The Ming Dynasty was one of great importance in Chinese history, and from its humble beginnings in 1368 came the most impressive architectural achievement in China – The Forbidden City. This city, built by three master architects chosen by Emperor YongLe, became the center of all diplomatic activity for the emperor and those closely associated with him.
Over a thousand great buildings were created for the Forbidden City, all to be used by the emperor and his servants. Palaces for domestic life, several more palaces for the empress and her servants, religious buildings, buildings used for political work, and lavish gardens all filled the grounds of the new capital. However, what was most interesting about Emperor YongLe’s Forbidden City was not that of all the buildings themselves, but the premises upon which they were built, premises of religion and symbolism that remain important to Chinese society to this day.
Following the demise of the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty emerged and Emperor Qianlong’s six extravagant art collections emerged along with it. These six art collections, some bearing Western influenced, included an assorted amount of ceramics, paintings, sculpture, bronze ware, jade and other minor arts, and all were enmeshed with the art previously brought in to the Forbidden City by Emperor YongLe.
The stylistic architectural decisions instituted by Emperor YongLe while building the Forbidden City, along with Emperor Qianlong’s six art collections, reflect the importance of religion, symbolism, and art in Chinese culture, and remain to be important aspects of China in present times.
The grandson of a peasant who was one “of only three peasants ever to become an emperor of China,” Emperor YongLe was the third emperor in the Ming Dynasty. YongLe “fought alongside his father in the Yunnan campaign to clear the country of the last bastion of Mongolian resistance,” and despite being considered as exemplary, he was overlooked as emperor. Instead, the elder emperor, having bypassed his son, chose to make his grandson the emperor.
This did not sit well with Emperor YongLe who later usurped his nephew and changed his reign name to that which he is remembered by, YongLe, or “Perpetually Happy.” YongLe ruled from 1403 to 1424 and tended to be remembered as one of the emperors who had done the most for China, most notably, moving the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in the North. It was here that YongLe was approached by one of his spiritual advisors, who told the emperor of a vision he had of a great Imperial city.
It was under this particular advisement that the Emperor decided to build this Forbidden City, the center of all life for the emperors, not only during YongLe’s reign, but for the reigns of emperors during other dynasties as well.
In the introduction of the book The Palace Museum: Peking, author Wan-go Wen asserts that “for every supreme ruler of China, his capital was the center of the earth – not merely the seat of government but a solemn symbol of imperial power and authority and of the ideal polity,” and the Forbidden City was an ideal example of this center of the earth for Emperor YongLe.
This imperial palace, was actually named “the Purple Forbidden City,” and was named as such “after the Purple Luminous Constellation with Polaris, the North Star, in its center – a heavenly equivalent of the earthly residence of the supreme ruler.” Author Yu Zhuyon claimed that “fixed in time and space, [the Pole Star] was to be found at the apex of the vault of heaven and the gods of all the other stars revolved around it in homage,” and as the emperor was the leader of all of his people, the idea of Polaris coincided with the idea of the Forbidden City.
This religious idea, and comparison of the Emperor to the deity in his “apex of his vault of heaven,” showed not only how important the Emperor was to his people, but also how the Emperor himself was revered as a god-like incarnation on Earth.
Before the Forbidden City was even built, Emperor YongLe put much thought and effort into its construction, bringing in three master architects who were to adhere to the strictest set of religious rules, such as the idea of yin and yang, in the construction and building of the Forbidden City. There were three important aspects in the planning of the City itself, and all three were noted by Yu Zhuyon.
The first of these three points was the fact that there was no natural water supply to the Forbidden City itself, so “water was channeled into it from the Great Liquid Pool at the northwest corner” and this channeling aided in bringing water into the Inner Court. The second of these three points stemmed from the Emperor’s desire to have a long walkway in his City, much like the wide walkway used at the palaces of the Northern Song dynasty.
With careful research and precision, these builders applied the “Song Layout,” from the aforementioned Northern Song dynasty, which allowed for “the grandeur of the wide avenue,” which was what the Emperor desired. Finally, Yu Zhuyon explains the third point that was important in the pre-construction of the Forbidden City, that being the creation of a moat behind the Forbidden City in the style that “corresponded to the arrangement at the Ming palace in Nanjing,” which was built specifically to make the city more secure for the empress, as well as the emperor’s concubines. It was at this point that construction of the Forbidden City could begin and all the planning could evolve from mere plans to reality.
