Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What is the Forbidden City and why is it important?

A sprawling complex of over half a mile square in the heart of Beijing has been known for centuries as the Forbidden City. Some fourteen hundred royal rooms, all in singlestory buildings, cover one hundred and eighty acres. Yong Le (1403-24 C.E.), third emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), founded the Forbidden City as his seat of government when he moved his capital from Nanjing to Beijing. From this heart of imperial Beijing radiates a network of sacred sites toward the four directions. Aligned along the City’s main north-south axis are the principal residential and ritual structures, the palaces of the inner court to the north and the halls of public ceremony forming the outer court further south. To the east and west are the dozens of subordinate residential and administrative buildings. In a massive plaza before the southernmost ritual space, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, an artificial river runs east to west. Five small bridges, symbolizing the five Confucian virtues, span it. In the various halls along the main axis all the great rituals celebrating the empire took place. In overall symbolism, the Forbidden City reproduced on Earth the court from which the Heavenly emperor, Shang Di, ruled the universe. Beijing was the last of a series of walled royal capitals. Beginning as far back as 1700 B.C.E., cities such as Anyang, Changan, and Hangzhou all had their sacred centers. Beijing saw the abdication of its last emperor in 1912.



A decorative and symbolic river, crossed by five bridges representing the main Confucian virtues, runs east to west in the courtyard before the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

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