Tour Guide Beijing, China — The Forbidden City

Take a journey to the heart of Beijing to a place that China’s emperors called home for half a millennium and which is now the city’s biggest tourist attraction

01 The site of student protest and government retaliation

As you approach the Forbidden City you’ll walk through Tiananmen Square, the scene of several infamous demonstrations throughout the 20th century. Most famous of all were the student-led protests that took place between April and June 1989 in the square. The Chinese government ordered troops with tanks and rifles to end the occupation of the square, resulting in an indeterminate number of deaths, though the figure is estimated to be in the thousands. The photo of an unknown protestor defying the tanks is arguably one of the most recognisable images of the last 50 years.


Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406, during the reign of Emperor Zhu Di, the third emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty. The work was completed in 1420, at the hands of about 1 million labourers and 100,000 craftsmen.

03 The West Gate is opened for the signing of the Beijing Convention

The Second Opium War, which was fought between 1856 and 1860, ended with the signing of the Convention of Beijing. In October 1860, Prince Gong had the West Gate of the Forbidden City opened to the Anglo-French forces. His half-brother, Emperor Xianfeng, had taken his leave of the Forbidden City in late-September. Under the terms of the treaty, the Kowloon Peninsula and New Kowloon — a part of Hong Kong — were ceded to the British. Hong Kong island had become a British colony as a result of the First Opium War nearly 20 years earlier.

04 Holy marble stairway is built

Behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony lies a double set of stairways which are separated by a large, ornate slab of marble. The slab is carved with a series of nine dragons playing with pearls and was installed in the city between 1406 and 1420. Upon completion, this feature of the complex was considered so holy that anyone who touched it, aside from the emperor, was immediately issued the death penalty.

05 The Last Emperor abdicates

In early-1912, Puyi — a six-year-old boy, officially known as the Xuantong Emperor — renounced the throne. However, under the terms of the abdication agreement signed by Empress Dowager Longyu the previous year, Puyi and the rest of the imperial family were able to remain in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, which consisted of the Hall of Tenestrial Tranquillity, the Hall of Celestial and Tenestrial Union and the Hall of Celestial Purity — making it the last section of the Forbidden City to be inhabited by an emperor.

06 Lightning strikes the city

China’s Forbidden City was constructed largely from wood, making it highly susceptible to fire. The first of many fires broke out within a year of the city’s completion, on 9 May 1421, when the three main halls — including the Hall of Imperial Supremacy, where laws were once made — burned down after being struck by lightning.


Yanxigong, the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, was bombed in 1917. General Zhang Xun had tried to restore the Last Emperor — Puyi — to the throne and although it was briefly decreed he was emperor again, when a bomb was dropped by a Republican plane — causing relatively minor damage -Puyi’s supporters abandoned him.

08 Where Shunzhi’s favourite concubine died

In the 17th century, the Palace of Eternal Tranquillity was the residence of Emperor Shunzhi’s favourite concubine, Dong Fei — along with many other courtesans. The emperor’s affection for her was well known and her death caused him great distress.

09 The Last Emperor is expelled from the city

In 1924, Puyi — who had briefly ruled as the Xuantong Emperor — left the Forbidden City for the last time through the Gate of Divine Prowess (the north exit). This brought to an end half a century of dynastic history.


In 1644, Chongzhen — the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty -hung himself on a tree on Jingshan Hill (also knownas Coal Hill), as rebel forces led by Li Zicheng neared the Forbidden City.

Inside the Forbidden City today

The Forbidden City was referred to as such because access to the complex depended on the express say-so of the emperor.

However, the city’s forbidden days are now long gone. No Chinese emperor has resided in the Forbidden City since 1924, and from 1925 the complex has been a museum — although there have been a few political disruptions along the way.

This period of relative uncertainty was ended when the Forbidden City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, with the complex protected and administered as a place of considerable historical and cultural importance.

However, the city has still seen its share of controversy. Ten years later, $24 million was set aside for renovation, but not all the work done has proved satisfactory and significant swathes of the former imperial city are not open to the public.

In 2000, a Starbucks cafe opened, but closed in 2007 after a volley of disapproval regarding the inappropriateness of a coffee chain conducting business on the site.

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