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The Palace Museum

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Forbidden City - History


The Forbidden City is called the Purple Forbidden City 紫禁城 (Zǐjìnchéng) in Chinese. It is the home of the Palace Museum 故宫博物院 (Gùgōng Bówùyuàn). In Beijing people call it Gugong 故宫 (Gùgōng), the Imperial Palace, for short. Those are easy to pronounce; if you click on the characters, you will hear a sound file.

The Forbidden City is the third imperial palace to have been built in Beijing. The first was built during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the second during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and the Forbidden City was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming Dynasty began with protests against the rule of the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty, so we will start our story there.

Yuan Dynasty 元朝 1271 - 1368

From 1271 to 1368 China was ruled by Mongols. Genghis Khan (1162 - 1227) had begun the acquisition of the northern part of China in 1215 and his grandson, Kublai Khan (1215 - 1294) finished conquering the southern areas in 1271. Kublai Khan declared the Yuan Dynasty (元朝 Yuán Cháo, 1271 - 1368) with himself as emperor. He posthumously declared Genghis Khan as the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. The first emperor of a dynasty in China is called Taizu 太祖. It is a special honor and places the individual at the "top" of the ancestors. Thus, during ceremonies, which always included the honor of ancestors, the Taizu was mentioned first.

Kublai Khan established his capital in Beijing in 1266. He began building the palace and increased fortifications to establish a base of operations and to rule the northern parts of China that were under Mongol control. It had been the central capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty before that. When it became the Yuan capital, it was called Dadu 大都. It was Dadu that Marco Polo visited and wrote about in his travelogue.

Kublai Khan's palace was built to the north of the present palace. By accounts it was elaborate and also a walled city, but only some sections of wall remain. Kublai Khan was responsible for building many of the canals and canals that still serve Beijing today. He had canals built to link Beijing directly with the Grand Canal. The canals linked Beijing with the rest of China, especially with the riches around Nanjing and Suzhou, the breadbasket of China. Roads were built, taxes were reformed, agriculture was encouraged, and the territory was expanded. China was linked with trade routes throughout Asia and as far as Europe. The Mongols controlled much of the continent and were cosmopolitan. They encouraged exchange of ideas and brought back artifacts from different cultures. They were not, however, popular with the Chinese people. They were foreigners and even though they adopted Chinese customs and traditions, they were Mongol. Even though they used Chinese expertise, the top positions in government and the army were reserved for Mongols. Chinese labor was used for the great projects, but under the direction of Mongols. The Mongols soon became very rich and accustomed to leisure and the pleasure of riches. Soon the defense forces were dispersed and failed to stay in training. The support for great public projects dwindled and the focus switched to personal wealth. Taxes were increased to support the rich lifestyle. More and more foreigners from the northern tribes were brought to China by the instant status they received and the possibility of wealth. They all drained the economy rather than building it. The Yuan Dynasty was relatively short-lived.

Chinese formed groups to protest and rebel against Mongol rule and in 1351 one of these groups, called the Red Turbans, led an open rebellion against the Mongols. Soon after, a Chinese Buddhist monk joined the Red Turbans. His name was Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Zhū Yuánzhāng). He had the power of leadership and soon became the head of the rebel forces. In 1356 he successfully invaded and took control of Nanjing. He wasn't alone. There were other rebel groups in the south of China and Zhu Yuanzhang set about eliminating them before he made a move against the Yuan Dynasty. The era is reminiscent of several periods in Chinese history, including the warlord era that followed the fall of the Qing Dynasty. All through the 1350's and 1360's rival factions of rebels chipped away at the Yuan strength in the south. One by one, Zhu eliminated his rivals and united the rebels under his command. He was then ready to attack the Yuan Dynasty directly and sent an army against Dadu (Beijing). He was victorious. The city was looted and much of it burnt after the last of the Yuan emperors, Toghan-Temür or Emperor Huizong (惠宗 Huìzōng), fled to Mongolia.

