|The Forbidden City: Palace or Prison?
In 1406, more than 1,600 years after imperial rule began in China, the newly-installed Yongle emperor (who had usurped the throne four years earlier from his nephew, the ruling Ming Dynasty emperor) decreed that the dynastic capital of China be moved back to Beijing. He envisioned an awe-inspiring and imposing city that would symbolize the dynasty’s power. Initial construction of the Forbidden City took fifteen years, 100,000 artisans, and one million laborers to complete. To protect it from enemies, the city was surrounded by walls measuring over 25 feet tall and a moat roughly 20 feet deep and over 170 feet wide.
Reputed to have 9,999.5 rooms (out of respect for Heaven, which was believed to have 10,000 rooms), the city was actually comprised of 8,707 rooms. The Forbidden City—so named because only the emperor could extend an invitation to enter—was divided into two parts: the Outer Court, where public, ceremonial functions such as imperial weddings and ascensions were held, and the Inner Court, from which affairs of state were run, and where the emperor spent the majority of his time.
In addition to the emperor, the Inner Court housed his family and his coterie of women (emperors were granted only one empress but limitless concubines and consorts). The domestic affairs were run by eunuchs, men who had undergone castration—usually voluntarily, sometimes not—prior to puberty. In order to guarantee that any child was the issue of the emperor, eunuchs were the only men allowed near the women; they served as servants, guardians, confidantes, and sometimes even advisors. Though a majority were viewed as greedy, corrupt and cowardly, a trusted eunuch could accrue substantial influence and wealth, and rise to respected administrative positions within the Court.
Despite the pains taken to ensure its impenetrability, the city proved to be vulnerable to attacks. By 1644, the unpopular Ming dynasty had provoked several rebellions, the last of which managed to gain entry to the Forbidden City, leading to arson and looting from the invaders. The Chongzhen Emperor fled, and Manchu tribesman inaugurated a new dynasty: the Qing (1644-1911). The city endured further breaches in 1860, when Anglo-French forces occupied the city during the Second Opium War, and in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion.
The last emperor, Puyi, began his rule in December, 1908 as a child of only two years and ten months. His reign lasted scarcely longer. Just over three years later, the revolution that brought forth the Republic of China (later called the People’s Republic of China) ended over 2,000 years of imperial leadership in China.
For 500 years, the city had been the seat of dynastic power, and home to 24 emperors. But as beautiful as it was, the Forbidden City kept its rulers locked in as much as it kept dangers locked out. “If ever there was a palace that deserved the name of a prison, it is that palace in the Forbidden City,” observed Reginald Johnston, Puyi’s British tutor. “That ill-omened pile of buildings was an emperor’s prison two hundred and sixty years ago, and an emperor’s prison it remains to this day.
Don't miss fascinating musical set in the Forbidden City, The Nightingale, at La Jolla Playhouse, playing from July 10 through August 5.
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