group and allowed to explore on our own, he went down into the courtyard to get a better look. We didn’t know the extent of the area of the Forbidden City, so we were surprised to learn that the length of the rectangle on which is is positioned measures 3,153 feet from north to south.  We definitely underestimated the size of the complex, thinking that there was only one main hall and a few smaller outbuildings.  Not so.  The entire Outer Court was expansive, taking several hours to explore.


A moat carries water from west to east with five major marble bridges crossing it.  This picture was taken behind one of the buildings where the graceful curves and picturesque landscaping (and lack of people!) caught our attention.


Stately Chinese lions guard the entrances of the halls. (Look in the lower right hand corner of this picture to see an incense burner.)


We were allowed to take pictures from the entryways, but not actually go in to any of the buildings.  This shot (taken with Bert’s iPhone held over the heads of many tourists) shows the interior of the one of the buildings in which the emperor actually lived. (Nice digs, right?)


As always, we were amazed by the huge crowds — from tour groups to individual families — traveling to Beijing to see this national treasure.

In 1987, the Forbidden City was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and, according to China Tourist Maps website, it’s one of the most attractive five palaces in the world with the others being Versailles (France), Buckingham Palace (London), the White House (Washington, D.C.) and the Kremlin (Russia).



Although our guide kept telling us that we had good weather with clear visibility due to a front that had moved in, we were still suffering in the 90+ temperatures, grateful that we had carried a bottle of water with us for the afternoon.  Others took measures into their own hands in their own ways!


Near the end of the journey, I saw this little boy appropriately dressed in what looked to be an outfit worthy of a child emperor . . . like Puyi.  I came to find out that he and his dad had rented the costumes for a photo adventure! You’ll have to check back since I have more pictures of them to share in the next post: Flying over the Forbidden City! 


The experience of seeing both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in one day was both exhilarating and exhausting, but worth the effort.  Again, our thanks to Jack Xiong, our guide, for sharing his passion for the architectural and cultural treasures of Beijing.

If you’ve missed any of our posts on China, go to the bar at the top of the page and click China for links to the other posts. Feel free to leave us a comment below.  And, as always, thanks for reading!  

For more information:

Viking River Cruises: Imperial Jewels of China:

“Forbidden City.” Wikipedia.

7 thoughts on “Touring the Forbidden City, home of the last Emperor of China

  1. twobrownfeet

    We’d seen, ‘The Last Emperor’ many years back. I vaguely remember seeing the trailer as a kid. Never really thought we’d enter, ‘The Forbidden City’ someday. 🙂

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      We felt the same way. Saw the movie but never dreamed we’d be there. In fact, when we toured the place, we kept saying, “Pinch me. This can’t be real.” But it was, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

    1. Rusha Sams

      It was definitely a trip of our lifetime — we’ll probably never get back, but would if we could! Hope you enjoy our posts — we’re trying to capture the essence! Thanks for reading & commenting!

  2. Mike's PhoBlography

    In the Chinese language, in particular Mandarin, the pronunciation of the character for the number nine is a homophone for longevity, in that both characters are different yet sound the same. That is why the number eight is positive (homophone for fortune) and the number four is negative (homophone for death). Beside the Temple of Heaven is a circular mount, wherein a single stone is surrounded by nine, which is surrounded by 18, then 27, then 36…to a total of 81.

    1. Rusha Sams

      Thank you for this very informative comment! I have not seen the information on the homophone connection to the meaning of the numbers. And the circular mount would have been a great sight to see. We didn’t get to the Temple of Heaven. Guess we just have to go back! Appreciate your reading and commenting.

It makes our day to hear from you.