When it finally came time to build the thousand buildings that make up the Forbidden City, three things were done to prepare for it: the collection of timber, the production and transportation of bricks and tiles, and the transportation of large quarrying stones. The work that went into gathering all these items was done by a large amount of people, and many of these people who built the Forbidden City put themselves in grave danger to acquire these supplies. To secure the use of this timber “involved first rolling [logs] into the dry mountain gullies.
They were lashed together to form rafts and left to await the torrents which plunged down the mountainside during the rainy season…” and then, when this timber finally made arrived at its destination, it was put in massive storerooms until it was to be used. The production and transportation of the surface bricks for the walls of the city were not the mud bricks that were commonly used, because these bricks, over time, suffered from a great deal of wear. Instead, the Forbidden City was built with clay bricks which were made first by mixing water and clay together, and then put in the sun to dry.
These were not the most important aspects of the building materials in the city – those were the roof tiles that were symbolically representative of the Five elements and the “golden brick” floor tiles from Suzho. These “golden bricks” were “the finest floor tiles, smooth and dense,” and called “golden bricks” because they sounded like metal when they were hit. Finally came the moving of the heavy quarrying stone, which involved the creation of a slippery slope that builders could push said quarrying stone along.
These stones held particular importance in the creation of the Forbidden City, because these specific stones relied on the ideas of space and distance which, when paired with the ideas of yin and yang and the Five elements, reflected many of the major aspects of Chinese cultural beliefs.
The idea of space and distance, when applied to the architecture of the Forbidden City correlated with the ideas of “cosmic environment for the imperial family,” which intertwined itself with the idea of the Emperor being a deity. The theory of the five Elements and the omnipotent idea of yin and yang were also important in the architecture of the Forbidden City as both were pivotal parts of Chinese history.
The idea of yin and yang emerged during the Han dynasty in 207 B.C. and has remained a part of the Chinese lifestyle. Under the idea of yin came the ideas of “maleness, the sun, creation, light, heat, Heaven, dominance, and so on,” while the opposite fell under the ideas of yang. According to Washington State University professor Richard Hooker, all aspects of life could be explained by these two opposite ideas of yin and yang, and these two ideas were applied to the building of the YongLe’s city.
Where even numbers take precedence in the Inner Court (such as the six Western palaces for the empress, and the emperor’s concubines), odd numbers are dominant in the Outer Court or “the system of ‘the three halls and five gates’.” Following the use of yin and yang in the architecture of the Forbidden City was the use of the Five elements, which were fire, water, metal/gold, wood, and Earth, and each person and creation carried some combination of these elements around in them.
These elements all were represented by different colors, and these colors were used in the architecture of the city itself, such as green tiles that represented “the tenderness of spring and corresponds to the east” being used to tile the Hall that was used for study. The carefully thought out application of yin and yang, as well as the city’s Five elements of water, fire, metal/gold, wood, and Earth, reflected the symbolism of these two ideas that, as mentioned previously, still play large roles in the lives of Chinese citizens.
To enter the Forbidden City, one must first remove their shoes, and leave their horses and carts outside the palace doors. Inside, the city contains over a thousand buildings, each of these buildings being significant in their own way. There is not a building in the entire compound that is out of place, they all mean something, and have symbolic representations that were well planned out ahead of time.
One of the most important of these buildings is the Gate of Great Harmony (also known as the Gate of Supreme Harmony), known as the greatest gate in the entire Forbidden City. The Gate of Great Harmony is the pathway that one must take to reach the Three Great Audience Halls, which are three large buildings that “occupy the main space of the Forbidden City, covering an expanse of 85,000 sq. m.” This Gate of Great Harmony, described by Weng as “elegant and expansive,” was oftentimes used by the emperor himself when he spoke to the people in the Forbidden City. To create this gate, “a new architectural element is now introduced to define the ‘inner’ style: marble terraces, with intricately carved railings,” which, prior to this time, had never been used. After some time had passed, however, the emperor ceased to use this gate at all.
Despite this fact, this particular gate played a role in the symbolism of Heaven on Earth because the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which was built to recreate the aforementioned ‘Heaven on Earth’, was accessed through this gate.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest courtyard in the Forbidden City and carries both religious and symbolic importance. Zhuyon wrote that “this courtyard truly gives rise to the feeling that ‘Heaven is high and earth is broad,’” and it was true, as this expansive garden is home to some of the most elaborate pieces of sculpture in the entire Forbidden City.