Huizong continued his dynastic reign in the north. He established what we call the Northern Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan emperors had maintained their connection to their tribal origins and when it came time to draw upon them, they were able to muster significant armies. Although internal weakness had allowed the rebels to defeat Huizong, he immediately began to make plans and train forces to regain what had been lost. The Mongol Empire was still a real force in the world. The trade routes through the west sustained them, but the loss of the fertile lands in the south to provide agricultural products damaged the economy as much as the loss of income from taxation. The Northern Yuan Dynasty and Mongols would continue to be a problem for the Chinese through most of the Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty 明朝 1368 - 1644

Zhu Yuanzhang declared the Ming Dynasty (明朝, Míng Cháo) in 1368 and became the Hongwu Emperor. He chose to establish his capital in Nanjing. His base had been established there in 1356 and his supporters and military facilities were centered there. It was also a Chinese city with a long history. Zhu Yuanzhang wanted to restore the Chinese identity of government and the Mandate of Heaven. He rebuilt Nanjing, built an Imperial Palace, and expanded the city walls. The palace utilized ancient designs from the Tang Dynasty and was based on traditional astrology and customs. It later served as the model for the Imperial Palace in Beijing.

Emperor Hongwu had several sons and chose the oldest as his successor. When that son died before he did, he chose his grandson as the next in line. Following the death of Hongwu, the fourth son, Zhu Di, attacked his nephew and took over the throne. Zhu Di (1360 - 1424) became the third Ming emperor in 1402. He chose the name Yongle, 永乐 (Yǒnglè), which means "perpetual happiness" for his reign. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove that he was the legitimate successor and truly bore the Mandate of Heaven; the right to rule. His reign was one of strong contrasts between construction and destruction.

Yongle began his reign with a bloodbath filled with the supporters of his nephew. Throughout his career he continued to execute critics. He was also a builder. Despite the fact that his father had completed a new palace and had spent 21 years building new city walls, he decided to move the capital to Beijing. There were a number of reasons for the move, not least of which was that in Nanjing he was surrounded by potential enemies who opposed the usurpation of the throne. In Western monarchies, an usurper would contend with those who resented their loss of power, but in China an usurper had to contend with those who held the belief that the emperor was chosen by the heavens. If the heavens were not pleased, disaster would follow. The potential enemies of an usurper might be disinterested in their own power and wealth and driven by a religious devotion to a cause. Enemies like that are difficult to detect. The only way to defend oneself is to prove them wrong; to prove legitimacy.

By moving the capital to Beijing, not only would he be moving to his own power base, but would also be able to station his main military force in the north to defend against Mongol raids that continued sporadically to threaten both Beijing and the north of China. While this would appear to put the capital at risk, the terrain around Beijing made it more easily defensible than was Nanjing. In spite of the extended walls of Nanjing, the hills around the city provided ample opportunity for an attacking force to fire from height.

The decision to move the capital was made in 1403, but the construction of the palace and new walls didn't start until 1407. During the intervening years Yongle was stabilizing the country. There were still rebel groups in the south which had risen during the Yuan Dynasty, but had not recognized the Ming Dynasty. In addition, brigands had taken advantage of the lack of government to develop groups dedicated to theft and worse. The move north quickly showed that the canal systems of China were in drastic need of repair and rebuilding. He had the Grand Canal rebuilt and deepened to make communication between Beijing and the Jiangnan region more efficient. The Jiangnan region is the area around the Yangtze River, including Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. It was and continues to be the wealthiest region in China.

A Chinese emperor demonstrates the Mandate of Heaven by avoiding natural disasters and making life better for the people. Natural disasters are avoided primarily be making sure that dykes and dams are strong enough to keep flooding in check. Canals and irrigation projects must be built and maintained. The country must ave the rule of law and taxation must be reformed. Each time a new dynasty is formed, such projects follow. The corruption of the previous regime is cast in a bad light and the new guys look like saviors. Interestingly, each of the dynasties then devolves into corruption and high taxation as succeeding generations move toward self-indulgence and elaboration of the rights of the nobility and the ministers at the expense of the populace.

Beijing was planned as a statement of power. Not only was it to be grand, but also to link the Ming Dynasty, and Yongle, with all of the signs and symbols of heaven and good fortune. The orientation toward the south channeled the powers of the heavens. Symmetrical design reflected balance. The number of doors, bridges, dragons, and even roof ornaments each had meaning and symbol.

Emperor Yongle chose a young architect to design and oversee the construction. Kuai Xiang 蒯祥 (Kuǎi Xiáng) was in his early thirties when he began the work. He used the Imperial Palace in Nanjing as the base model and incorporated historical references to palaces built during the Tang and Song Dynasties. He referenced Confucian, Daoist, and traditional astronomical belief systems to create an expression of Chinese philosophy and belief systems. It took 13 years to complete the initial palace and walls. Through the centuries additions have been made to the original design of the Forbidden City, but the heart of the palace is that of Yongle and Kuai Xiang.

