The Forbidden City’s unique architecture

chapter 1

The origins of Beijing’s Forbidden City

May 29, 2018


Ten of the 14 years spent building the Forbidden City (1406-1420) were dedicated to planning the Yongle Emperor’s new home in painstaking detail. Among the many aspects which architects had to take into account were location, the orientation of the buildings, and how to source, prepare and transport the raw materials

The Forbidden City complex was the beating heart of Beijing. The rectangular walled palace was encircled by two square ring roads which defined, and protected, the ancient city. As Beijing expanded over the years, square ring roads radiated outwards from the Forbidden City. Even today, the seventh ring road - which links Hebei with Tianjin to form the megacity known as Jingjinji - retains the original square shape, with the palace at the centre

Traditionally, circles represent perfection because of the Chinese belief that no human could make a flawless circle by hand. In contrast, the straight lines of squares and rectangles are associated with law and order, according to Chinese convention. Cities and official complexes were subsequently planned as rectangles. Housing the head of state at the centre of a walled complex made it easier to protect him and, no doubt, provided his family with a sense of security and well-being

The orientation of the Forbidden City is centred along a north-south axis which is about one degree shy of the geographical north. Remarkably, this feat was achieved 150 years before Gerardus Mercator, a German-Flemish cartographer, introduced the first map to accurately project ratios of latitude and longitude. It remains the central axis of Beijing to this day

Chinese culture sets great store by the mystical and spiritual, but frequently blurs the lines between metaphor and function. Feng shui is a case in point, as it seeks to balance and harmonise people and buildings with the surrounding environment

Those among the higher social echelons were housed in the far northern end of the complex, with the area to the south reserved for wives, sons and concubines. Servants were housed closer to the southern sector to receive visitors

Facing south
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was at the heart of the complex, with the courts designed to symmetrically orbit the hall. All doors faced south so that visiting diplomats could be ushered straight to the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Sculpting mountains
A total of 29,000 cubic metres (1 million square feet) of mud was excavated for the moat and used to build a protective hill. According to Feng shui principles, this hill - Jingshan Hill, also known as Prospect Hill - restored the balance between water and earth

Wind protection
The artificial hill behind the city reduced wind currents from the north and served as protection from attack

The Forbidden City is a rectangle with a total area of about 720,000 square metres (3.1 million square feet). The complex took just four years to build. A total of 100,000 artisans and one million labourers made this feat possible. Here are some key historical events


The Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, becomes the third emperor of the Ming dynasty after overthrowing his nephew. He begins plans to build an imperial palace in his new capital, Beijing


Construction of the new palace is completed. It will serve as the home of emperors for almost 500 years


Three of the main halls in the outer court are burned down in a fire. Restoring the buildings takes 19 years


A fire burns down the three main halls in the outer court along with some small buildings and the Meridian Gate. The restoration takes four years


The six main halls of the palace are burnt down in a fire. The complete restoration takes 13 years


Li Zicheng, a Chinese rebel leader, captures the Imperial Palace. Li then flees from combined Ming and Manchu forces, setting fire to parts of the Forbidden City as he retreats. Restoration takes 14 years to complete


The Forbidden City is transformed into the Palace Museum. Just a few years later the curiosities and treasures are removed from the Palace Museum as China’s civil war and the war against Japan threatens their safety


After the war, the artefacts are moved back to Nanjing and Beijing, and the Palace Museum is reopened to the public. Restoration is placed on hold during the uncertainties of events such as the Cultural Revolution


A massive restoration of the Palace Museum is launched, and expected to last until 2021

  • 1406

  • 1420

  • 1421

  • 1557

  • 1597

  • 1644

  • 1925

  • 1949

  • 2002

Selecting material

The material used to construct the Forbidden City came from all over China. Timber came from forests in faraway south-west China, and stones from lakes were transported to Beijing to create rock gardens. There are incredible stories of how all these pieces made their way to the palace, but one of the most astonishing concerns the huge engraved stones found in the main entrances to the temples

Carved stones of various sizes decorate the main entrances to the halls in the Forbidden City. Most of those stones were transported from a quarry 70 kilometres away during winter

Working in average winter temperatures of -3.7 degrees Celsius (25°F), labourers create an icy surface by sloshing water in front of the sled so that the quarried sandstone can be slid over rough ground

By using sleds, 40 to 50 men could transport huge stones the 70-kilometre distance from the quarry to the palace in as little as 30 days. In summer, the same stone would have taken around 1,500 men at least 40 days using wheeled transportation

Another special material was prepared in Suzhou, in the lower valley of the Yangtze River: millions of golden tiles. It is estimated some 100 million tiles were used throughout the Forbidden City, with the courtyards alone devouring 20 million paving tiles

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The floors of buildings frequented by the emperor were of the highest quality. Making these floor tiles was an expensive and demanding process. During the Ming dynasty, a single brick cost the equivalent of 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of rice, or three months of a Qin dynasty magistrate’s salary


The clay is collected and processed before being stored for a year


Once ready, the clay is submerged in a container full of water. Later, the sediment collected from the water is filtered and dried in the sun


Humectants are used to make the clay moist again, which is then processed into a thick paste


Wooden moulds shape the tiles which are then levelled with a string attached to a stick


The tiles are dried in a cold, shaded place for eight months


The tiles are pre-baked for a month to remove moisture


The tiles are then baked and set to rest for three days before going back in the kiln. This process is repeated for 130 days. The temperature is increased each time until the tiles become strong enough


Finally the kiln is filled with water to reduce the temperature and drained of it four to five days later


Each tile is cleaned and polished with oil before being inspected for quality


Each tile is inscribed with the year of manufacture, measurement, production site and producer. Court officials choose only the best tiles; the rest are destroyed

The slow kilning process results in a highly durable material, but surprisingly, given the name, the tile does not resemble gold. “Golden tile” actually refers to the cost of the time invested in the manufacturing process

This is the first chapter exploring the Palace Museum’s architecture

We would like to invite readers to navigate between the chapters as they are published. Other visual narratives will investigate daily life in the palace and follow the odyssey undergone by the royal collection. We hope you enjoy immersing yourself in the project much as we did making it for you

The Palace Museum

By the South China Morning Post graphics team

The Forbidden City’s unique architecture


Here are some of the awards that this graphic has obtained

  • Gold medal

    Wan-Ifra Digital Asian Media Awards
    2019 Edition

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

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