If you’re planning a trip to Beijing, chances are the Forbidden City is near the top of your must-sees. It definitely was for us – it was the first place we visited, even before finding a hotel for the night.

But, we’ll confess, we didn’t know too much about it when we arrived. We just knew it was a globally-revered tourist attraction, and that we couldn’t visit this ancient city without having a look.

This is a situation we often find ourselves in: exploring a place filled with history but not really understanding what we’re seeing and why. I always plan to prep myself beforehand with tons of research, but the next thing I know I’m boarding the plane and I still don’t really know the significance of what I’m about to see.

And while I am a bookworm who honestly can spend all day on the couch reading, when I’m out and about, we find that we don’t have much patience for reading plaques in museums or other tourist hot spots. We like to keep moving!

Can you relate? If so we’d like to help, starting with Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Here’s what you should know:


The simple answer is that this “city” was the home to the Emperors of China, and people were forbidden to enter or exit without his permission.

But there is also a bit more symbolism to it.

When written in Chinese characters, the name alludes to The North Star, where the Jade Emperor lives in the heavens. According to several common Chinese religions (Taoism, Caodaism, certain sects of Buddhism) this is the “first god,” often called “Heavenly Grandfather.”

The Forbidden City was seen as the earthly version of this mystical palace.

It was both a spiritual and political center for the nation.


In 1406, a new emperor (Zhu Di) moved the Chinese capital to Beijing from Nanjing. Here he began construction of his residence: The Forbidden City.

It took 14 years and over 1 million workers.

In its history as a royal residence, it housed 24 emperors from two dynasties.


The Forbidden City is filled with symbolism if you know how to find it.

During the Ming dynasty, the predominant theme of the Forbidden City was supremacy.

The Qing dynasty emphasized harmony, and also added a lot of shamanistic imagery.

Keep an eye out for these symbols:

  • Colors – Yellow was the color of the emperor and his empire. You’ll see that most rooftops are a dark yellow. Green rooftops are above the residences of the princes – this was believed to encourage growth. The library has a black rooftop, which brought protection to the books and knowledge inside.
  • Numbers – The organization of the buildings often includes groups of six or groups of three. Six represented heaven, and three represented Earth. The overall message was that this was a place where divinity and humanity mingled together.
  • Jade – In Chinese culture, jade’s significance is similar to our views about gold in the west. It represented wealth and beauty. There are also superstitions that it could preserve health and prolong life.


The Forbidden City ceased to be a place of residence when Imperial China came to an end in the early 1900s. It is now open to the public, with several bragging rights as a museum:

  • It is the most visited art museum in the world.
  • It has over a million works of art in its permanent collection.
  • It has the largest collection of art from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).
  • It has the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures.

These are just the basics to give you an idea of what to expect at the Forbidden City, and why it is so important to the history and culture of China. Have you visited? What would you add to the list?