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Recap: The Forbidden City at 600: Architecture of the Celestial Empire, 10.28.20

Recap: The Forbidden City at 600: Architecture of the Celestial Empire, 10.28.20  

The Forbidden City at 600 is an online series celebrating the architecture, history, design, and secrets of Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City complex, now known as The Palace Museum.


In the first episode, Liu Chang (LC), China’s preeminent authority on imperial architecture, joined American China scholar Nancy Steinhardt (NS) to discuss the beauty and meaning of the Forbidden City and its importance to Chinese architecture today. Palace Museum official REN Wanping (RW) opened the program with behind-the-scene stories and history.

Full Video of The Forbidden City at 600: Architecture of the Celestial Empire

Quotes From the Conversation

RW: Thank you for this opportunity to have this cultural exchange from our friends in the United States.

About the Designs:

In terms of the designs, this was the perfect integration of the palace with the urban functions and the landscapes surrounding the palace and the mountains, and rivers, around the city. It is the epitome of [craftsmanship], ancient urban construction and palatial construction.

The emperors emulated the constellations to design the palace that they ruled. This is why The Forbidden City was called a celestial palace on Earth. The Forbidden City shows state power as well as the supreme dignity of the empires.

New Renovations and Conservation Philosophy:

In 2002, they began renovating the Hall of Martial Valor. We are continuing ancient techniques, and incorporating the newest technology, to do our renovations. We think about how we will cultivate craftsmen and artisans to pass on the tradition to the next generation. …We want to protect our cultural heritage!

Two years ago, we broke ground on our renovation of the Hall of Mental Cultivation. So, we have documented in detail all the cultural relics we have, and after we remove the removable pieces for future exhibition, we will restore them and preserve them from environmental pest.

These renovations have allowed the Palace Museum to stand 600 years after the Forbidden City was built. This is why we need to preserve this Forbidden City comprehensively, in its entirety, to last another 600 years. To commemorate the 600th anniversary, we have organized a series of activities and events, including an exhibition “Everlasting Splendor: 600 Years at Forbidden City.” We were encouraged by many to continue or work for many glorious years ahead!

LC: I would like to focus on the big names on the construction and behind the scenes [about the Forbidden City]. All the master craftsman from across the country came to serve the Emperor.

Liang Ju was a craftsman who served Xuanye, or the Kangxi Emperor, in the 17th century, during Qing Dynasty. Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history, would have been his contemporary. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, built in 1695, has the same style as the person who laid out The Forbidden City. The structure is so carefully made, it was like they were making furniture. Even in the hidden places, like rafters, you would see two components joined together, but the craftsman would carve one piece [instead]. It would be like swallowing a diamond to embellish your stomach!

Zhang Xisheng was recommended to Hong Li, or the Qianlong Emperor, after a fire that burned down the building of Supreme Harmony in the Summer of 1783. His contemporary in the West would have been Giovanni Batista Piranesi, the Italian classical archaeologist and architect.

There was a shortage of hardwood at the time, and so Zhang used a lot more beams and columns to make the structures sound.

LEI Siqi served Xingzhen, the Empress Dowager Cixi. His contemporary in the West was Jean-Louis Charles Garnier, the French architect of the Beaux-Arts style. Lei’s designs look like [those of] Michael Graves!

The time was so interesting, 1874, a year before the Emperor Tongzhi died. Lei Siqi built a courtyard stage to perform out of the window of the Living Room of Tongzhi, who was dying of Smallpox. The Empress Dowager was thinking we need entertainment and she built this theater in the courtyard.

NS: I have walked the grounds of The Forbidden City twenty or thirty times. How does a foreigner perceive [the complex] and teach it? I start with a quote from Edmund Bacon, author of The Design of Cities who said ‘The Forbidden City is the greatest architectural achievement on Earth!’ I can say it is the pinnacle of Chinese architecture.

In the ideal city, a palace should be in the center and the city [built] around it. Marco Polo was one of the foreigners who wrote descriptions that would impact everyone who came after him.

There is no place in China- perhaps no place on Earth- that is as decorated as The Forbidden City is.

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