Yongle not only focused on civil engineering but also on economic and cultural development. His interest in all things Chinese caused him to commission an encyclopedia of all the known writings of philosophers, poets, and historians in Chinese history. The Yongle Encyclopedia 永乐大典 (Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn) was started in 1403 and finished in 1408. Over 2,000 scholars gathered in Nanjing to work on it. They produced 11,000 volumes describing the arts, sciences, technology, religious beliefs, and accomplishments of the Chinese people.

Yongle supported Confucianism and followed the rites demanded of a Confucian ruler. Confucius had taught that by following the rites, the ruler maintained the order of society, The loyalty of the subjects demanded by Confucian ethics depended upon the reciprocal attention paid by the ruler to the well-being of his subjects and his ability to communicate with the gods. The prayers for good harvests, rain, freedom from disaster, and all good things were said during formal rites. There were rites for every momentous occasion. Different rites were performed at different levels of the hierarchy, the most elaborate being reserved for the emperor.

At the same time, he tolerated and supported other religions including Daoism and Buddhism. Religious toleration and even exploration had been a feature of previous dynasties. During the Tang Dynasty the monk, Xuanzang 玄奘 (Xuán Zàng), traveled to India to collect original Buddhist sutras and manuscripts. Depending on who was in power, Buddhism and Daoism were promoted, but whichever was out of favor was tolerated. In 1403 Yongle requested that the Tibetan monk, Deshin Shekpa, come to Nanjing to talk about Tibetan Buddhism. He arrived in 1407 and remained for most of a year. He convinced Yongle that all religions were an expression of honor and prayer to the gods. The meeting between the two set the tone of religious toleration followed by most of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty.

He furthered the growth of intellectualism and Confucianism by reinstating the examination system as the method of choosing administrators and ministers. The examinations were focused on the Confucian classics as they had been in the past. The ethical code was to serve as the binding concept for both daily life and the relationships within government. The by-product of the examinations system was the spread of schools and literacy. That foundation provided succeeding generations with the intellectual resources to bring about a flowering of Chinese culture.

One of the ways Yongle stimulated the economy was to increase foreign trade and relations. In this effort he took a page out of the practices of the Yuan Dynasty. Under the Yuan Dynasty there was a natural connection with foreign lands since so many of them were ruled by relatives of the emperors. Yongle didn't have that luxury; he needed to establish new trading partners in new areas. The Mongol rulers of old trading partners were not likely allies. He sent Zheng He 郑和 (Zhèng Hé), his favorite eunuch, on voyages of exploration. Zheng He traveled to points all along the coast of the China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond - down the coast of Africa, at least to Madagascar. Voyages reached both east Africa and the Red Sea. Chinese explorers and traders had visited Africa before this time, but this was the first series of systematic government sponsored voyages on this scale. Hundreds of ships were included in the armadas. Each carried goods from the Chinese provinces and each returned with riches from far off lands.

The explorations were costly. They brought back treasure, but not enough. The revitalization of the infrastructure was also expensive. While some projects helped the economy, others were a drain. The most expensive activity of the Yongle Emperor was the military establishment. He fought continuous battles with Mongol and Tartar tribes and maintained an enormous standing army. Taxes went up continuously to support all of these initiatives. While the Yongle Emperor wasn't self-indulgent and did not waste funds on extravagant personal pleasures, he did spend beyond the levels of the economic growth he was able to produce. He died in 1424 and was succeeded by his eldest son, the Hongxi Emperor 洪熙 (Hóngxī) who only ruled for a year. Even though he had only a year, the Hongxi Emperor was able to reverse many of his father's excesses. He cut spending, reduced taxes, and returned to a civil rather than a military governance structure.

The next emperor of interest in the history of the Forbidden City was the Zhengtong Emperor (正統 Zhèngtǒng, 1436-1449). Zhu Qizhen was only 8 when he was crowned emperor. His advisor, a eunuch named Wang Zhen, began a building program to heighten the defenses of the city and the Great Wall. He strengthened the exterior walls by adding an additional layer of bricks on the inside of the walls to cut down on rain erosion. He added watch or archery towers, gate towers, and sluice gates to control the flow of the waters in the moats and the stream that ran through the Forbidden City. The bridges that crossed the Inner and Outer Golden Water Rivers of the Forbidden City were reconstructed of stone to replace the original wooden bridges.

