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Palace Museum

The Palace Museum, historically and artistically one of the most comprehensive museum in China, was established on the basis of the Forbidden City, a palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1840), and their collection of treasures.

-- History

Located in the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City used to be the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is nearly 600 years old, with construction started in 1406 and completed in 1420. The principles of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system of geomancy, governed the whole process. The rectangular palace covers an area of some 720,000 sq. km -- 961 m in length and 760 m in width. It has a total of 9999.5 room spaces (an area enclosed by four poles). In 1924, the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1840) was removed from the Forbidden City, and in 1925 the Palace Museum was established here.

Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to 1911 held court and lived within the walls of the Forbidden City. After the republican revolution, this palace as a whole would have been sequestered by the Nationalist government were it not for the "Articles of Favorable Treatment of the Qing House" which allowed Puyi to live on in the Inner Court after his abdication. Meanwhile, all the imperial treasures from palaces in Rehe (today's Chengde) and Mukden (today's Shenyang) were moved to the Forbidden City for public display in an antiquities museum established at the Outer Court in 1914. While confined to the Inner Court, Puyi continuously used such vestiges of influence as still remained to plot his own restoration. He also systematically stole or pawned a huge number of cultural relics under the pretext of granting them as rewards to his courtiers and minions or taking them out for repair.

In 1924, during a coup launched by the warlord Feng Yuxiang, Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City and the management of the palace fell to the charge of a committee set up to deal with the concerns of the deposed imperial family. The committee began a sorting and counting of the imperial treasures. After a year of intense preparations, its members arranged a grand ceremony on October 10, 1925 in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity to mark the inception of the Palace Museum. News of the opening flashed across the nation, and such was the scramble of visitors on the first day that traffic jams around Beijing brought the city almost to a standstill.

According to a 28-volume inventory published in 1925, the treasure trove left by the Qing numbered more than 1.17 million items.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese, having annexed territory in China's northeast, proceeded to march on Beijing. With this looming crisis, the museum authorities decided to evacuate its collection rather than let it fall into enemy's hands or risk destruction in battle. For four frantic months between February and May 1933, the most important pieces in the collection were packed into 13,427 crates and 64 bundles and sent to Shanghai in five batches. From there they were dispatched to Nanjing where a depository was built and a branch of the Palace Museum established.

On July 7, 1937 shots fired around Marco Polo Bridge west of Beijing heralded the eruption of the Sino-Japanese War. Within a year, the Japanese had penetrated to most of eastern China. The treasures stored in Nanjing had to be moved again, this time by three routes to Sichuan, where they were secreted in three locations, Baxian, Emei and Leshan. Only at the end of the war were they consolidated in Chongqing, whence they were returned to Nanjing in 1947. By then the Nationalists were considerably weakened, and with the imminent takeover by the Communist armies of areas south of the Yangtze River, they began their retreat to Taiwan. Between the end of 1948 and the dawn of 1949, the Nationalists picked relics to fill 2,972 crates for shipping across the Strait. A rival Palace Museum was set up in Taipei to display these antiquities. Most of what were left was gradually returned to Beijing, although to this day 2,221 crates remain in safe-keeping in the store in Nanjing.

In the early 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the People's Republic, the Palace Museum looked resplendent once more after repair and redecoration. All the tall buildings were equipped with lightning conductors, and modern systems of fire protection and security.

As for the collection of antiquities, a systematic inventory was completed during the 1950s and 1960s, redressing the legacy of inaccurate cataloguing of former times. After more than a decade of painstaking effort, some 710,000 relics from the Qing palace were retrieved. At the same time, through national allocations, requisitions and private donations, more than 220,000 additional pieces of cultural significance were added.

-- Cultural Heritage

An Unparalleled Architectural Masterpiece

The Forbidden City is China's largest and most intact ancient building complex. It is laid out symmetrically along a north-south axial line. The well-designed palace appears magnificent, solemn and harmonious, representing the long cultural tradition of China and its outstanding architectural accomplishments five centuries ago. It is a truly superb masterpiece in every sense.

A Treasure House of Rare and Valuable Art Works

The Palace Museum in the Forbidden City has the country's largest collection of ancient art works, some of which are invaluable national treasures. Art works in the museum's collection total 1,052,653, including paintings, pottery, bronze wares, inscribed wares, toys, clocks and court documents.

-- Architecture

The Forbidden City is encompassed by a wall 10 m high, and surrounded by a moat 5.2 m wide. The palace has four entrance gates: the main Meridian Gate (Wumen) to the south, the Eastern Flowery Gate (Donghuamen), the Western Flowery Gate (Xihuamen), and the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) to the south. One has to pass through seven gates to arrive at the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), the emperors' living quarters. These seven gates, starting from the very southern gate of the imperial city, are: Zhengyangmen, Damingmen, Tiananmen, Duanmen, Wumen, Taihemen and Qianqingmen, which symbolize the celestial Plough. The palace grounds are divided into two parts: the Front Palace (Qianchao) to the south and the Inner Palace (Neiting) to the north. The Front Palace consists chiefly of three halls -- the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian). Here, important ceremonies, such as the accession of a new emperor to the throne and the emperor's birthday and wedding, were held. There are two groups of buildings on each side of the three great halls: the Hall of Literary Glory (Wenhuadian) and the Imperial Library (Wenyuange) on the east and the Hall of Military Prowess (Wuyingdian) on the west.

The Inner Palace mainly includes the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), the Hall of Prosperity (Jiaotaidian) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), where emperors and empresses lived. Behind them is the Imperial Garden. On each side of the inner three great halls are six eastern palaces and six western palaces, respectively, which were used as residences for concubines. The six eastern palaces are Jingrengong, Yanxigong, Chengqiangong, Yonghegong, Zhongcuigong and Jingyanggong. The six western palaces are Yongshougong, Taijidian, Yunkungong, Changchungong, Chuxiugong and Chengfugong.

There are some Buddhist sanctuaries to the east of the six eastern palaces and to the west of the six western palaces. Besides the inner and outer courts, there are also two major building compounds: the Outer Eastern Road (Waidonglu) and the Outer Western Road (Waixilu). To the south of the Outer Eastern Road are the Southern Three Halls (Nansansuo), residences for princes. To the north are the Hall of Supreme Royalty (Huangjidian) and the Hall of Peaceful Longevity (Ningshougong). Further northward there are the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxidian), the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Leshoutang), the Hall of Harmony (Yihexuan) and the Garden of the Hall of Peaceful Longevity. To the south of the Outer Western Road is the Hall of Peaceful Benignity (Cininggong), and to its north are some Buddhist sanctuaries.

Since yellow is the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant color in the Forbidden City. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace are painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground are made yellow in special process. However, there is one exception. Wenyuange, the royal library, has a black roof. The reason is that it was believed black represented water then and could extinguish fire.

-- Art Treasures

The Palace Museum is China's largest museum. It houses a collection of one million valuable art works, most of which were in the possession of the imperial families of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

These art treasures include paintings, pottery, bronze wares, gold and silver wares, embroidery, sculptures, jade wares, lacquer wares and lacquer enamel wares. In addition, there are also court articles, including jewels, accessories, clocks, medicines, furniture and furnishings. It is a unique, superb building complex, integrating the outstanding achievements of ancient Chinese architecture. In 1961, the Forbidden City was included in the List of Key Historical Monuments under State Protection. In 1987, it was put on the World Heritage List of UNESCO.