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Earliest History of the Forbidden City, the Palace Museum

The earliest history of a Palace in the city of Beijing began in the 12th century with the
legend of the Beijing Hill, which today may be represented by the Coal Hill (Jing Shan).
As can be read in more detail in "The History of Beijing (1) 1153 AD / 1368 AD", The Mongol Khan Kublai, who completed the conquest of China long after the death of the Great Genghis Khan, ordered the construction of an entirely new Capital for China, to be built roughly on the location of the old City of Zhongdu, the Beijing of the obliterated Jin Dynasty.
The Central Capital was to have new moats, new walls, and an Imperial Palace, in effect finalizing the Mongolian move from an entirely nomadic society, towards acceptance and practice of the Chinese way of a sedentary lifestyle with walled cities and one great Capital as the central point for all to revolve around. As the Jin Capital of Zhongdu had been burned to a crisp by the Mongolian victors, the new location chosen was slightly to the north east of where the city of Zhongdu had stood and it is said that the final choice had a lot to do with a prophetic legend which had linked the Mongolians to the city previously, during the Jin Era.
As the legend tells, it was at about the time of the birth of Genghis Khan that the Jin Geomancers at the court in Zhongdu (Beijing) heard of a hill of propitious proportions situated somewhere north of the imperial frontier. The Jin geomancers came to believe that this hill possessed a vital "King Making" force that according to their considerations could be to the disadvantage of the Jin Throne in Zhongdu. Unable to devise a means of combating its negative influence, the only solution seemed to be the removal of the hill and its placing within Jin territories.
As the legend holds it, the Jin subsequently sent court envoys laden with gifts to the territories, and offered the surprised Mongolians who considered the lands their native home to pay for the removal of the Hill. Bewildered and amused, the Mongolians gladly agreed to have this supposedly magical hill moved in order to help the Jin suppress their spirits.
Supposedly, an army of Jin soldiers and workers then arrived in the Mongolian Plains to dig up the entire hill, and transport all of it on oxen- and horse-drawn carts to their Capital of Zhongdu. The story says that that there the earth of the hill was deposited somewhere to the north of the wall of the now destroyed City of Zhongdu, where it was piled up to form a hill once more. Supposedly, they then dug a lake around the hill and planted trees on it, after which it became the Jin pleasure garden of "The Island of Flowered Jade".

Whether or not the entire legend holds true, the Island of Flowered Jade did exist even as early as the Liao Dynasty (907 AD - 1125 AD) and it is also known that somewhat later, in 1179 AD, the hill and the lake became part of Jin Dynasty Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities at which time the hill was ornamented with white marbles and other items pillaged from the conquered Song city of Kaifeng.
Practically, after the Mongolians had leveled the city of Zhongdu, the remaining Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities was the only complex of buildings still fit to serve as an Emperors court. Thus, whether for its magical associations or for more down to earth reasons, the Kublai Khan of the arriving Yuan Dynasty then selected the previous Jin Palace on the eastern banks of this lake to become part of his Imperial Palace in his new city Khanbalik (also: Dadu ; Beijing), making this Hill the first structure of what would later become the current Forbidden City in Beijing. It would however be some time before the new city and its Palace had arisen.
The first structures to be built were the cities defenses, seeing the completion of the city walls in the year 1267. In the next year, 1368 AD, 28 thousand workers set to work setting up temporary palace walls within the walls of the city and only three years later these temporary walls were replaced with permanent ones. The construction of the Mongol Imperial Palace, could only start in the year 1273 AD however, the Halls were put up in rapid succession making use of the existing structures of the Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities seeing the completion of the Palace in only one year.
It was a formidable achievement, and on the first day of the Lunar New Year (February 9 of 1274) the Kublai Khan visited the Main Hall of this Palace receiving the general congratulations upon the completion of this new development in Mongolian history. At the time however, the Palace was not entirely complete and it is recorded that in 1281 the Khan´s Palace was finalized by four thousand soldiers of the Imperial Bodyguard. With the Palace complete, the city itself was under construction several more years until the completion of the city walls in 1292 AD, which was only two years before the Kublai Khan's death.