In 1449, the Zhengtong Emperor was captured and held by a Mongol force. He was only 22 years old. The Mongols continued to be a threat and required constant military action. The emperor had been captured when he led an expedition against the Mongol forces. The emperor's brother became the Jingtai Emperor (景泰 Jǐngtài, 1450–1457) and liked it so much that when his brother was released and returned to Beijing just a year later, Jingtai imprisoned him for the next seven years within the Forbidden City. He was held in palaces in the southwest of the Forbidden City, an area that is not open to tourists today.

The Zhengtong Emperor was able to overthrow his brother and retake the throne in 1457. He named his second reign the Tianshun era ( 天順 Tiānshùn, 1457-1464). His problems with Mongols didn't end. Several generals of Mongol descent attempted a coup in 1461. The Tianshun Emperor and his guards fortified the Forbidden City. They were joined by other Mongol generals who remained loyal to Tianshun. The rebels set fire to the gates of the Forbidden City, but heavy rain helped save the emperor and the city. The coup was quashed, but heightened distrust of Mongols in the military even though the coup had been stopped by Mongols.

The threat continued. In 1521 the Jiajing era (嘉靖 Jiājìng, 1521-1566) began. The Jiajing Emperor is of note because he chose not to live in the Forbidden City. As a youngster he was not in line for the throne and was not raised to endure the rigors of court life. He was an odd one. He had little interest in being emperor and neglected to perform general administrative functions. His response to ultimate power was to indulge in personal cruelty, especially toward women. Later in life he lived almost as a recluse, seeing only a few people. His passion was the attempt to find an elixir to prolong life or grant immortality. He employed Daoist priests in his efforts to experiment with different chemical compounds made of exotic herbs, precious gems, and rare minerals. The expeditions they mounted to discover new herbs and mine for gems were very expensive, but the graft and corruption that grew within the government was even more expensive. The Daoists were given great powers within the hierarchy, unchecked by any supervision.

Although Jiajing was surrounded by Daoists, his interest was not in the philosophy. By all accounts he was a vicious and revengeful ruler. Any criticism was met by death. He was so cruel to the women in his household that several plotted to assassinate him in 1542. They failed and lost their lives. Their action only increased his paranoid isolation. The empire became so weak that the Mongols to the north decided to have another go at a takeover.

In 1542 they began to increase the number and size of raids over the Great Wall. In 1550, the Altan Khan reached the suburbs of Beijing before being rousted. Immediately, the government ordered an additional wall to be built. The Outer City was enclosed by walls in a project that began in 1550. While most of the project was completed in 1557, defensive gates such as the Dongbian Men 东便门, on the east side, were not completed until 1564. The new wall enclosed both the Temple of Heaven and the Temple of Agriculture (see map below) while leaving both the Temple to the Sun and Temple to the Moon on the outside of the city walls. The Sun and Moon Temples were new Daoist temples built by Jiajing for his Daoist priests.

The Jiajing Emperor died in 1566 leaving new city walls and a mess. He had reigned but not ruled for 45 years. It is amazing that the dynasty survived into the next century. Sporadically reform eras repaired the Ming Dynasty through economic development, administrative shake-ups, and a strengthened military. The first part of the Wanli era was a time of peace and prosperity. The government was reconstructed by the regent acting for Wanli, Zhang Juzheng (張居正, Zhāng Jūzhèng). When Wanli reached the age to rule, he also served as a competent planner in the early years. He mounted a successful foray against the Mongol tribes that helped to end the threat from that quarter. He also mounted a defense of Korea against Japanese invasion that was eventually effective. These early successes seem to have ill prepared him for the routine of normal administration. His last twenty years were spent in battles within the palace hierarchy during which time he let government go completely. Because of the disarray of the ministries and the military, the growth of the power of the Jurchens or Manchu peoples was completely missed until it was too late. One reason for the quiet from the Mongol tribes was the threat they faced from the east where the remnants of the Jin Dynasty were under new leadership. The successful attack by Wanli had weakened the Mongols, and at the same time, opened opportunities for the Manchu, the successors of the Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).

