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About the Palace Museum (Part One)
- Jan 10, 2018 -

Established in 1925, the Palace Museum is located in the imperial palace of the consecutive Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The magnificent architectural complex, also known as the Forbidden City, and the vast holdings of paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, and antiquities of the imperial collections make it one of the most prestigious museums in China and the world. In 1961, the State Council designated the former imperial residence as one of China's foremost-protected cultural heritage sites, and in 1987 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Location and Layout  

Situated in the heart of Beijing, the Palace Museum is approached through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an men). Immediately to the north of the Palace Museum is Prospect Hill (also called Coal Hill), while on the east and west are the Wangfujing and Zhongnanhai neighborhoods. Ancient China’s astronomers endowed the location with cosmic significance. They correlated the emperor's abode, which they considered the pivot of the terrestrial world, with the Pole Star (Ziwei yuan)—believed to be the center of the heavens. Because of its centrality and restricted access, the palace was called the Forbidden City. It was built from 1406 to 1420 by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1420) who, upon usurping the throne, determined to move his capital northward from Nanjing to Beijing. Over 200 years later, the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1644. Then, in 1911, the Qing were subsequently overthrown by republican revolutionaries. The last emperor, Puyi (who ruled from 1909 to 1911 under the reign name Xuantong), continued to live in the palace after his abdication until he was expelled in 1924. During nearly six hundred years of imperial operation, the palace served as the residence and court of twenty-four emperors.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by 10-metre-high walls and a 52-metre-wide moat. Measuring 961 meters from north to south and 753 meters from east to west, the complex covers an area of 1,110,000 square meters. Each side of the rectangular city has a gate. These four gates are the Meridian Gate (Wu men) on the south, the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwu men) on the north, and the East and West Prosperity Gates (Donghua men and Xihua men), respectively. Entering from the south, visitors will see a succession of halls and palaces spreading out on either side of the central axis. The glowing yellow roofs of the stately buildings seem to levitate above the vermilion walls. This magnificent sight is amplified by the painted ridges and carved beams of the ancient structures.

Known as the Outer Court, the southern portion of the Forbidden City features three main halls – the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian), Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe dian), and Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe dian). These three halls are flanked by the Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence (Tiren ge) and Belvedere of Spreading Righteousness (Hongyi ge). The Outer Court was the venue for the emperor’s court and grand audiences.

Mirroring this arrangement is the Inner Court, which is the northern portion of the Forbidden City. The Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong), Hall of Union (Jiaotai dian), and Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning gong) lie upon the central axis. The Six Eastern Palaces and the Six Western Palaces are private imperial residences found on their respective sides of the main axis. Other major buildings in the Inner Court include the Hall for Abstinence (Zhai gong) and Hall of Sincere Solemnity (Chengsu dian) in the east and the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian), Belvedere of Raining Flowers (Yuhua ge), and Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cining gong) in the west. The Inner Court is not only comprised of the residences of the emperor and his consorts but also venues for religious rituals and administrative activities. The far north end of the Inner Court is the Imperial Garden.


In total, the buildings of the two courts account for an area of some 163,000 square meters. These structures were designed in strict accordance to the traditional code of architectural hierarchy, which designated specific features to reflect the paramount authority and status of the emperor. Ordinary mortals were forbidden—and most would never dare—to come within close proximity to this imperial city.

Founding of the Palace Museum

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 ended with the abdication of the last emperor Puyi. The provisional government allowed him to continue to live in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City. Meanwhile, all of the imperial treasures from palaces in Jehol (or Rehe—present-day Chengde, Hebei Province) and Mukden (present-day Shenyang, Liaoning Province) were moved to the Forbidden City for public display in the Outer Court in 1914. While confined to the Inner Court, Puyi utilized the vestiges of his dynastic influence to plot his own restoration. He also smuggled out or pawned countless works of art under the pretexts of granting them as rewards to his courtiers and servants or sending them for repair.

In 1924, during a coup launched by the warlord Feng Yuxiang, Puyi was finally expelled from the Forbidden City. The management of the palace fell to a committee that was set up to deal with the concerns of the deposed imperial family. That committee also audited the imperial collections. After a year of tireless preparations, on 10 October 1925, the committee arranged a grand ceremony in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity to mark the inception of the Palace Museum. News of the opening flashed across the nation. Such was the scramble of visitors on the opening day that traffic jams around Beijing almost brought the city to a standstill.

According to a twenty-eight volume inventory published in 1925, the treasure trove left by the Qing imperial family numbered more than 1,170,000 items. This collection included sacrificial vessels and ancient jade artifacts from the earliest dynasties of Chinese history; paintings and calligraphy dating to as early as the seventh century; porcelain from the Song and Yuan; a variety of enamel and lacquer ware; gold and silver ornaments; antiques made of bamboo, wood, horn, and gourds; religious statues in gold and bronze; thousands of imperial robes and ornaments; textiles; and furniture. In addition, countless books, literary works, and historical documents were found among the antiquities. All these were divided into separate collections that were placed under the care of designated staff to sort and collate. Exhibition halls were opened to display some of the treasures. The establishment of the museum ushered in new fields of research and academic inquiry, and writers and editors soon began publishing books and journals to report the exciting, new findings. The Palace Museum quickly became a thriving center for scholarly research and public interest.