the Forbidden City and Heian Imperial Palace

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The Forbidden City is one of the most famous palaces in the world, and the biggest palace within China, and as the residence of the royal family, the Forbidden City experienced twenty-four emperors and their families. The Dadairi Palace of Heian Period in Japan also provided private residence for the royal family, and both Palaces imitate the construction style of the Chang’an City, which is the royal residence of Sui Dynasty (581-618) and Tang Dynasty (618-907). In the following essay, I am going to compare the main palaces of the two royal Palaces and the functions of the palaces.

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Chang’an City is in square-shape, and the whole city is a symmetry construction that separated into west and east sections by a main street called “ Zhuque”, and at the north of the city, the Imperial Palace was placed on the end of the north axes, the palace is divided into the Front Court and the Back Court, three main halls in the Front Court, and one main halls surrounded with other smaller halls were located in the Back Court. In addition, the palace was surrounded by nine gates.

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The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to the end of Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) and was the heart of civilization for nearly five hundred years. Zhu Di the emperor of Ming Dynasty was the one who decided to tear down the old Kublai Khan’s palace and built the new Forbidden City, and enhanced the Great Wall at the same time. The construction of the Forbidden City took fourteen years after ten-year preparation, and there are nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine rooms and half inside the palace. It is said there were ten thousand rooms in the heavenly palace, the mortal palace should not have more rooms than heavenly palace, in case of offending immortals, therefore the Forbidden City was built with half room smaller. The whole Palace is shaped in a large rectangular and separated by the high walls and the moat from the rest of west Beijing, people can only see the gold roof from the outside. As the largest wooden complex in the world, and was completed in year 1420, some of the building technique remains mystery.

Similar to the Chang’an Palace, the whole Forbidden City is divided into two parts, the outer (front) Court for ceremonial purpose and the inner (back) Court for living purpose. The main palaces are all seating on the symmetry axes. And the first three great halls on the axes are the heart of the outer Court, which standing on high marble stairs that raised on more than two stories above the court yard. The entrance of the outer Court called the main Meridian Gate, placed on south end of the Palace, which is the tallest gate of the Forbidden City with five small gates, the central gate is for emperors only, and sometimes offers to the greatest scholars, and after the entrance gate is the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the courtyard that the emperor gathered the highest government officials and held the courts, and after this gate is the first main hall called the Hall of Supreme Harmony, even it is the most important hall, but the hall is only used for the key events. Followed the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Middle (central) Harmony, the reason of why this hall used the name of “middle”, is “middle” means unbiased, only being free from prejudice can achieve harmonies and progresses. The function of the Hall of Middle Harmony is a rest and preparation place for emperors before events. The last main hall is called the Hall of Preserving Harmony, in Ming Dynasty, this hall was used for changing for emperors, but during Qing Dynasty, being specifically when after Qianlong emperor, the placed started to held national examinations every four years. What is more, besides the main halls located on the central axes, the section on the west of the axes is called the Hall of Military Eminence, and on the east, is the Hall of Literary Glory, it is obvious that the civil officials and the military officials are separated. In additional, two more gates are placed on west and east sides of the front Court for the officials.

Following the symmetric axes of the palace to the north, the next construction is the third gate called Gate of Heavenly Purity, which is the entrance of the inner Court. Different from the front Court, back Court has more rooms and many private courtyard are created by concubines and members of the imperial house. And after the Gate of Heavenly Purity, only three palaces remain on the south-north axes, which are the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and Palace of Earthly Tranquility, which are the residences respectively for the emperor, the empress and the emperor’s mother. Then the last gate on the axes at the north is the Gate of Divine Might. And like the outer Court, the inner Court is also divided into left and right sections by the central palaces, but the there is no distinction of the west and east Courts, they are all for the royal family members, maidens and eunuchs.


In Heian Period (749-1185), the capital city (Heian-kyo) was also learnt from Chang’an City, since it was the period that influenced deeply by Chinese culture, and the capital was divided into west and east city by a main street, and at the north end of the city was the Imperial Palace. significantly, reassembly to the Chang’an Imperial Palace and the Forbidden Palace, after two Gates on the south end, three main halls seated on the axes of the Front Court for emperors dealing with government affairs, officials worked at west and east sides of the Front Court, moreover, the west front court and the east front Court had resemblances, both Forbidden City and Dadairi chose to separate military departments and civil departments, and arranged military officials on the west and civil officials on the east, and this arrangement was learning from Chang’an Palace. Following the north-south axes, the inner Court was after the three main halls, and several main halls located on the axes provided the living halls for the emperor and empress, and on the west and east of the main hall were the residences for royal members and servants. Finally, the Gate at the north of the palace separated the whole Palace from the rest of the Heian-kyo.

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According to the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), a literature written between 1001-1008, desicribed the imperial life of Genji, who is a son of an ancient Janpanese emperor, and lived in the Imperial Palace of Heian period, it is a love story about Genji and his concubines, on the other hand the book introduced the imperial life of Heian period and showed the Heian Palace to the readers. The author is a female literary in Heian period, whose brother is a government official, even the name of the palace halls in the book were named mostly by plants and different from the real Palace, but the documentary illustrations of the palace in the novel, resemble to the real Imperial Palace in a large extent, which the Palace used three main halls divided the front Court into west and East, and one main hall separated the back Court into half and half, from Court for working and back Court for living. Therefore, the Tale of Genji also offered a reference of the construction of Heian Imperial Palace.

In conclusion, the two Imperial Palace both learnt from ancient city, Chang’an about it’s constructions and layouts of the official departments, and had the same symmetry structure, it is a good way to organize the function of the palace and keep a harmony, also both Palace lasted for a long period of time, which indicates the reasonable of the layouts. Besides the similarities, since the construction of the Forbidden City was more recent, the building technique was more advance, and the scale is bigger than the Dadairi Palace. As for the Dadairi Palace, it applied the symmetry layouts earlier and the Heian period was the first period that accepted outer culture and used into their country. Therefore, both Palace are the outstanding examples of Asian Imperial Palaces.

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Shenlituxing. “Kyoto: Japanese Ancient Capital with Thousand Years History” Sina Blog (2010), accessed March 27, 2017.
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