Detail, British Map drawn 1927, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington

Shun Dynasty 顺朝 1644

Eventually, the people had had enough. A succession of corrupt and self-indulgent emperors led to high taxation and the failure of governance. In the 1630's protests and revolts became more common, especially in central China, including Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi. Out of this movement came a young leader, Li Zicheng, who would declare himself the "wandering king", Chuang Wang, and unite disparate elements to attack the Ming troops. He united people under the slogan, "dividing land equally and abolishing the grain taxes payment system" which has a nice ring in any language.

In 1642 Li Zicheng moved north to Luoyang and Kaifeng. He had gathered a large army of over 20,000 ill-equipped but passionate fighters. The Ming army met him at Kaifeng, the old capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. The battle ended in a disaster. The Yellow River flooded, covering Kaifeng. Over 300,000 people died in the flood, and more from the resultant loss of food and shelter. No one knows for sure whether one side or the other burst the banks of the river, or if it was a natural disaster. Each side accused the other.

Sundials 日晷

Two years later, having won much of central China and captured Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, Li Zicheng declared the Shun Dynasty (顺朝 Shùn Cháo) in February of 1644. Li Zicheng moved north again, toward Beijing. The Ming forces were split. Attacks from the north by the Manchu forces were an imminent threat. While most of the Ming forces were in the north, Li Zicheng took the opportunity to move rapidly to Beijing. His overwhelming forces quickly overpowered the Ming guards.

As the city gates were being threatened the Chongzhen Emperor (崇禎 Chóngzhēn) had most of his household commit suicide, while others were sent to flee to safety. On the second day of the attack, as fires were burning outside the city walls, the Chongzhen Emperor went to the top of Coal Hill and hung himself from a tree to avoid capture and subsequent humiliation. His sons made it to safety in Nanjing and set up the Southern Ming Dynasty. By April of 1644 the Ming Dynasty was finished. The victory was short-lived. The Manchu forces continued to threaten from the north. By the end of May the forces of Li Chengzi were faced by an overwhelming force of Manchu and Ming forces at Shanhai Pass at the Great Wall. The Shun Dynasty didn't last a year. The Manchu moved rapidly south, both against the remaining rebel forces, and to Nanjing, where the survivors of the Ming Dynasty had set up a new emperor in the secondary capital.

Qing Dynasty 清朝 1644-1912

The next 17 years saw the Manchu forces pursuing a succession of short-lived Ming emperors from Nanjing, to Fuzhou, to Guangzhou, to Yunnan and finally to Burma where the last members of the Ming imperial family were captured, returned to China, and killed in 1662. By then the Manchu had thoroughly established their presence in Beijing and installed the third Qing Dynasty 清朝 (Qīng Cháo, 1644-1912) emperor, the Shunzhi Emperor 順治 (Shùnzhì), in the Forbidden City.

The Qing Dynasty had been declared by Emperor Huang Taiji 黃台吉 (Huáng Táijí) in 1636 as part of his plan to rule China. He changed the name of his dynasty from Jin to Qing and gave his father, Nurhaci, the posthumous title of Taizu, first Emperor. He took water as his symbolic element because it would quash the fire symbol of the Ming. He also changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu. He wanted to break the associations held by the Chinese of the previous Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) which ruled the north of China until the Mongols defeated them and established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Huang Taiji died in 1643, so never achieved his dream. It was his five-year-old son, the Shunzhi Emperor 順治 (Shùnzhì, 1638–1661), who became the first Qing ruler of China in 1644. The fact that a child with a regent could successfully assume the mantle of emperor can be credited to the strong bureaucratic and military organization that his father had implemented within the Qing. The assumption of power went smoothly since many of the government structures were already modeled on those used by the Ming.

When Emperor Shunzhi came of age, he turned out to be a competent ruler. He did not tolerate corruption among his own people or among the Chinese. Tax reforms and good government did a lot to stabilize the country. That did not totally suppress rebellion, it sent it underground. Many Chinese never accepted Manchu rule. While painters like Gao Qipei 高其佩 (1660-1734) were supported by the Qing government, others such as Luo Pin 罗聘 (1733-1799) refused to accept appointments to the Qing supported academies. It was during this period that Chinese formed secret societies, called Triads, that worked to restore a Chinese monarchy. For the next 400 years the Qing rulers would have to deal with a series of threats posed by one society or another. Eventually, many of the Triads lost their ideals and converted into structures for organized crime. This resistence to Qing rule continued throughout the dynasty.

