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The Forbidden City: A 600-Year-Old Cultural Feast

2020-11-03 15:41:00 Source:China Today Author:ZHANG XIAO
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THE year 2020 marks the 600th anniversary of the completion of the Forbidden City and is the 95th anniversary of the establishment of the Palace Museum. The Palace Museum, in addition to being the epitome of ancient Chinese urban construction and palace building design, is a material carrier of the tradition of Chinese rituals and music and their long history. From the Forbidden City, a symbol of royal power, to the Palace Museum, which is open to the public, what is the past and present story of this place?

A Grand Narrative of Culture

Construction on the Forbidden City began in the fourth year of Emperor Yongle’s reign (1403-1424) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was completed in 1420. The grandeur of its design is unbelievable, while its stories are so numerous that there are not enough pages to record them.

As Zhu Yong, director of the Institute of Gugong Studies of the Palace Museum, and author of the book From the Forbidden City to the Palace Museum, said in his book, “The magnificence of its construction is not only unbelievable, but also difficult to express in words. I find it so hard to tell such a long story. Words are so weak in the presence of the extraordinary architecture.”

How can we begin our exploration of 600 years of history contained in such an architecture? The exhibition “Everlasting Splendor: Six Centuries at the Forbidden City,” which opened on September 10, 2020, provides us with the answer. This large-scale exhibition introduces the “time” and “space” of the Forbidden City’s history and culture by means of three major themes and 18 historical focal periods, and exhibits the highest realm of a perfect combination of palatial architecture art and technology, and the endless charisma of China’s outstanding traditional culture.

From the appearance of the Forbidden City in the album painted by Xu Xianqing of the Ming Dynasty, to the 1:350 restored architecture model of the Forbidden City, this exhibition displays real scenes of the Meridian Gate (Wu Men) and the Palace square of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) 400 years ago during the mid and late Ming Dynasty. Through these exhibits, visitors can imagine they are a modern Sherlock Holmes and search for the clues about the changes of the architecture of the Forbidden City during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

In addition, a large number of famous cultural artifacts are also on exhibit, for example, the mythical animals sitting along the ridge of a palace roof, and the gold cup with jewel inlay: Eternal Territorial Integrity.

“This set of imperial roof decorations was part of the original decorations when the Hall of Supreme Harmony was rebuilt in the 34th year of Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1662-1722) during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Each mythical animal has a beautiful symbolic meaning. In particular, the 10th mythical animal only appears on the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is also the embodiment of the highest level of architecture,” said Zhang Jie, curator of the Central Tower of the Meridian Gate.

Apart from the familiar stories of the Forbidden City that occurred during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the East Wing Tower exhibition puts on display a large number of old photos and videos, historical archives, and artifacts to vividly present to the public the stories that are not well-known. Xie Anping, curator of the East Wing Tower exhibition hall, said, “Those diaries, memoirs, and articles provide another perspective to understand a piece of history.”

A Reception Room of Chinese Culture

The Palace Museum, which is famous for being the earliest world cultural heritage in China, not only attracts countless foreign tourists, but also plays an important role in cultural exchange between China and other countries.

The museum attracts people from around the world every day who love traditional Chinese culture, many of whom even visit it more than once. A British man by the first name of William visited the Palace Museum for the first time in 2008. “Incredible” was the first feeling he felt standing in front of this magnificent architecture. “I was overwhelmed by the history and stories of this building that has been built for hundreds of years,” he said. He works in China now and jokes that he has close contact with the Forbidden City every month, since The Calendar of the Palace Museum has become his textbook for learning about China. He loves cloud-traveling around the Palace Museum during his leisure time. He also added, “The culture of the Palace Museum has gradually integrated with public life, and its long and splendid history is glowing with new glory.”

Many foreign dignitaries have also become fans of the Palace Museum. “During recent years, as China has continued to expand its diplomatic work, more and more foreign heads of state and politicians have visited our country. As a result, there has been an increase in activities for receiving foreign dignitaries in the Palace Museum. We are striving to build the Palace Museum into a reception room of Chinese traditional culture, so that they can feel the profoundness of Chinese civilization through the presentation of the Palace Museum,” said Shan Jixiang, former curator of the Palace Museum.

In September 2019, the staff of the Palace Museum and the Hermitage Museum held high-level talks, during which they made plans to carry out large-scale events such as exchange exhibitions of collections and cultural forums over the following two years. Even before the talks, both sides had already communicated and cooperated with each other. In September 2018, researcher Maria Menshenkova of the Hermitage Museum delivered a speech titled, “Collections of the Qing Dynasty in the Hermitage Museum,” at the studio of the Department of IT, Imaging, and Digital Media of the Palace Museum.

