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Forbidden City
Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is the first of the three gates that guard the entrance to the Forbidden City. The Golden Water Bridge 金水河 (Jīnshuǐ Hé) runs in front of it, serving as additional protection for the city. There are red painted reviewing stands to either side for modern parades. The gate itself looks much as it did when it was first built in the early 1400s.

The design of the Forbidden City and the Imperial City follows traditional architecture back to the Tang Dynasty. Elements are included that related to Confucian, Daoist, astrological, and religious belief. Each design, the choice of position for each element, and the numbers associated with the construction all have meaning.

The Imperial City was built in the Yongle era 永樂 (Yǒnglè) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) by Emperor Chengzu 成祖 (Chéngzǔ). It is common to refer to him as Yongle and I will use that name although he was born with the name Zhu Di (朱棣, Zhu Di). It will make the story less confusing.

Yongle was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang who had succeeded in overthrowing the Yuan Dynasty and establishing the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Yongle was not meant to be emperor, that honor went to his older brother. Yongle was given the title Prince of Yan (燕王) and the territories around Beijing. The northern part of China had been ruled by an ancient tribe called the Yan up to the Warring States Period. It was first brought under central control during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC), the first modern dynasty of China. Even today one of the nicknames for Beijing is Yanjing.

Being stationed in the north taught Yongle many things. The Mongols continued to raid down into the territories south of the Great Wall and Yongle personally went into battle and learned military strategy. Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang) sent his best military minds, especially General Xu Da, to support the action in the north. Yongle learned well from Xu Da and the two of them were able to quell the Mongolians for a time.

In the meantime, Yongle's older brother, Zhu Biao (Crown Prince Jin), died of natural causes, but left a son, Zhu Yunwen. When Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang) died in 1398, he designated his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, as the next emperor. Zhu Yuwen was 31 when he became Emperor Jianwen.

For the six years between the death of his father and the death of his grandfather, Zhu Yuwen had fought to maintain his position as the chosen heir. Yongle was open to the possibility that his father would pass the succession to him. He was a favorite. There was nothing in Chinese custom that would prevent it. There were no rules that demanded that the eldest receive the throne. He commanded vast devoted troops in the north. But Zhu Yuwen was on the spot in the palace and the political advantage went to him as did the throne.

He was very aware of his uncle's wishes and when Yongle approached Nanjing to attend his father's funeral, Zhu Yuwen sent out a military contingent to turn him back. Yongle was accompanied by a contingent of soldiers, perhaps innocently. In any case, he turned back but carried the insult with him. By denying his uncle the right to mourn his father, the new Emperor Hongwu had humiliated Yongle deeply. What Emperor Hongwu had hoped to prevent was set in gear.

Yongle returned to the north, but only to make preparations. Over the next four years, the military skills that he had developed were apparent after he had defeated his nephew's armies repeatedly. Finally, in 1402, Yongle massed his men around the capital, Nanjing, and the city surrendered. Emperor Hongwu and his wife died sometime during the battle.

Yongle assumed the throne. He also showed that he had learned a second lesson in his campaigns in the north. He had learned to kill. He ordered the execution of all those who had served his brother. Anyone who was in the least suspect was targeted. While there is nothing in Chinese tradition and custom to prevent his father giving him the throne, the taking of the throne broke the Mandate of Heaven and the legitimate succession. His entire reign would be spent defending his right to the throne. He had his nephew's reign years added to those of his father to make himself the direct successor. He spent the next several years fighting rebel groups around China. Some of these rebel groups had never been absorbed into the Ming, but continued to try to establish kingdoms for themselves. While he was struggling to hold onto the Mandate of Heaven he also found it expedient to establish control and efficient government all over China.

By 1403, Emperor Yongle had made the decision to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. His loyal armies were there, the people in the north were devoted to him because he had successfully won repeaded battles to defend them, and Nanjing was the stronghold of his opponens: all good reasons for the move. In addition, the Mongols continued to be a problem and demanded his attention.

The move created a crisis of transportation. Grain shipments to the north were made by slow and expensive routes. The Grand Canal had fallen into disrepair over the centuries, roads were rudimentary, and bridges were insufficient in number and size. One of his first great projects was to rebuild the Grand Canal and other waterways in China. The Grand Canal was deepened, widened, and almost totally rebuilt. The same thing was done to the canals that had been built curing the Jin and Yan Dynasties to support Beijing. By 1407, it was possible to begin building a new seat of power in Beijing.

He chose a young man named Kuai Xiang 蒯祥 (Kuǎi Xiáng) as his architect. Kuai Xiang was the son of a carpenter and builder and showed great promise as a young man. He was already famous in Nanjing when he was sent to Beijing to begin the plans for the palace complex. His instructions were clear: build a palace that would clearly link the Ming Dynasty and Emperor Yongle with the Chinese succession, with the great Han, Tang, and Song emperors, and with the Mandate of Heaven.

There was to be no reminder of Yuan rule. The Yuan palace was already in ruins and it was mined for materials for the new structures. Materials were brought along the new canals for the construction. Just the food to feed upward of a 100,000 workers at any one time was a triumph of organization and planning. Tiles had to be brought from kilns throughout China. Stone and marble had to quarried and shipped. It is estimated that over 100,000 nanmu (楠木) logs were used in the construction.

Nanmu is a soft wood that has ideal properties for construction and boat building. It is resistant to rot and decay, it doesn't warp easily, it cuts straight, and it is incredibly strong. The Nanmu tree grows straight, making the timbers perfect for columns and masts. Moving one of these trees from the forests to Beijing took 4 years. They had to wait for monsoons to swell the rivers. The logs had to be dragged by men on the banks against the current for long stretches. When transport overland was necessary, they iced the roads to skate the logs on their way. This procedure was used for many of the heavier materials needed for the palace. The first few years of building after 1407 were used to simply collect the materials needed for construction.

In the end, when the Imperial Palace was finally finished, the people said that Kuai Xiang was a genius. They said that he was Lu Ban 鲁班 (Lǔ Bān) returned to earth in service of the emperor. Lu Ban is the father of carpentry and building in ancient Chinese belief. All of these comments pleased Emperor Yongle. The palace and the architect had done what he asked. He was firmly a part of the Chinese succession and the palace was a fitting place for the Mandate of Heaven.

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Last update: January 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2009