For­bid­den city: how Bei­jing was founded

Bei­jing or nort­hern capi­tal has been one of the most exci­ting cities in the con­tem­porary wor­ld and one of the wor­ld capi­tals today. It is a mix of tra­di­tio­nal Chin­e­se neig­h­bour­hoods and hou­ses cal­led hutong (胡同) and modern skyscrap­pers. Alt­hough the cul­tu­ral her­i­ta­ge of Bei­jing con­sists of dif­fe­rent archi­tec­tu­re, histo­ri­cal remains and events –to men­tion Sum­mer Pala­ce, Tian­tan or Temp­le of Hea­ven, Gre­at Wall, Tia­nan­men Squa­re, the­re is a pla­ce whe­re eve­ryt­hing star­ted: For­bid­den city.

The story of For­bid­den city goes to emperor Yong­le from the Ming dynasty in the 15th cen­tury. His fat­her Zhu Yuan­zhang was one of the rebel­li­on lea­ders against the Yuan dynasty, the Mongo­li­an dynasty which ruled in China. After a victory over Yuan and conque­ring capi­tal Nanjing, he as new emperor Hongwu from the Ming dynasty sent his son and futu­re emperor Yong­le to the Bei­jing region as a prin­ce. Alt­hough, he was not cho­sen to be emperor, Yong­le conque­red Nanjing and the thro­ne. He trans­fer­red capi­tal from south to the north for his own safe­ty whe­re he built For­bid­den city, a new pala­ce and core of new city – Beijing.’

I had live lec­tu­res from For­bid­den city for seve­ral schools in Cro­a­tia, Bos­nia and Her­ze­g­ovi­na, Ser­bia, Nort­hern Macedo­nia and Denmark 

The inte­r­i­or poli­cies of Yong­le have been rela­ted to admi­ni­stra­ti­ve reforms and re-sha­ping gover­n­ment and offi­ci­als with a kind of re-tra­di­tion of insti­tu­tions. Also, he orga­nized a strong mili­tary system and bor­ders inclu­ding nort­hern fron­ti­ers to Mongo­li­ans. For this pur­po­se, Gre­at Wall was rebu­ilt and made in the sha­pe and struc­tu­re that we know today. Foreign affairs have been other important details of his gover­ning and he choo­ses the navy as a mili­tary and tra­de tool, so one of his navy com­man­ders Zheng He has been tra­ve­ling to South and Sout­hwest Asia, East Afri­ca and Mada­ga­scar. The­se voy­a­ges have been part of diplo­ma­tic acti­vi­ties and the Chin­e­se emis­sa­ri­es establis­hed poli­ti­cal and tra­de con­nections with over thir­ty poli­ti­cal enti­ties. Also, Chin­e­se scho­lars used the­se trips to map the wor­ld and research dif­fe­rent aspects of geo­grap­hy and bio­lo­gy of Asia and Afri­ca. The main cen­ter for the Ming empi­re has been Bei­jing and For­bid­den city.

The impe­ri­al pala­ce For­bid­den city has been found in 1406 and con­struction has been finis­hed 14 years later. Accor­ding to legend, over a mil­li­on wor­kers and 100 000 crafts­men con­structed the pala­ce. The con­struction mate­ri­al in the pala­ce shows impe­ri­al geo­grap­hy: wood from South China, a sto­ne blo­ck from Bei­jing and bri­cks from Suzhou. Trans­porta­tion of mate­ri­al has been through water and ice (water has been iced in win­ter and used for easi­er trans­porta­tion of sto­ne). The wall aro­und the pala­ce is 10 m high. The main direction of the com­plex is north-south which fol­lows feng shui.

