Beijing has not always been the capital of China, a role filled in the past by Nanjing. It was only at the beginning of the XV century that the decision was taken by the newly-elected emperor Yongle to move the capital from the south to the north. Hence the name Beijing, which actually means ‘capital of the north’.
Once the centre of power had been moved, however, it was necessary to find a residence suitable to represent it. In 1406 Yongle therefore began the construction of one of the largest works ever undertaken by man, namely the Forbidden City.
The work took 14 years to finish and more than a million workers are believed to have been involved in it. For some 500 years afterwards, the Forbidden City was home to two of the most important imperial dynasties in China’s history – the Ming and the Qing.
The Forbidden City was designed so that the emperor could carry out all of his public functions, and satisfy all of his human and personal wants, without leaving it; and the 24 occupants of the throne in this period very rarely did so.
The name results from the fact that only the emperor’s family and household, consisting mainly of eunuchs, had rights of access, whereas anyone else could enter only with the permission of the emperor himself.
Everything apart from the walls was built of wood in the style of ancient Chinese architecture. The complex is a city in itself divided into an outer section, whose buildings were reserved for political meetings and ceremonies, and an inner section, set aside for the imperial family and household. It covers an area of 720,000 square meters on which stand no fewer than 980 buildings. There is a curtain wall on average 8 metres high, in its turn surrounded by a moat 52 metres wide. All in all, an impregnable fortress.
After the abdication of the last emperor, Pu Yi, in 1912, the Forbidden City became a museum: whereas at one time unauthorised entry would have been paid for with one’s life, nowadays the gates are open and tens of millions of visitors each year are fascinated and amazed by the aura that this place continues to possess.
Beijing, December 2016