The new Capital of China was called "Dadu", meaning Great Capital. It had been planned and supervised by a muslim architect whom the Chinese called Yeh-Hei-Teih-Erh, bult like the earlier Mongolian Capital of Karakoram it was built along Chinese lines. Work had begun only after a careful topographical survey had been made according to the rules of geomancy (Feng Shui), after which the city was layed out in districts, with the Palace of the Emperor built along the main north-south axis facing the auspiciously sunny south.

The Imperial Palace of the Yuan Dynasty (1279 AD - 1368 AD), the first of its kind, was called the "Da Nei" or "Great Within"; a term which under succeeding Dynasties would be translated into the more popular term "Forbidden City".
The "Great Within" was the innermost of all the enclosed cities of Dadu. Within the main wall was the Xiao Rampart, named after a herioc Liao Empress, which enclosed the whole complex of palaces, gardens and lakes that later became known as the "Imperial City".
Within the "Imperial City" was the Palace City which was also enclosed by a 36 foot high wall.
According to Marco Polo, both the wall of the "Imperial City (The Xiao Rampart)" and the wall of the Palace City were defended by what he floridly called "Palaces". As we now know these were watchtowers, much alike the ones we find today at each corner of the Forbidden City (Palace Museum).
View of the interior court of the Wu Men - Gate of the Meridian or also known as the Gate of the Mid-day, today the southernmost Gate of the Palace Museum.
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blue sheds built for temporary use along the west- and the east side of the central axis of the courtyard).
The whole opening Ceremony was a great opportunity to show off some of the Chinese Military Prowess to the, no doubt humbled, guest, as Gaisudin relates: "An army of 200.000 soldiers were guarding the area with swords, clubs, halberds, spears, axes and other weapons in their hands".
The guests were treated and pampered as only guests of the greatest Emperor could be. Gaisudin's records tell of how "There were about 2000 people with shield-sized Chinese fans of different shapes and colors on each one's shoulder. Some adult and some child actors were performing, wearing costumes that are not easy to describe in detail. Neither can my pen describe the Palace properly at all. To put it briefly, the distance between the Gate of the Main Hall and the Gate of the Courtyard was 1925 paces. Access to the Inner Palace was forbidden. There were palaces and halls, pavilions and gardens extending to the west and to the east. The floor of the main Palace Hall (Hall of Supreme Harmony) was paved with large smooth ceramic tiles who's luster and color were very much like that of marble. The seems between the tiles were so straight that they seemed to have been drawn manually. Chinese dragons and phoenixes were engraved upon the tiles, which
View of the "Main Hall" described by Gaisudin, and the 1925 paces courtyard surrounding it where the Grand Festivities for the inauguration of the Forbidden City were held on the 1st day of the (Lunar year of) 1421 AD.
had the luster of jade".
Apparently the white ceramic tiles in the Hall of Supreme Harmony which the envoy describes were not black as they are today, but white. The current Hall of Supreme Harmony is paved with especially created so called "Gold Flagstones" which have a very dark tone, however in the Hall of Abundant Virtue (not open to the public) in the Forbidden City one can still find a floor which is paved with white glazed tiles which cover both the floor and parts of the wall.

