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Palace Museum

Address: Beijing, Jingshan Front Street, #4 (Jingshan Qian Jie, #4)

Han Xizai’s Evening Banquet painted by Gu Hongzhong.The Palace Museum is situated in the center of Beijing, the capital city of China. It was established on October 10, 1925, and is China’s largest museum.

 The museum is also known as the ‘Purple’ Forbidden City in Chinese, or the Forbidden City as it is commonly known in English. It covers 720,000 square meters and was the imperial palace for a succession of twenty-four emperors and their dynasties during the Ming and Qing periods of Chinese history. The museum is also China’s largest and most complete architectural grouping of ancient halls. Construction was begun in 1420, the eighteenth year of Yongle, so that the site has existed for the past 580 years. More than 70 halls of various sizes, containing more than 9,000 rooms, comprise the Forbidden City. These halls are aligned along a north-south axis, and extend out on either side in an east-west symmetry. The central axis not only passes through the Purple Forbidden City, but extends south to Yongding Gate and north to the Bell and Drum Towers, for a length of some eight kilometers.

This passage through the entire city of Beijing symbolizes the centrality of the imperial power: the imperial seat is at the very center of this line. The architectural design lines up the buildings in neat array and with imposing scale. In a concentrated form, this assemblage expresses China’s artistic traditions in the setting of China’s unique architectural style.

Entering the Forbidden City from Tian’an Men, one first moves straight through the Duan Gate to arrive at Wu Men, or the great Wu Gate. The popular name for Wu Men is the Five Phoenix Tower; this is the front entrance to the Purple Forbidden City. Going through Wu Men, spread out before one is a broad courtyard with the twisting course of the Jinshui Creek (Gold Water Creek) passing from west to east like a jade belt. Five marble bridges have been constructed over this waterway. Passing through the Taihe Gate to the north of the bridges one reaches the core of the Purple Forbidden City, the famous three great halls called Taihe Hall, Zhonghe Hall and Baohe Hall.

Taihe Hall is 28 meters high and occupies a space of around 2,380 square meters. It is the largest hall in the Palace. A red-lacquered dais around two meters high sits in its center, on which is placed a golden lacquered and carved dragon throne. Behind the throne is a screen carved with dragons and on either side of the dais are six great golden pillars with vigorous golden dragons coiling up them. In the recessed ceiling well above the throne is an extremely large coiled golden dragon, with a silvery pearl suspended from its mouth. The Taihe Hall was the location of the Emperor’s most important ceremonies, such as his own inauguration, his birthday, New Years, the arrival of winter, and so on.

Behind the Taihe Hall lies the Zhonghe Hall. This is a square hall with four ridge poles along the roofline that unite at the top in a large, round, gilded topknot called a baoding. The profile of the building is extremely beautiful. When the Emperor was about to officiate at important ceremonies, he would first rest in this building and receive visits of his various Ministers.

Behind the Zhonghe Hall is the Baohe Hall. In the Qing dynasty, every New Year’s Eve, the Emperor would hold a great banquet in this hall. This also was where the highest exam of the Ke-ju exam system was held. Emerging from the Baohe Hall and following the stone stairs downwards one arrives at an open rectangular courtyard. This space divides the Purple Forbidden City into front and back. To the south of the square are the three main Halls and, to east and west of them are the Wenhua Hall and the Wuying Hall. These are commonly called the ‘Outer Court,’ where the Emperor primarily conducted affairs of state. To the north of the square, inside the Qianqing Gate, was the Inner Sanctum. In the Qing dynasty, this is where the Emperor and his Empresses and Concubines lived. The main buildings include the Qianqing Palace, the Jiaotai Hall, the Kunning Palace, and six palaces to east and west. The Qianqing Palace was at one time where the Emperor slept. During the Qing dynasty, however, the emperors used this as a place of daily administrative affairs. Later emperors also met foreign emissaries here. Behind the Qianqing Palace is the Jiaotai Hall, which is where memorials to the Empress were conducted and where she received congratulations on her birthday. It also is where the Qing dynasty’s twenty-five ‘treasures’were kept, the twenty-five seals by use of which the Emperor manifested his rule. Behind the Jiaotai Hall is the Kunning Palace, which was originally a sleeping chamber for the Empress. Later in the Qing dynasty it was made into a place where offerings to gods were made and also where the Emperor was married.

