Enclosed by 3.5km of citadel walls at the very heart of Beijing, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings – large enough to comfortably absorb the 16 million visitors it receives each year. Steeped in stultifying ritual, this otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911.
The year 2020 marks the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City, which the palace intends to celebrate by ensuring more of the complex is open for visitors than at any other time in its history as a tourist attraction. Which is a longer history than you might think – the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆, Gùgōng Bówùguǎn), as the Forbidden City is officially called, first opened in 1925, just one year after Puyi, the abdicated 'last emperor', was evicted from the Inner Court.
Built between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Yongle, the construction of the Forbidden City was a titanic undertaking, employing battalions of labourers and craftspeople. Pillars of precious nanmu wood were floated from the jungles of southwest China to the capital, while blocks of quarried stone were hauled to the palace in winter over ingenious ice roads. Once built, the Forbidden City was governed by a stultifying code of rules, protocol and superstition; 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties governed China from its closed-off world, often erratically and haphazardly, until revolution swept them all away just a century ago. Despite its age, most of the buildings you see are post-18th-century Qing dynasty constructions and renovations – fire was a constant hazard, hence the enormous brass water vats everywhere.