Gaisudin also writes about the officials and guests invited to the celebration "When the Emperor was seated all the evoys lines up before the Throne and kowtowed five times. Then the Emperor bade them to sit at their tables, on which servants proceeded to place mutton, chicken, rice wine and other types of food and drink. In the meantime, acrobatic performances took place. The celebration did not finish until a ceremony was held at noon. Then the Emperor (Yongle) rewarded the actors and rose to go to the Inner Palace (The Nei Ting or Inner Court). The envoys all took their leave."
As described, in the 18th year of the Yongle Reign (1402 AD - 1424 AD) of the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor moved the Capital from Nanjing to Beijing. On the following New Year's Day (1421 AD), the reign of the Emperor from his New Capital began auspicous as he received congratulations from his officials and foreign envoys of all kinds at the Hall of Worshipping Heaven. However, only four months later the Three Halls of the Outer Court, known as the Three Great Halls for their importance in state function, would fall be struck by lightning and fall victim to a huge fire. As this was considered a very ill omen at the time, all elation about the new start of the Rule was tempered.
Some officials, having their own reasons, even suggested that the Capital must be moved back to Nanjing in its entirety. Angered, at with little choice but to stay on in Beijing rather than the hostile South, the Emperor had one of the officials executed as a warning to the others to stay away from such lines of thought. After some consideration, the rebuilding of the Three Great Halls was ordered, but due to the huge challenges involved -trunks for the supporting beams had to come from the mountains of Sichuan Province- the Halls remained incomplete until long after the Yongle Reign. Reportedly, the reconstruction was completed in the winter of 1441 A.D.

A lesser fire scare occured in the year 1514 AD during the Zhengde Reign of the Ming Dynasty. The time was of the period of the Lantern festival (Shangyuan Festival (上元节)) marking the end of the Lunar New Year. As the tale goes, the Zhengde Emperor accompanied by harim and eunuchs himself witnessed the beginnings of this fire, but remained unawares instead being in awe and inspired by the great lights of the fire-works going off and lanterns decorating the court. Little did the Emperor known that one of the big lanterns had fallen down, igniting a fire which subsequently burned down his residential Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qian Qing Gong).

In the year 1531 AD, a fire raged atop the platform of the Gate of the Meridian (Wu Men) and  destroyed one of its corner towers.

Over a century later, during the summer of 1557 (36th year of the Jiajing Reign of the Ming Dynasty) the second of the "Great Fires" once more destroyed the Halls of the Outer Palace, this time doing even more damage than the disasterous fire of 1421. It is recorded that at the time some 30 thousand laborers were employed to clean out the charred spoils, and 5000 carts were needed to transport the litter out of the Palace.
A Third disastrous fire occurred in 1597 A.D. (the 25th year of the Reign of the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty) when not only the Halls of the Outer Palace were severely damaged, but the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qian Qing Gong) and Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (Kun Ning Gong), the Emperors' and Empresses' private palace in the Inner Court due North of the "Three Great Halls" also caught fire and were severly damaged. No word is mentioned about the Jiaotai Dian Palace which stands in between of these.
Yet again the Imperial Coffers were plundered and it is recorded that trees to replace the substantial wood lost, were cut in Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan- and Guzihou Provinces, the cost of rebuilding the "Three Great Halls" once again amounting to 9.3 million tales of silver.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity, the private living Palace of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644 AD).
1644 Ming fell. Rebels burnt palace before retreat. Only few buildings left standing. The Manchu armies entered Beijing in the same year.

Forbidden City, the Palace Museum in the Qing Dynasty :
In 1420 AD, When the Imperial Palace was completed the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) announced that he would hold a grand celebration to which many Foreign envoys were invited. Many foreign Kings, Princes and court ambassadors had already been transported to Beijing by the "Treasure Fleets" that had prowled the pacific ocean since 1405 AD. And others now flocked to the Chinese Capital via landbound- and sea-borne routes. It is said that the Palace Garden (Yu Huan Yuan) was completed in 1417, but the larger Palace came to its completion in 1420 AD.

Among the many foreigners sent to Beijing to pay hommage and witness was a Persian named Gaisudin. In his record "King Shahrukh's envoy in China" (Honghua Book Company, 1981), he, as a
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The white marble bridge which Marco Polo described as leading from the "round city island" to the "Island of Flowered Jade", renamed to Hill of Ten Thousand years in 1271 AD. It has been one of Beijing's most scenic sights since Marco Polo layed eyes upon it at the end of the 13th century.
Gongyuan), and from the (round city) island a white marble bridge led north (across the waters of the north lake) to the island of flowered jade, which itself had been renamed the Hill of Ten Thousand Years in the year 1271 AD. The east-west crossing was completed from the round city by ways of another long wooden bridge. On the west bank were two other palaces, one belonging to the heir apparent and one to the Empress-Dowager. According to Marco Polo, the heir apparent's Palace was in the same style and on the same scale as the Kublai's own.