This Hall of Supreme Harmony is also one of religious importance, as it is a Taoist temple that, although not used by YongLe, was in fact used by those who followed after him. The Hall also manages to show symbolic importance because it reflects YongLe’s application of yin and yang in the Imperial Garden.
Just as important, if not more important, than the Outer Court, was the Inner Court, or the domestic area where the emperor and those closely associated to him lived and carried out their daily lives. Though the idea of space and distance was highly regarded and used in the Outer Court with great diligence, it was much harder for the Inner Court to be so spacious. Instead, these palaces and other buildings were built closely together.
The Inner Court was the yang to the Outer Court’s yin, and everything related to the Inner Court corresponded evenly, such as the Six Western and Six Eastern Palaces that were constructed to house all of the Emperor’s concubines. The two key features of the Inner Court were not these Six Western and Six Eastern Palaces, but instead remained to be the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the two palaces which were not only home to the Emperor and the Empress, but also the palaces where the Emperor conducted business with his advisors, and where the Emperor “the emperor lay in state immediately following his death.” Over time, both of these Palaces would undergo incredible amounts of architectural renovation, specifically under the reign of Emperor Qianlong.
Emperor Qianlong’s renovation to YongLe’s vision was not his only contribution to the Forbidden City. Instead, his six extravagant art collections were in fact, his greatest contribution to the city itself. These six collections included beautiful pieces of ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, sculpture, bronze ware, jade, and so-called “minor arts” that remain on display in the Palace Museum in modern times. Though much of the architecture in the Forbidden City reflects the architectural decisions made by YongLe, the art is all reminiscent of Emperor Qianlong and his time in the Palace.
Of all the art collections in his possession, it was noted that the collection of paintings and calligraphy were what Emperor Qianlong had the most of. In fact, Qianlong “practiced [painting and calligraphy] personally and thus saw from the viewpoint of an artist as well as a connoisseur.” Despite seeing from the viewpoint of an artist as well as a connoisseur, Qianlong was not very good at either painting or calligraphy, but that did not deter him from practicing or collecting, and Qianlong actually went so far as to use the example of fourth century artists’ handwriting to better his own calligraphy.
Chinese calligraphy was a great art, with broad, sweeping strokes and vivid colors which were reminiscent of great paintings. These paintings have always been incredibly important in Chinese culture, and the paintings in the Forbidden City were no exception to this. The first Chinese paintings were simple black ink brush strokes on parchment paper, but “the efforts of later artists in their search for the expression of ‘spirit’ or essence of all animate and inanimate objects extended from figure painting to landscape and bird and flower paintings…” and this expression of ‘spirit’ was what Chinese artists became most known for.
Zhu Jiajin claimed that “porcelain is one of China’s great inventions, achieved through an amalgamation of the two disciplines of science and art,” and this is true. China’s most important family of art is still to this day ceramics, or “china.” Though Emperor Qianlong’s vast art collection contained pieces of china, some of these were beautiful vases and plates from the Ming Dynasty. Some artisans made vases out of vibrant colors such as blue, red, and black, while others made sculptures out of “pure white clay called kaolin.”
Kaolin was not the only kind of clay that was available, and as time proceeded, many different types of ceramics also originated, and “under glaze decoration, a technique invented at the Changsha kilns” was used. In this form of decoration, the craftsman would decorate his vase or sculpture with a color, and then they would glaze the art and put it in the kiln. All these styles of ceramic artistry paved the way for other craftsmen in this same style.
Sculptures were another form of art that made their way to the Forbidden City, and, as mentioned earlier, some of the most beautiful of these sculptures can be seen in the courtyard of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. “Stone, bone, horn, ivory, jade, shells, bamboo, and wood” were the chosen mediums that sculptors used to carve important figures of people and animals.
One of the greatest discoveries of sculptures associated with the Forbidden City was the tomb of the first Qin Emperor. In this particular tomb was a monumental find that no one had known about, and this was a collection of life-sized clay soldiers and horses that were standing guard over the tomb of this great Emperor.