An Envoy of Cultural Exchange

Since 2005, as representatives of cultural and artistic treasures of China and France, the Palace Museum and the Louvre Museum have carried out a variety of exchange activities, such as exchanges of personnel and exhibits, conducting in-depth dialogues on both sides’ experience in the protection of historic artifacts and the development of museums.

Besides this, the Palace Museum and the Palace of Versailles also conduct communication. In the series of exhibitions called “The Sixth Centennial of the Forbidden City” in 2020, “Versailles in China” will be organized on the basis of the 2014 exhibition “China in Versailles: Art and Diplomacy in the 18th Century,” which was held at the Palace of Versailles. This exhibition will comprehensively showcase the historic florescence of cultural and artistic scenes of 18th century China and France by way of exquisite artifacts from the French court and those brought by missionaries or diplomats to China which are now part of the Palace Museum collection.

As the master of traditional Chinese culture, the Palace Museum has always shouldered the important responsibility of revealing China’s fascinating culture to the world, while building cultural exchanges between China and other countries.

In a bid to fulfill this great task, an institute for international cultural exchange was established in 2015. This institute has not only rediscovered the value of tens of thousands of foreign cultural relics, such as Philips Bulb and EMI, but also carries out research on the exchange history of ancient Chinese and foreign court diplomacy, the Silk Road, literature and art, and science and technology, systematically teasing out the collections of foreign cultural relics and the relevant archives of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Sino-foreign exchange activities that have taken place since the establishment of the Palace Museum have also been studied, in order to provide valuable references and suggestions for China’s diplomacy and culture affairs.

At present, the Palace Museum not only hosts various cultural events from all over the world, but also shows its tremendous collections overseas. In 2018, “The Exhibition of Creative Products Inherited from the Palace Museum” was opened in Tokyo, Japan, and was highly praised by Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since then, similar exhibitions have traveled to Brussels, Seoul, Sydney, and Singapore, and been well received.

Among the collections of the Palace Museum, there are nearly 10,000 cultural artifacts that come from foreign countries, ranking the top in domestic museums. Many of them are related to The Belt and Road and are historical witnesses of cultural exchanges between ancient China and the rest of the world.

Among the museums that have established communication and cooperated with the Palace Museum, the British Museum, the Louvre Museum, and the Hermitage Museum are the bright pearls on the Silk Road. With the help of the platforms built with foreign museums, the Palace Museum is able to better showcase traditional Chinese culture, allowing Europeans to better understand China and the Belt and Road.

In addition to cultural communication with other museums, the Palace Museum has also cooperated in research with various countries along the Silk Road over the land and the Maritime Silk Road, which has achieved tangible results as well. The Palace Museum has made great contributions in helping expand the international presence of Chinese culture and promoting the BRI.


Visitors check out the restored architecture model at the exhibition “Everlasting Splendor: Six Centuries at the Forbidden City,” which opens on September 29, 2020, at the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Exploring the Future

Since 2012, the ratio of the area of the Palace Museum opened to the public has increased from 30 percent to 80 percent, and its services have become more humanized.

The views of the topic “600-year birthday of the Palace Museum in 2020” on China’s social media Weibo has surpassed 200 million. Now a hot topic of discussion is how to carry on the magnificent Forbidden City for the next 600 years.

After investigating 38 departments, Wang Xudong, the seventh curator of the Palace Museum, proposed to build a “Vibrant Palace Museum.”

According to Wang, the way of giving vitality to cultural relics is not to put them on exhibits outside the Palace Museum, but rather developing creative and cultural products and films and television shows that meet the needs of the modern era and average people, thus bringing to life the soul and value of cultural artifacts. He added, “Creating the Vibrant Palace Museum relies on people. Only by requiring the ‘Palace Museum People’, the staff of the Palace Museum, to undertake the task of combining historic heritage with modern life to attract more people, can the vitality of the Palace Museum be released in full.”

Although the future is still unknown, we can catch a glimpse of the development of the Palace Museum: creative and cultural products will continue to be upgraded and exert great influence in people’s cultural life; the area of the museum open to the public will continue to be expanded, with a predicted ratio of 85 percent by the 100th anniversary of the establishment; the museum will continue to utilize digital technology, innovative technologies such as AR, MR, and laser will also be combined with the classic resources of the Palace Museum in artistic forms to enable the treasures hidden in the royal palace better serve society and the public.

The Palace Museum has had a splendid past 600 years, and its future is well worth looking forward to.  

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