The Qianqing Palace, the Jiaotai Hall, and the Kunning Palace together constituted the Rear Three Palaces, their placement being basically the same as the Front Three Halls, but with decoration and coloring that were markedly different. The Front Three Halls used dragons as a primary motif. The Rear Three Palaces saw phoenixes gradually increase until there were numerous flying phoenixes, dancing phoenixes, phoenixes with peonies and other such decorative elements. The East and West Six Palaces, where the concubines lived, were commonly known as the ‘Three Palaces and Six Courtyards.’ Today the Six Palaces of the East have been made into exhibition halls in order to display the rare paintings, ceramics, bronzes, and various crafts that were collected and kept in the Palace. The Six Palaces of the West are basically as they were, unchanged, so that people can see the actual living conditions of the feudal period, the historical reality of how royalty lived.

The most notable building is the Yangxin Hall,the Cultivation the Mind Hall. Qing-dynasty emperors mostly lived here, from the Emperor Yongzheng onward or for some two hundred years. The Yangxin Hall therefore became the center of daily governing activities Emperors of ten received Ministers here and issued decrees and orders. Two thrones were placed in the eastern room of the Yangxin Hall, to front and back; between them was suspended a golden-colored screen. This was where the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled from behind the screen (she lived from 1835-1908, was of the clan of Yehenala, and she ruled from behind the screen in two periods in 1861 and 1873). From the Yangxin Hall moving northwards, one courtyard succeeds another in quiet elegance and serenity. Among these are the Changquan Palace and the Zhuxiu Palace, the latter being where Cixi once lived. Right now, the display in the Zhuxiu Palace is as Cixi had it arranged on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday.

Emerging from the Zhuxiu Palace, not far to the east, is the Yuhua Garden, or Imperial Garden. The area of the Yuhua Garden is small and intimate; its architecture and atmosphere are completely different from the front parts of the Palace. The pavilions and small buildings are set in the midst of pools and pine trees, fake mountains appear to be made of grotesque stones, there are potted garden landscapes, wisteria and bamboo. In the northeast of the Palace is also the Ningshou Palace Garden, where the Emperor Qianlong (Qing dynasty Gaozong Aisin-Gioro Hongli 1736-1795) cultivated his mind after returning to power. Coming out of the Yuhua Garden and following the passageway, one arrives at the northern gate of the Purple Forbidden City called the Shenwu Men. Opposite this gate is Jingshan Mountain. This small hill was built from dirt that came from digging out the moat when the Ming dynasty was building the Purple Forbidden City. Standing on the top of the hill and looking out over the Palace one sees wave after wave of buildings, crest after crest of rooflines and walls.

The Purple Forbidden City is also a great treasury of art objects. Great collections of paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, inscriptions, bronzes, ceramics, textiles and embroideries, jewels, clocks, articles made of gold and silver, and so on are kept here. The collection contains around 900,000 items. The Palace Museum also has preserved around nine million historical documents and materials from the Ming and Qing dynasties. These represent an important original resource for the study of the past five hundred years of China’s history. Many of the more important documents can be seen in the special exhibition hall of the Palace.

 The dragon throne in the Taihe Hall in the Forbidden City

Hall of ‘Art through the Dynasties’

This is located in the Baohe Hall and in subsidiary buildings to its east and west. Treasures are exhibited here that range from Early Society to the Qing dynasty. Altogether around 6,000 years of history are displayed through 1,600 articles. Each of the displayed objects is a work of art and can be considered a treasure selected from amongst treasures. This hall has three rooms: the first is in Baohe Hall and exhibits pieces from the late period of Early Society to the Spring and Autumn period; the second room displays items from the Warring States period to the Song dynasty; the third room displays art objects of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Qing Dynasty Display Room of ‘Decrees and Regulations’ and Cultural Artifacts

This is located in the eastern corridor of the Qianqing Palace. The items displayed here were used by the Qing-dynasty emperors to carry out affairs of state, the hold ceremonies and rituals, and to go hunting. Exhibited here are four main different kinds of objects: personal treasures of the Emperor, musical instruments of the court, clothes of the Empress, and weapons and arms.