Beijing was a return home for the Manchu (Jurchen). The Jin Dynasty had made Beijing a capital. Their palace had been located to the southwest of the present Forbidden City. Although the Qing had adopted many ideas from the Ming, they took steps to insure that sinification only went so far. All signs were in Manchu as well as Chinese script. They renamed everything while they were at it. Thus, most of the halls in the Forbidden City have a series of names. The present names are those chosen by the various Qing rulers. Beijing was divided into the Chinese City and the Tartar City. Chinese could occupy the areas inside the walls of the southern portion of the city, but not inside the main section of the walled city to the north (see map). Further, Chinese could not migrate to Manchuria. This rule was maintained until the 1800's to prevent the loss of Manchu culture. The Qing emperors made frequent visits to their palaces in Manchuria and found their brides there. Intermarriage between Chinese and Manchu was forbidden at all levels of society.

The Manchurian nobility and tribal power structure had strong influence on the decisions and policies in Beijing. Chinese could occupy positions in government, but could not head any division. In 1646, the regent, Dorgon, ordered that Chinese men had to adopt Manchu dress and hairstyles. The men shaved the front of their heads and wore their hair in a single braid. Those who resisted could be counted as enemies. The most important documents of government were only written in Manchu. While the Manchu learned Chinese, they learned it as a second language. The character of government and the policies of the Qing emperors must be understood within the context of a people defending themselves against the incursions of the larger, dominant culture which they ruled. It tended to make them conservative, isolationist, and inflexible. At the same time, they supported and appreciated Chinese culture. They publically observed the traditions of Chinese religion and the rites of government while maintaining their own religious practices in private. Their children learned the Chinese classics, poetry, and literature. Absorption was a real threat. By the end of the twentieth century only a handful of native speakers of Manchu was left.

A second threat to the culture of the Manchus came from the West. While Westerners had come to China during the Ming Dynasty, the great sea-faring days of the Europeans brought them to China in numbers that created cultural crises. The Qing, unlike their Jurchen ancestors, did not promote trade, it depended instead on an agricultural economy. While history notes the military incursions, the changes in culture and ideas were the real threat to two thousand years of Confucian principles on which dynastic rule depended. The new middle-class developed from trade was not dependent on the power structure for status. They were independent. The Manchu culture defended itself by exclusion to the Chinese culture, but when they tried the same defense against this new threat, they found that the policies turned upon themselves. They created laws to separate the Westerners from their culture by limiting the foreigners to walled compounds. The foreigners turned the tables, became rich, and used the prisons as palaces and created forbidden cities for themselves. The Chinese had a large mercantile class that adapted to new models of Western business rapidly. The Manchus excluded themselves, for the most part, by their position in society. They had gotten rich off of taxes and continued to do so, but they acted as a drain on the economy, rather than a support. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, there was so much corruption among the local Manchu landlords and governors that the flow of money into the royal treasury slowed to a trickle.

Of the nine emperors who succeeded the Shunzhi Emperor, the most important in the history of the Forbidden City are the Kangxi Emperor, the Qianlong Emperor, Empress Dowager Cixi, and Puyi, the last emperor. The Kangxi and Qianlong emperors both embarked upon extensive building and remodeling programs. Under the Kangxi Emperor, the Chinese economy flowered, pouring wealth into the treasury while not draining the peasantry. Prosperity continued through the reigns of his son and though the first half of the reign of his grandson, Qianlong.

While maintaining separation between Manchu and Chinese in government and the military, the Qing Emperors promoted and supported Chinese culture. From 1710 t0 1716, Kangxi sponsored the greatest Chinese dictionary to date, the Kangxi Dictionary. He employed hundreds of Chinese scholars in the work which included 47,000 character entries. While he may have wanted to win over the literati, he also had a deep appreciation of Chinese literature and history. While the Manchu continued to observe the rituals of their own shamanistic religion, they did not foist it on the Chinese. They supported Daoist and Buddhist temples. They were tolerant of Christianity until the Catholic pope forbade the practice of traditional Chinese observances such as honoring ancestors. Qianlong established a music department to study ancient Chinese music and write it down. Qianlong was a gifted poet and painter himself and supported the arts.

