To understand the design behind the Forbidden City, one must look at Ancient Chinese beliefs and architecture. The Chinese are a very spiritual people with many beliefs that go back to the beginning of its culture. One of these core beliefs are the five cardinal points that everything in life whether spiritual or physical is somehow subjected to. In order of worst to best they are the center, the south, the east, the west, and the north. From the north came invaders and all sorts of strange people and rumors. Bad omens came from the north and the north had unbearably hot summers and freezing cold winters.
In the northwestern parts of the country were high mountains that separated and kept safe those of the middle kingdom and the barbarians. The south was full of good omens and fortune. It teemed with high population and rich cities. It had plenty of sunshine and rain to help crops grow. For this reason, palaces, temples, and other buildings were built facing the south. Outer gates opened south to invite the good omens in and open courtyards benefitted from southern sunshine. Emperors were considered Sons of Heaven. Everything under Heaven and on earth rotated around them.
The Sons of Heaven would sit on golden thrones that faced south as this would assure harmony and prosperity for their people. Principles that were used by Chinese architects at this time go all the way back to the Shang dynasty which ended in 1122 BC. Unlike medieval Europe architects who created massive building the reached great heights or would dig deep into the earth, Chinese architects spread their buildings close to the ground. They did not want to disturb the spirits who resided in the ground or who floated up above so they were careful to not dig into the earth or construct to high.
Emperor Yung Lo and his tutor, a Buddhist priest, were the visionaries behind the Forbidden City. While not much is known about the priest Emperor Yung Lo ruled during the Ming dynasty from 1402-1424 and was nicknamed the Black Dragon. He rebuilt the city of Peking, later named Beijing, which had been destroyed during the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty in 1368. He made the plans for the Forbidden City and placed three master architects in charge of its construction. While Emperor Yung Lo was the first Son of Heaven to occupy the Forbidden City he was not alive to see its completion.
The reconstruction of Peking would be over twenty-two miles long and would encompass and area over twenty-six square miles. The Inner City, later called the Tatar City by the Manchu’s, was roughly square in shape and about four by three and half miles. Included within the Inner City limits was the Imperial City, which enclosed the palaces of the Forbidden City. The overall plan for the Forbidden City, or the Great Within, called for a rectangular enclosure about threequarters of a mile long and about half a mile wide containing about 240 acres of ground.
Two and a quarter miles of ramparts with 4 towered gates surrounded the enclosure. Two great gates stood in the center of their respective walls one on the north side and the main gate, or Meridian Gate, on the south wall. The Forbidden City was linked to the rest of the Empire through this gate by a straight road. It progressed from the far outer gate of the Chinese city through the front gate of the Tatar City, through the lesser Dynastic Gate, and finally through the Meridian Gate of the palace city itself and into the first courtyard of the Great Within.
To make embasseries or northern chieftains feel more humble this road, a great three-mile stretch, would be spread with gold dust prier to their arrival. Two other large, but less impressive, gates on the east and west sides of the Great Within stood just to the south in their respective walls. On each side of the north to south central core of buildings many smaller buildings were built. These buildings included smaller palaces, living quarters and offices. Each of these buildings was carefully placed according to their importance of its role of the palace life.
With only a few exceptions all of the buildings faced south. The first of these exceptions stood in the northwestern section. It was an area reserved for tactless women and concubines that no longer amused the emperor. The second areas were the open stages of theatres. They faced north so that the Emperor would not comprise his dignity by facing north. He could enjoy the shows put on while still facing south. The palaces of the Great Within were screened from the North by a man-made hill commonly called coal hill. It was believed by the common people to be full of coal that could be used for fuel during a long siege.
Formally this hill was known as Protecting Hill of the Great Within. Two enclosures guarded the palaces from the east and west like coal hill. The Supreme Temple of the Ancestors on the east and the Alter of Earth and Grain, now called Central Park, on the west. During the Greatest of days during the Ming Dynasty the Forbidden City gave home to over ten thousand people including the Emperor, his wives and children, servants, eunuchs, maids, and as many as three thousand guards. The role of the Emperor required him to have complete isolation from the rest of the world.
This meant that everything needed by the role family was supplied within the palace precincts. It was the biggest project since the Great Wall. Two hundred thousand men spend over forty years building the Forbidden City. Artisans and craftsman from many different provinces were brought in. Orders were sent to the south for the precious persea nanmu, a fragrant wood from Yunnana and Kweichow provinces for the pillars, for stones of the best quality from Feng Shang, for beautiful marble from Hsuchow, and for specially made bricks from Ling Ching and Soochow.
The roofs of the palaces were covered in beautiful glazed tiles and the supporting timbers were painted in bright eye catching colors. The ridge pools had a mythical fish-tailed creature carved into it at each end to protect the inhabitants from calamities and processions of animals were shown marching up the curse of the eaves. Over the years various palaces have been destroyed, rebuilt, and renamed. Work had scarcely been completedwhen the three Great Throne Halls and man of the separate palaces were destroyed in a fire.
Shortly after two other state halls were destroyed in a fire during the Feast of Laterns in honor of the new year. After being rebuilt in 1516 they were destroyed two more times and rebuilt two more times before the Ming dynasty was over. Earthquakes in 1624, 1666, 1679, 1680, 1731, and 1830 caused heavy damage. In 1644 after the Manchu’s took over China and the Qing dynasty began, they rebuilt the ruined palaces replacing the extravagant persea nanmu with pinewood pillars and the traditional one story pavilions were replaced with two story pavilions.