Thus, with the construction of this Grand Capital with its geometrically balanced Chinese design and the lavish and grandiose decorations and designs of the "Great Within" a pattern was laid down that would provide the model for the later Palace to come, the "Forbidden City" of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties.
Although the city of Khanbalik would also be destroyed and its Imperial Palace ordered torn down by the succeeding Ming Dynasty, its general features had been so awe inspiring and of such an essentially Chinese design that many of its features were copied into the Capital Beijing of the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D) and its Imperial Palace, the "Forbidden City". Remnants of the city walls of Dadu, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty, can still be found in the northern suburbs of Beijing (at Yuan Dynasty Dadu City Walls Park) and as for the Palace of Kublai Khan, today its only remains can be found just north-west of the current "Forbidden City" adjacent the south Gate of Beihai Park. Given the ancient records we may further assume that the current Islands of Green Jade situated in the waters of North Lake and since the 17th century decorated with a White Marble Dagoba (Bai Ta), is another part of the remains of the Kublai Khan's magnificent palace.
View the Land & Maritime Silk Road (of the Yuan Dynasty Era)
A Schematic Map of the Eurasian Trade Routes existing in the 13Th Century. Clearly marked in Red Accent on the Map are the cities of the network of land-bound trading routes through Central Asia known as the Silk Road (the path of Marco Polo and others).
Map Trade Routes in Asia in the 13Th Century.
In Marco Polo's records the Mongol Imperial City had eight such "Palaces" to each wall, one on each of the four corners, and one over each of the four gates and each watchtower was used to store different types of military gear needed in case the city would find itself besieged.
The precise dimensions of the Palace City itself are still under debate but the enclosure probably measured somewhat under half a mile (800 meters) from east to west, and around a 1000 yards from north to south. Access was provided by six gates, one each in the north, east and west walls, and three additional gates facing the south. Of the three southern gates the central gate had, as with the Gate of the Meridian (Wu Men) and the Gate of Divine Military Might (Shenwu Men) of the Forbidden City today, three openings - which led Marco Polo to mistakenly state that the city had five gates in the South.
The Great Central opening was reserved exclusively for the Emperor. As  Marco Polo says; "through it he (the Emperor) entered the heart of the Great Interior, a collection of buildings that were grouped around two main halls. These in turn were set along a central north-south axis and surrounded by a gallery pierced by gates."
When Marco Polo described the Kublai Khan's Palace as the "largest that
was ever seen" he was almost certainly not refering to the "Great Interior" but rather only to the more important of the two Main Halls located at its center. This was the "Chamber of Great Light", the Throne Room used for coronations and for the major celebrations at the beginning of the Lunar New Year and those for the birthday of the Emperor. This Hall measured 210 feet from east to west, and 126 feet across from north to south and its ceiling was 94.5 feet high.
The entire Hall was surrounded by a marble veranda and perched upon a platform 46 feet wide and altogether 52.5 feet high. The outer edge of this platform was supported by columns.
The whole building was eleven feet above the ground. Marble staircases, one on each side, led to the veranda and from there to the Throne Room.

Beyond the "Chamber of Great Light", at the back of the Palace, lay extensive apartments that served as treasure chambers, and as quarters for the Kublai's many wives and concubines. The Fransescan ascetic Friar Odoric of Pordenone who spent three years in the city of Dadu in the 1320's states that there were 24 columns of gold in the Palace and that its walls were hung with skins of red leather. Chinese sources have since revealed that what he actually saw was screens hung with red leather and that what Pordenone described was a practice only used in winter to keep out the bone-chilling northern winds.