Within the Forbidden City, they maintained the Chinese character of the halls and palaces. When refurbishing buildings, they added the golden tiles to many of the buildings that still had other colors, such as green, blue, or grey. They regularized roof ornaments, using traditional Chinese rules. They added quite a few buildings, particularly in the western and eastern sides of the Inner Court. Qianlong remodeled the rear of the eastern section as a retirement villa for himself. Both Kangxi and Qianlong were travelers. Both brought back ideas and objects from different parts of China to embellish the palace. Kangxi made the grand tour to the south of China at least four times. This did a lot to bring the country together. There are 1175 miles between Beijing and Guangzhou in Guangdong. There are 891 miles between Rome and London. It was a big country to try to control.

The Slippery Slope

During the later part of Qianlong's reign (1736 to 1795) the economy went sour and natural disasters took a toll. In the 1760s, a society called the Tian Di Hui (天地會, "The Society of Heaven and Earth") was formed in China. In 1774, there was a rebellion by a local group in Shandong known as the Eight Trigrams which was quickly suppressed. in 1775, an uprising led by the secret society known as the Society of the White Lotus, spread further and was not easily put down. The White Lotus had its roots in the White Lotus Society that had led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1813, during the reign of Jiaqing, Qianlong's son, the secret society known as the Society of Heaven's Law or Eternal Unborn Mother staged a series of rebellions and brought 100,000 followers to Beijing and attacked the Forbidden City. They managed to get into the Inner Court, let in by sympathetic eunuchs. The military was brought in to quell the mob. The Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850 in Guangxi and spread to control most of the south and the city of Nanjing by 1853. Their slogan was 反清復明 (fǎn qīng fù míng) or "Crush the Qing, revive the Ming". When, in 1860, they attempted to move north, the Qing forces were able to defeat them at Shanghai. By 1864, imperial rule was reestablished in the south. That wasn't the end of the problem. Rebellions popped up all over the kingdom: The Nien Rebellion (1853–1868), Du Wenxiu Rebellion (1855–1873) and the Hui Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873) are a few among many local movements. Poverty, floods, famine, corruption, a crumbling infrastructure, and a repressive response to problems all contributed to the unrest. The Qing government found itself without the talent to deal with the underlying causes of the rebellions, choosing instead to jail dissidents, attack militarily and viciously, and issue edicts particularly against minority groups. They put a lid on it. Trite, but the analogy is apt: it was a pressure cooker; the pot boiled over; the lid blew off. Secret societies burgeoned. The two most famous are the democracy movement of Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙 (Sūn Yìxiān, 1866–1925) in Guangzhou and the Righteous Harmony Society Movement 义和团运动 (Yìhétuán Yùndòng) or Boxers in Shandong Province.

The Boxers were angry. They were against everything foreign, including the Qing rulers. Their religious fervor led them to attack Christians, their economic rage led them to attack wealth, their righteous outrage led them to attack power. At first, the Qing military was able to suppress them, but the movement spread like wildfire. It popped up everywhere without leadership. In a pragmatic move, the Qing government switched tactics and supported the Boxers after the movement reached Beijing. The government declared war on the foreign countries and foreigners in China, deflecting attention from the Qing. The Boxers laid siege to the foreign legations, just south of the Forbidden City (see map), for 55 days until the Eight Allied Powers Army entered Beijing and fought the Boxers and Manchu troops. The French occupied the Forbidden City until the return of the government and Dowager Empress Cixi from Xi'an.

The next rebellion started in Wuchang in 1911. It started as an accident, but led to the mobilization of many anti-Manchu, pro-democracy factions throughout the region. Many members of the military were underground supporters of reform and joined the rebellion, offering leadership and tactical skill. It started without leadership, but because the Qing government did not move swiftly, the rebels had time to organize themselves and turn an accident into a concerted revolution. Thousands of civilian Manchus living in Xi'an, Taiyun, Zhenjiang, Fuzhou and Nanjing were massacred. The rebels took control of the government with the abdication of the last Qing emperor, Puyi. Sun Yat-sen was elected Provisional President, but resigned to maintain the military support of Qing General Yuan Shikai, who became the first President of the Republic of China. President Yuan Shikai occupied the Outer Court of the Forbidden City, while Puyi was limited to the Inner Court. Puyi left the Forbidden City in 1924 and it was opened to the public as a museum: the Palace Museum, 故宫博物院, Gùgōng Bówùyuàn.

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© Marilyn Shea, 2009