Tripping Around the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

“Careful,” my companion said, reaching out to catch me as, once more, I tripped over a high threshold. I had been gazing upwards at some of the roof decorations as we explored the Forbidden City and had forgotten yet again, to watch out for the twelve inch high thresholds across the many entrances to various parts of the palace.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing (Ann Burnett)

Legend says that they were deliberately made high so that devils and demons could not enter; a more prosaic reason is that they helped keep out draughts. And unwary tourists.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, unique because of its extensive collection of wooden buildings.
  • You will begin to appreciate the history and culture of China.
  • Good for: history buffs, those who appreciate Chinese arts, any tourist.

History and Layout of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was designated a UNESCO Heritage site in 1987 — it is the largest collection of historical wooden buildings in the world — with enough history to overwhelm even the most avid scholar. For more than 500 years, it was the home of the 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, until the last emperor, Pu Yi, was deposed in the early years of the twentieth century. During this time, the many formal rituals and royal protocols meant that only a few honoured people were allowed to enter its precincts and hence the name, Forbidden City, came about.

Rooftop decorations (Ann Burnett)

Yellow was the colour of the emperors so all the roofs, apart from the library and the Crown Prince’s Residences, are glazed yellow tiles. Indeed, the colour yellow is everywhere.

The Forbidden City is roughly a rectangle covering 74 hectares in the centre of Beijing, to the north of Tiananmen Square. It is surrounded by a 26 foot high city wall and a moat 150 feet wide, and consists of around 1000 wooden buildings. It is said that there are more than 9000 rooms, some of which have been restored, but many are still in a state of some dilapidation and others have been damaged by fire. The work to preserve this ancient site is continuous and areas are cordoned off where work is being carried out.

The southern part of the City consists of the Outer Court and was where ceremonies were conducted while the northern part, the Inner Court, was where the emperor and his extended family lived. In the centre of the Forbidden City is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, built in the 15th century and used for coronations and other important events. As the buildings are constructed of wood, there are many vats called shuigangoutside; these held water in case of fire and were heated underneath in winter to stop the water freezing over.

Urns would have been filled with water to douse any fires (Ann Burnett)

So Much to See, So Many People

It was while gazing up at the decorated roof tops that I tripped over the threshold. Part of the problem is the crush number of people who come through here every day. Groups of Chinese tourists are marshalled through the complex, microphones blaring out instructions and facts, and long queues to some of the more popular buildings discourage visitors from lingering once inside. Our guide named all the gates and buildings for us, including the main Hall of Supreme Harmony, but eventually we suffered information overload. There is just so much you can take in.

The Crane symbolises longevity (Ann Burnett)

I asked if I could buy an English guide book or photographs, more for studying later to see where I’d been! My request became somewhat lost in translation as our guide took us to one of the rooms which had been turned into a calligraphy studio. There, an elderly gentleman who claimed to be the nephew of Pu Yi, the last emperor, offered to paint a Chinese symbol (our choice of Harmony, Longevity, Prosperity etc) on to a paper panel for ‘only’ 1200 yuan (approximately $200). Politely we refused and hurried out.

Each individual building has such a wealth of intricate detail: I could have spent an hour gazing at just one wall, but there was more, always more, to see, so much of it so easily missed in the throng.

Along the ridges of the yellow tiled roofs stand dragons and animals, inside, the ceilings are painted, some rather luridly and inexactly compared with the unrestored areas, and everywhere are sculptures of creatures; especially the tortoise and the crane, which symbolise longevity. A good thing, because taking your time and having lots of time available for repeat visits, is the best way to see this overwhelming symbol of China’s past.


  • Read up about the Forbidden City before you go and decide what you want to see. This is a destination that bears multiple visits: The first as an overview, and later visits for more indepth exploring. You can’t see it all at once
  • Bring a guidebook or a map: There is so much to take in and it’s easy to miss some of the many buildings that house stunning artifacts.
  • Be prepared for a lot of walking and watch out for those high thresholds!

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