More precise descriptions of the "Chamber of Light" are provided by Chinese documents from the era. A Ming bureaucrat sent to survey the Palace after the victory of the Ming over the Mongolian Dynasty and their ejection from the Capital Dadu (Beijing). According to his accounts:
"The bases of the columns are in green peppered stone, and the upper pediments of alabaster and the surrounding railing is of grained stone. The floor is covered with double carpets. The red beams are painted with gold, with carved dragons on them. On all sides are red carved windows bordered with rings. The ceiling is painted in gold and decorated. The double flight of steps are in marble and the red balustrades are gilded. Under a copper flying eagle is placed the seven-jeweled imperial throne in design of clouds and dragons. The throne has a white cover and a cushion of cloth of gold."
The Chamber of Great Light dominated the front, or southern section of the "Great Interior", which included other important buildings. To the rear of these buildings - that is to the north and through two sets of gates- was a group of four more buildings including the other major Hall. This structure had a smaller length and width than the "Chamber of Great Light" but it was much higher, probably having two stories. Altogether the Khan's Palace set a high standard for anyone who would be trying to outdo the greatness of the Mongol Rulers.

Outside the Walls of the Palace City but within the "Imperial City" stood Marco Polo's green hill. A hundred paces high and over a mile in circumference the Green Hill was constructed of earth dredged from the lake which lay to the West of the "Great Interior". Here the Khan had trees planted, which were mainly evergreens, brought there from all parts of China. The grounds were paved with lapis lazuli brought through the Silk Road from Afghanistan, which functioned to intensify the green colors of the trees and at the summit of the hill was a "handsome green palace".
Bretschneider, the renowned 19th century specialist on the history of Peking argued that Marco Polo's "Green Hill" was in fact the Hill on the Island of Flowered Jade, basing his assertion on the fact that he could find no separate reference to such a hill in Chinese sources written before the 16th century. However, contemporary Chinese sources trace today's Coal Hill (Jingshan) back to a Yuan Dynasty Era "Green Hill", three centuries earlier. If that is the case than the the "Green Hill" reportedly seen by Marco Polo lay on the cities central north-south axis, where it served to protect Kublai from the unpropitious influences of the cold, dark, windy and gloomy north.
Surrounding the Green Hill was the Divine Menagerie, a park where white harts, musk, deer roebuck, stags, squirrels and other animals wandered. Kublai could walk through this park on paved paths, which were raised above ground level so that mud and rain water could not collect on them. To the west of the park and the "Great Interior" was the lake, about a mile and a quarter in length from north to south and teeming with a great variety of fish.
A wooden bridge led from the shore to an island known today as the "round city (circular city)", the remains of which can be found situated adjacent the south gate of the North Lake Park (Beihai
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An overview Map of Beihai Park entire
Foreigner, for the first time described the sight of the later legendary Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) of Beijing, and described the feasts held on the occassion of its inauguration. The event was intended to make Beijing the Capital of the entire world by showing off its remarkable, if not simply astounding, wealth and highly developed culture.

In the great gathering that surrounded the inauguration of the Forbidden City and the new Imperial Capital as the center of the Civilized World, the greatest city the world had ever seen, the Persian Mission in Beijing stayed in the city for a full five months. Eventually on the First Day of the Lunar New Year of the 19th year of the Yongle Reign of the Ming Dynasty (17 July 1402 AD – 12 August 1424 AD) they where participants in the greatest opening ceremony that China, and thus the Eastern World entire, had ever witnessed.
In his book, Gaisudin tells of how one day a Ming Court Official told them; "Tomorrow is the Lunar New Years Day
YouTube Video: Introduction to the Forbidden City Palace of the Yongle Emperor and his many sucessors (Part 1 of 6).
and the new Emperor will move (in)to the Palace. An Imperial Edict forbids the wearing of any article of white clothing, because according to Chinese custom, people usually wear white clothing when they arre in a period of mourning".
Of the following day, Gaisudin relates: "It was only at midnight that the Monks came to wake us up, helped us to mound our horses, and led us to the Palace, which was magnificent group of buildings which had just been completed after 19 years of construction. That night the houses and shops of the big city were lit up by torches, candles and lamps. It was as bright as if the sun had risen; even if an article as small as a needle would fall on the ground it could not be missed. The coldness of the night seemed decreased in the brightness. Everyone was admitted into the new Palace .. ".
Later on, Gaisudin's story continues, saying "The Emperor began to entertain his officials. Foreign envoys were seated outside the Imperial Hall (I.e. then named Hall of Worshipping Heaven but now known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony)" (The officials below the 3rd grade and the Foreign envoys were seated in
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The Palace Museum - Inner & Outer Imperial Palace Perimeter Map,Quick Navigate using this unique satellite image overview of the Palace Museum Perimeter and the greater Imperial Palace Area.
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- The Palace Museum (1) Main Index and Introduction
- The Palace Museum (2) Earliest History of the Imperial Palace of Beijing
                                      (3) Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty (1644 AD - 1924 AD)