Qing Palace Exhibition Hall of Toys

This exhibition displays toys that were mostly made in the eighteenth and ninetheenth centuries and given to the Qing court by Switzerland, France, England, and Germany. Also exhibited are some items made by the Qing Palace Workshops and some made by the people of Guangdong. The toys can be divided into two types, mechanized and general toys. The mechanized category includes objects that have an internal mechanism that makes them move: birds call out, animals move, and so on. Some of the general toys were actually used by children; some were given to the court to be used as decoration in the halls.

Hall of Bronzes

This is located in two palaces called the Zhai Palace and the Jingren Palace. Some 400 pieces are exhibited that range from the Shang and Zhou periods to the Warring States period. In the Shang and Zhou slave society, bronzes were regarded as ceremonial objects that differentiated one’s status. By the Warring States period, items appeared that were actually used by the then appearing feudal system such as coins, stamps or seals, tallies, measuring devices and so on.

Hall of Ceramics

This is in the two palaces called the Chengqian Palace and the Yonghe Palace, and contains four rooms that exhibit around 700 objects. China is the homeland of ceramics. ‘Painted pottery’ already existed some 6,000 years ago here; by the time of the Shang dynasty, primitive porcelains were being fired; after another 1,000 years, actual porcelain was made during the Eastern Han period.

Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio

Zhongcui Palace was one of the halls in Six Palaces of the East, but now it has been designated as the Hall of the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio. These include brushes, ink, paper, and inkstands, each of which has its aesthetics and connoisseurship. For example, the manufacture of ink and inkstands can require of the maker a high degree of technical as well as aesthetic skill. Because of this, great value is placed on fine inks and inkstands in China. The paper and inkstands,brushes and ink that are exhibited here come from many dynasties. Displayed here are the famous ‘Hu Brush,’‘Hui Ink,’‘Xuanzhi or Xuan paper,’and‘Duan inkstands.’

Ming-Qing Minor Arts and Crafts Gallery

A wealth of Ming- and Qing-dynasty crafts items collected by the Palace is exhibited in the Jingyang Palace. The diversity of items here includes lacquer objects, jade objects,  glass objects, enamel objects, gold and other metallic objects,as well as bamboo, wood, and carved ivory.

The Clock Gallery

Fengxian Hall is where the Qing-dynasty emperors made offerings to the tablets of their ancestors; now it has been opened up and made into the Clock Gallery. These clocks were mainly collected during the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods of the Qing dynasty (1736-1820). Some were made in Guangzhou and Suzhou, as well as the workshop within the Palace, others came from England, France, and Switzerland. Clocks made in China were mostly decorated with gold, pearls, jade,and gems. Their form reflected traditional architectural forms such as pagodas,towers, and miniature landscapes. The clocks of England, France and other countries in turn imitated Western styles and architecture.

Hall of Paintings

This is located in Huangji Hall and the Ningshou Palace. Around 100,000 paintings are kept here that range in date from the Jin to the Qing dynasty and that include paintings and calligraphy of many famous masters. October in Beijing has fresh air with a suitable temperature and low humidity. As a result, works of the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties are generally exhibited every year at this time. Some of the world-famous treasures that are exhibited include ones by Lu Ji (261-303, Jin dynasty), Yan Liben (601-673, Tang dynasty), Gu Hongzhong (Five Dynasties Southern Tang painter), Zhang Zeduan (uncertain dates of birth and death, famous Song-dynasty painter), and so on, as well as Yan Zhenqing (709-785, Tang-dynasty calligrapher), Liu Gongquan (778-865, Tang-dynasty calligrapher), Mi Fu (1051-1107, Northern Song painter and calligrapher), and so on. Ming- and Qing-dynasty painters are also exhibited at certain times in the year.

Inscriptions Hall

Inscriptions, rubbings, and seals from various dynasties are displayed in the Inscriptions Gallery of the Huangji Hall.

Treasures Gallery

These are displayed in three halls that were formerly for other purposes but were opened up to form this exhibition. On display here are gold and silver, jade and exotic items collected by the Qing court. These were all used for various purposes including ceremonial, sacrificial, as clothing, as ornament, and in daily life, as well as to adorn the rooms of the court.

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