It was said that, though the life-sized sculptures were made of clay, they were buried “with real chariots and weapons of that time, numbering more than seven thousand – an army sufficient to guard the supreme ruler in his afterlife.” There has been no greater or monumental find of such size and artistry found since this time, with the excavation of this tomb taking many painstaking years.
Prior to the use of bronze in the creation of beautiful pieces of art, bronze was used by the Chinese for tools. As time progressed, artists began to craft three beautiful types of vessels that served three specific purposes – vessels for foods, wine vessels, and water vessels.
These bronze vessels were used by Chinese nobility and reflected the styles of the times. Some of these sacrificial vessels contained images of people, but in later dynasties, the vessels stopped containing representations of people and turned more towards representations of animals. Artists began to inscribe poignant Chinese characters into their bronze vessels, these “master craftsmen of over 3,000 years ago were skilled in the art of the making of moulds and casting the finished article and were able to produce superb works which were well balanced with a sense of visual rhythm and strength…” and it was these craftsmen and Qianlong’s interest in them that made these bronze vessels exceptional.
In all of China, jade is viewed as something that is highly treasure, even above such fine metals as gold. “Jade is a material of supreme merit, possessing beauty, character, and mystery,” and has been used to make beautiful sculptures, vases, and tools. Chinese poets wrote beautiful poetry about jade, and artisans spent extended amounts of time coming up with innovative ways to cut and style the stone into gorgeous figurines. One of the most exquisite pieces of art from this time period is a sculpture that weighs close to 2000 pounds.
This sculpture, called The Nine Elders of Huichang, was carved out of a boulder and has been on display in the Forbidden City for many years. Not only did artists carve sculptures out of jade, they also carved their prose into the sculptures that they created.
Qianlong was so much an advocate of jade that he had a workshop built and had artisans come in to make figurines, boxes, and ornaments for him. It was due to Qianlong’s immense favoritism of jade that this period of time is viewed as “the single most eventful era in the history of jade carving,” and there are some accounts that assert that, as a novice artist, Qianlong himself might have attempted to carve jade as well.
The last collection of art to remain as an important part of the Forbidden City is that which scholars call “minor art.” These arts included handicraft arts, lacquer wares, cloisonné art, glass blowing, bamboo carving and work done with copper and enamel. One of the most famous of these minor arts artists emerged from the Imperial Palace’s artistry workshop.
This craftsman, Wu Zhifan, was a prolific bamboo carver who was known to carve “pagodas, dragon boats and the intricate reticulated balls carved from a single piece of ivory, one inside another and all movable,” and still other craftsmen were handpicked by the emperor himself to come and carve sculptures and other pieces of art for him out of ivory and bamboo.
Lacquer ware artists poured lacquer, put it in the sun and then in a damp area, and were able to mold lacquer ware boxes and cups out of it. Another form of art, glass blowing, is one with origins that are unknown to scholars. The artists would blow the glass into vases and then use a glaze to give the glass its “hardness, brilliance, and colorfulness, which approximate the magical attributes of precious and semiprecious stones.” All of these forms of art were incredibly time consuming, but the finished products were always intricate and beautiful.
In China, the Ming and Qing Dynasties remain as two of the most important dynasties in Chinese cultural history. From its humble beginnings in 1368, the Ming Dynasty helped to shape Chinese history forever with the help of its third emperor, the Emperor YongLe. Over a thousand great buildings were created to fulfill Emperor YongLe’s great vision of a home for the god’s on Earth, a Forbidden City that appeared to one of YongLe’s tutors in an extraordinary vision.
This beautiful city that grew in the new capital of Beijing became the center for all activity in China. The most important part of this Imperial City lay in its careful planning and architectural execution. The ideas of symmetry, religion, and symbolism all played a large role in China and all of these ideas were applied to the layout of the city. The premises upon which the city was built remain as some of China’s most important.
Following the demise of the Ming Dynasty, many others followed, but none as important to the Ming Dynasty as the Qing Dynasty, because with the Qing Dynasty came a flourishing art workshop that provided the Palace with an assortment of beautiful art collections.
Ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, bronze ware, jade, and other minor arts, were diligently created and enmeshed in the art that was the architecture of the Forbidden City. Emperor YongLe’s carefully created architectural decisions, paired with Emperor Qianlong’s exquisite art collections, were important in reflecting the incorporation of religion, symbolism, and art, in Chinese culture in prior times, and remain as important aspects of China in the present.
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