- The Palace Museum (4) Wider Perimeter, Outer Walls & Gates of The Imperial City
- The Palace Museum (5) Outer Walls & Gates of the Palace, the "Purple Forbidden
- The Palace Museum (6) Wai Chou - Outer Court
- The Palace Museum (7) Nei Ting - Inner Court
- The Palace Museum (8) Yu Huan Yuan - Main Palace Garden
- The Palace Museum (9) Palace Museum Collections & Exhibitions

- The Palace Museum (10) Architectural Structures
Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) made Jingling (near present day Nanjing the Capital of Jiangsu Province) his Capital and bestowed upon his fourth son Zhu Di the title of "Prince of Yan". Yan was the ancient name for the 16 territories north-east of the yellow river traditionally governed from the city of Yan, the location of Beijing through the previous centuries. Thus Zhu Di was sent to Beijing to live there and Govern his northern fiefdom protected by the Great Wall of China.
After Zhu Yuanzhang's death, his fourth grandson, Zhu Yunwen, was chosen as the heir to the Throne. Not much thereafter, in 1402 AD, Zhu Di rebelled, soon stricking down from his northern stronghold and deposing the true Emperor, Zhu Yunwen and having himself crowned the Emperor of all of China. The name he chose for his reign period was Yongle, which is why Zhu Di is usually known as Emperor Yongle or "the Yongle Emperor".
In the year following his usurping of the Dragon Throne, Zhu Di, besieged by southern loyalists to the true Emperor, already felt uncomfortable, plotting his "escape from the Capital" starting with the promotion of Beiping (the City of Yan) Prefecture to the level of Beiping City. At the same time plans were made for the moving of  the Capital to Zhu Di's personal stronghold at the city of Yan (Beijing).
In the following years large groups of people were moved from the City of Nanjing, Shanxi Province
and Zhejiang Province northward to Beijing. Hundreds of thousands flocked to the city of Beijing in waves.
By the year 1406 AD, the growing city was designated Imperial Capital by Decree and the Emperor Zhu Di himself came to Beijing to see and supervise all of the constructions of the Imperial Palace. The construction of the Palace began in that year, and it was completed by the year 1413 AD. Unfortunatly for Zhu Di, especially given all the superstitious implications involved, not long after its completion, the new "Forbidden City" of the Emperor was struck by lightning and caught fire. It was huge bad omen in itself, but on top of this, the city of Beijing was struck by a heavy earthquake only shortly thereafter, leaving much of the palace damaged or ruined.
While everyone was left to wonder whether or not the God of the Heaven's had been angered by the usurpation of the Throne and Zhu Di was left to deal with the political fall out of this disastrous event, construction on the Palace in Beijing has to start all over again, at huge expense. Rebuilding of the Palace could only begin after the necessary materials had been accumulated on site, which delayed the start of construction until 1416 AD.
Ultimately, the Forbidden City was completed in the year
Giant bronze statue of Ming Emperor Zhu Di - Yongle, who built the city, founded the Forbidden City Palace and rebuilt the Great Wall of China in Stone.
1420. It was inaugurated on the first day of the very next year, 1421 AD, when the Emperor Zhu Di officially moved his Throne to the city of Beijing, making it the Capital of Ming Dynasty Era China.
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