Beijing which is one of the six ancient capitals in China, is a beautiful old city impregnated with history. Many of the historical sites are still there, together with the many myths and legends associated with them. According to one of these, the region where we find today’s Beijing was in remote antiquity a large expanse of sea wherein the water was bitter to the taste. Hence the name “the Prefecture of Youzhou in the Sea of Bitterness”. It is said that a dragon king was once ruling over the Bitter Sea, inflicting untold sufferings on the people who either died off or were forced to flee. Later, Nezha the fairy came and vanquished the dragon king whom he had locked with his wife in a cave under the North Sea over which he erected a great towering white pagoda. Thenceforward those who had fled started coming back in successive waves to form at the beginning a village and later a township, which was then renamed Youzhou. In the Period of the Warring States, the king of the State of Yan made the place his capital with many emperors in successive dynasties following his example. The place was formally named Beijing when Emperor Cheng Zu of Ming moved his capital here from Nanjing. When the Qing Dynasty took over, it remained as the capital, but was however renamed jingdu (the national capital) by the Manchu rulers. Beginning from Ming and Qing, Beijing has been the political and cultural center of the country.
At the heart of the city of Beijing is a group of magnificent and resplendent palatial buildings—the Imperial Palace which used to be the world's largest imperial residence. In this palace, which was originally named the Purple City or the Forbidden City, there had resided at different times 24 emperors of the Two dynasties of Ming and Qing. About the name the Purple City or the Forbidden City there is this story. In the feudal society, the emperor was the supreme ruler whose residence had to be surrounded by high walls and heavily guarded with ordinary people kept off at a considerable distance. Hence the name the Forbidden City. In ancient times it was also believed that the Emperor of Heaven lived in a Heavenly Palace which was called the Purple Palace. Since the emperor in feudal times believed himself to be the son of heaven, his residence must be no different from the Purple Palace in heaven. From this was derived the term the Purple City.
The Imperial Palace which is the most superb and the best preserved of all ancient architectural complexes, occupies an area of 720,000 square meters. The built-up part, made up of large and small courtyards with the number of chambers reaching more than 9,000, has a total floor space of some 150,000 square meters. If someone should be allowed to spend a single night in each chamber, beginning from the day he is born, he would be 27 years old by the time the last chamber is reached. The palace grounds are surrounded by wall over ten meters high and about three kilometers long, which are further protected by a moat of over 50 meters wide. There are four entrances to the palace, Wu Men (The Meridian Gate) in the south, Shen Wu Men (The Gate of Divine Prowess) in the north and Dong Hua Men (The Eastern Flowery Gate) and Xi Hua Men (The Western Flowery Gate) in the east and west respectively. At each of the four corners of the Imperial City is a watch-tower which is of an exceptionally beautiful and exquisite design, a structure of 9 beams, 18 pillars and 72 ribs. Story has it that before Cheng Zu of Ming started the construction of the palace, he had once had a dream in which he beheld an insuperably beautiful watch-tower with that many beams, pillars and ribs. He was so enraptured with it that on waking up he ordered that the artisans should build a watchtower answering his description of what he had seen in his dream. However, the artisans had time and again failed to gratify the emperor with what they constructed and they were in deep despair when there came up to them an old peddler of singing grasshoppers who had in hand an exquisitely-made cage which he kept swaying while shouting his wares. The cage caught the artisan's attention who looked closely and found that it was made with exactly 9 beams, 18 pillars and 72 ribs. But the old man had disappeared when it occurred to the artisans that this might just be the magic carpenter Lu Ban who had come to offer help to them. Anyway they modeled their watchtower on the peddler's cage and at last succeeded in building the watch-towers we see today.
The complex of buildings in the Imperial Palace is perfectly aligned on a north-south axis with almost symmetrical structures on the two sides. The halls are well-proportioned with the key structures being given sufficient prominence. With Qian Qing Men (The Gate of Heavenly Purity) as the line of demarcation, the Imperial City is divided into the front palace and the rear palace. The front palace which centers round the three grand halls of Tai He Dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony), Zhong He Dian (Hall of Perfect Harmony) and Bao He Dian (Hall of Preserving Harmony), used to be the seat of the imperial government from which the emperor issued edicts and decrees and at which grand ceremonies were conducted. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is the grandest of the palatial buildings, housed the emperor's throne. When a ceremony was going on, the bells and drums which were placed on both sides of the throne would chime and thunder, striking awe into those who were present. On the flanks of these grand halls are two almost symmetrical groups of courtyards. The rear palace was where the emperor discharged his day-to-day administrative duties and where he resided. The set of six palaces on either side was where the empress and the royal concubines lived. The proportions of the chambers, their height, design and color combination, were clearly differentiated in accordance with the statuses of the occupants, revealing thus the rigidly stratified hierarchy of feudal society.
Characterized by an imposing layout and a majestic and sumptuous beauty, the architecture of the Imperial Palace is a concentrated expression of the quintessence of the best tradition and unique style of the art of architecture in ancient China, providing ample proof of the immense intelligence and creativity of the laboring people. Since liberation, the palace has been extensively renovated and refurnished and, as the Palace Museum, it is now open to the public, both from the provinces and from foreign countries.