The Palace Museum

How Beijing’s Forbidden City became one of the largest world museums

December 27, 2018

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The South China Morning Post graphics team is pleased to present this eight chapter collection about the past, present and future of one of the biggest museum collections in the world. See what life was like in the Palace, how the priceless collection was protected during wars and the exquisite architecture of the once Forbidden City in our preferred way to tell stories... visually

In this section you will find a treasure trove of information collected during the investigation of the Palace Museum project that was excluded from the three original series. Also, you can launch any of the eight chapters of the project from this page and return here via the menu at the right bottom corner of each chapter


The unique architecture of the Forbidden City

By Marco Hernandez


Dip into the story of how the ancient architects protected the buildings of the Forbidden City and the secrets behind the beauty of the structures will complement a Virtual Reality tour inside the Palace Museum


The unicorns

Statues, colour, ceremonies, shapes... Beijing’s Forbidden City is full of symbolism. Just in the main Hall of the Palace Museum there are more than 13,000 dragon decorations, but one rare and curious element is the unicorns

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It was believed unicorns were protectors of halls, capable of travelling 9,000 kilometres a day and speaking many languages. Standing next to the throne, the unicorns indicated emperors' wisdom and brilliance. Below are some of the statues that decorate the Forbidden City courtyards

Symbolise women’s immortality

Symbolise wisdom

Symbolise men’s immortality

Symbolise power

Symbolise longevity



Toilets came late to society. Common buildings usually didn’t include private spaces for bathrooms. There were some exceptions, such as castles where kings’ thrones were adaptated to allow the monarch to go to the toilet in situ

Chinese were the first to use toilet paper around the 6th century AD. In the Forbidden City there wasn’t a space allocated for toilets in the architectural designs but the use of paper was very well documented

During the Ming dynasty the imperial court ordered 720,000 sheets in a single year. The used leftovers were gathered on a mound so massive that the people called it “Elephant Mountain”

In the furniture records of the Qing dynasty, there are some artefacts designated as “mobile” toilets for the use of the emperor


Life inside the Forbidden City

By Marcelo Duhalde


Discover how women were selected to serve as concubines in the Forbidden City. How the eunuchs became influential and powerful, and how the Emperor’s life was not so magnificent as you may think


Foot binding

Chinese girls had their feet bound typically from the age of five to eight. The task was done by the older women of the family or by a professional foot-binder

The big toe was left facing forwards while the four smaller toes were bent under the foot. In this position, the feet were tightly bound using long strips of cloth, which then restricted any future growth and gave the foot a pronounced arch

The aim was to create ‘lotus feet’, which were no longer than 7.5 cm (3 inches). The smaller the feet, the more attractive they were, even erotic for some and it became a distinct mark of elegance

These crippled feet required one to walk in a certain mincing manner to avoid toppling over; and as a result, it was believed, the inner thigh and pelvic muscles became unusually tight. Thus, as more lascivious thought processes went, the smaller the bound feet, the stronger the vaginal muscles would be during lovemaking

It was common to lose toes because of gangrene, and this painful process also left women with permanent problems of mobility


Lips styles, the criteria for beauty

Different periods of Chinese history had their own ideals regarding feminine beauty. Some of those beliefs are consistent through the ages, such as finely shaped black eyebrows, tiny feet or a fragrant body. With regard to lips, they must be red, and the teeth white, because this was thought to indicate good health. Here are some of the painting styles according to the dynasty beauty standards


The collection, the odyssey of the objects

By Adolfo Arranz


The story of a phoenix: how the ashes of the Qing Dynasty gave birth to the Palace Museum. Learn more about the story of conflicts that saw millions of objects from the museum carried on an odyssey around China for safekeeping


The bi jade

Known as bi, this artefact was a disc shape with a hole in the middle and was produced by the Chinese back in 3400–2250 BC

The bi was crafted in diverse sizes and styles. When speaking of jade, the first thing that comes to mind is the colour green, however these objects were usually brown

It symbolised celestial perfection because jade was regarded as “the Stone of Heaven”. It was frequently used in sacrifices and ceremonies because placing small carved pieces on the deceased was thought to make bodies and souls immortal

Today the bi is still used as an emblem of transfiguration and sublimation

Jade craftsmen

Due to the hardness of the stone, working with jade is extremely difficult. The price of these objects is also high, so it represents a powerful status symbol for the owners. The criteria to determining the quality of a jade object includes the intensity of the colour; patina and lustre of the stone; the level of translucency; the delicacy of the craftsmanship; the inner structure of the stone and the presence of cracks and flaws

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