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What is the Forbidden City?

By Jane Harmon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The Forbidden City is the imperial palace complex in Beijing where Chinese emperors lived and ruled in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, and houses museum exhibits of Chinese artwork and relics. The complex was very carefully designed in terms of both architecture and location, and still retains most of its original buildings.


The complex is surrounded by a wall about 30 feet (10 meters) high, and a moat almost 20 feet (6 meters) deep. The walls encompass an area almost 8 million square feet, or 168 acres (679,872 square meters) — about the size of 140 football fields. The complex houses 9,999 rooms; nine is considered lucky in Chinese numerology. It consists of two main areas: the outer court, which is where governance took place; and the inner court, which was the imperial family's home. The palace got its name because it was forbidden for commoners or even uninvited nobility to enter its sacred precincts.

The walls of the buildings in the complex are red, and their roofs yellow, with the exception of the library roof, which is black, and the roof of the crown prince's living quarters, which is green. A specific shade of yellow was the imperial color and was forbidden to those who were not members of the imperial family. Everything in the emperor's personal rooms was yellow, including his clothing and bedding. The complex is arranged on the North-South axis of ancient Beijing, and is considered to be one of the best areas ever designed in terms of feng shui, a practice of arranging buildings and items to attract positive energy and good luck.


The largest royal complex in the world, it was constructed over a 14 year period, from 1407 to 1420, during the Ming Dynasty. It was the home and center of government for 24 emperors of China through the end of the Ming Dynasty and the entirety of the Qing Dynasty, until the overthrow of Imperial Rule in the early part of the 20th century. It was home to an enormous number of people, as many as 9,000 in the high point of the Qing Dynasty, including the royal family, concubines, servants, guards, and civil servants.

The last royal inhabitant of the Forbidden City was Pu Yi, who was chosen to succeed his adoptive grandmother, the Dowager Empress Cixi. He took the throne at the age of three in 1909, but he lost most of his power due to a revolution when he was five. He and the royal family continued to live in the imperial complex until forced to flee by social upheavals in 1924. Director Bernardo Bertolucci made a movie about his life in 1987, which was filmed on location.

After Puyi left the city, it was evacuated and most of the valuable items were removed for safekeeping. Many of them were eventually taken to Taiwan when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) and it left mainland China. Portions of the enclosing walls were demolished in the 1950s to make the open area now called Tiananmen Square; it is named after the Tiananmen Gate into the palace complex, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The entire complex is expected to be restored by 2020, with most of the restoration being done by hand with traditional artisan techniques.


The Palace Museum has over 1 million pieces of art spanning 5 millennia, including paintings, calligraphy, jade carvings, lacquer pieces, ceramics, and bronzes. It also has collections of ancient toys, clocks, and musical instruments, as well as artifacts from daily life in the imperial complex. It is the largest museum in China, and can accept over 80,000 visitors a day.

WiseTour is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon236780 — On Dec 26, 2011

@amphibious54: It was Sun Yat Sen and the revolutions he led that ended the Chin dynasty to establish the Republic of China and not the People's republic. Just want to make it clear the ROC came first, which is still ruling the island of Taiwan after it lost a civil war to the communist ruled PRC.

By anon160667 — On Mar 16, 2011

Why did the emperor leave the Forbidden City once a year to pray? Why was the new calendar so important each year?

What was an advantage of being an emperor in ancient China? What is one disadvantage of being an emperor in ancient China?

By anon160666 — On Mar 16, 2011

What did the emperor learn from the foreigners as a young man?

By GlassAxe — On Oct 25, 2010

@ Amphibious54- I thought that the movie the last emperor was a great film chronicling the end of the Forbidden City Palace. There was also a book written by Bernard Behr called the last emperor. It was a companion book to Bernard Bertalucci's film, but it went into a little more depth into certain areas. If you enjoyed the movie, you might also enjoy the book.

By Amphibious54 — On Oct 25, 2010

@ Anon1971- Pu Yi, the last resident of the Forbidden City in China, died in 1967. He was the last true emperor of China before it became the People’s Republic of China. As far as I know, Pu Yi had no children, but he had numerous brothers and sisters. He did have five wives throughout his life, but some were his wife by title only. The story of Pu Yi is an interesting one, and there are a lot of sources available on his life. Good luck with your research project.

By anon1971 — On Jun 22, 2007

i am doing a research task and i am wondering if there are still any people in china who have seen pu Yi or is a relative of his?

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