It is made of seve­ral parts inclu­ding the emperor’s pala­ces and rooms, cere­mo­ni­al and admi­ni­stra­ti­ve rooms with pla­ces for ser­vants. Its name is rela­ted to the emperor’s right to enter part of the pala­ce whi­le others (empress, court, guests, ser­vants) have restri­ctions. Usu­al­ly, it is divi­ded into Outer and Inner Courts. The for­mer is cere­mo­ni­al whi­le the lat­ter is resi­den­ti­al. The­re are 980 buil­dings and over 9000 rooms. The num­ber of rooms is still under deba­te becau­se tra­di­tio­nal per­specti­ves men­tio­ned 9999 rooms lin­ked with Chin­e­se cos­mo­lo­gy and numero­lo­gy whe­re the num­ber 9 has been a num­ber of eternity.

The com­plex has four gates loca­ted in dif­fe­rent directions: sout­hern Meri­di­an Gate, nort­hern Gate of Divi­ne might and Pros­pe­ri­ty Gates situ­a­ted on the east and west. The main buil­dings are Hall of Supre­me Har­mony, Hall of Cen­tral Har­mony, Hall of Pre­ser­ved Har­mony, Pala­ce of Hea­ven­ly Puri­ty, Hall of Celesti­al and Ter­re­stri­al Uni­on, Pala­ce of Eart­hly Tranqui­li­ty, Trea­su­re Gal­le­ry and Impe­ri­al Gardens.

The re-con­struction of the pala­ce was con­stant and the majo­ri­ty of buil­dings were built in  the 18th cen­tury. Con­tem­porary For­bid­den city is a tourist attra­ction, UNESCO pro­tected her­i­ta­ge and Pala­ce muse­um with 15 mil­li­on visi­tors per year. It was home to 24 emper­ors from the Ming and Qing dyna­sties. This remar­kab­le pla­ce has been one of the key spots in Bei­jing and China and a cruci­al pla­ce for visi­tors aro­und the wor­ld. But, many of peop­le inclu­ding pupils and tea­chers in school do not have the opportu­ni­ty to visit Bei­jing and For­bid­den City. How should they expl­o­re and feel this her­i­ta­ge place?

Tea­ching the for­bid­den city

Ano­t­her issue is a pre­sen­ta­tion of the For­bid­den City in Western schools. In the last years, I had live lec­tu­res from For­bid­den city for seve­ral schools in Cro­a­tia, Bos­nia and Her­ze­g­ovi­na, Ser­bia, Nort­hern Macedo­nia and Den­mark. It was orga­nized by tea­chers in pri­mary and secon­dary schools. The lec­tu­re con­sists of the wal­king tour in 45 minu­tes with live expla­na­tion of archi­tec­tu­re and design with histo­ri­cal and poli­ti­cal con­te­xt. After the lec­tu­re, the­re was spa­ce for questions and answers. This idea was an option and could increa­se with other video mate­ri­al and we could find on Khan Aca­de­my , Smit­h­so­ni­an or Penn Muse­um.

The main ele­ments for pupils should be a focus on cul­tu­ral her­i­ta­ge in the con­tem­porary wor­ld inclu­ding the importan­ce of archi­tec­tu­re, vari­e­ty of design, under­stan­ding of feng shui and Chin­e­se cul­tu­ral tra­di­tion. Also, stu­dents should focus on poli­ti­cal and soci­al ele­ments on buil­ding the pala­ce for the con­struction of the new Ming dynasty, late medi­e­val and ear­ly modern China. If the­re is a live video or video made by ama­t­eurs, stu­dents could see con­tem­porary visi­tors and their behavi­or, clo­t­hes, soci­al environment.

For­bid­den city is a core of Bei­jing and eve­ryt­hing starts the­re, but the impe­ri­al pala­ce is still live. It is the cen­ter of the city and hots­pot to under­stand Chin­e­se history, her­i­ta­ge and tra­di­tion. Video lec­tu­res with a com­bi­na­tion of sol­ving pro­blems clas­s­room met­hods could fill the gap and put the For­bid­den city in the school curricula.

The for­bid­den city


Gor­an Đurđe­vić (Djurd­je­vich) is a Cro­a­ti­an archa­e­o­lo­gist and (environ­men­tal) histo­ri­an who is Ph.D. can­di­da­te of Archa­e­o­lo­gy at Capi­tal Nor­mal Uni­ver­si­ty (CNU) in Beijing.

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