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History of the Yuan Dynasty : Every Year

History of the Yuan Dynasty : Every Year

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Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368
Northern Yuan Dynasty 1368-1635

What Was the Yuan Dynasty?

The Yuan Dynasty was the ethnic-Mongolian dynasty that ruled China from 1279 to 1368 and founded in 1271 by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The Yuan Dynasty was preceded by the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1279 and followed by the Ming which lasted from 1368 to 1644.

Yuan China was considered the most important piece of the vast Mongol Empire, which stretched as far west as Poland and Hungary and from Russia in the north to Syria in the south. The Yuan Chinese Emperors were also the Great Khans of the Mongol Empire, controlling the Mongol homeland and had authority over the khans of the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate and the Chagatai Khanate.

History of the Yuan Dynasty : Every Year - History

The Yuan Dynasty was a period of time when China was under the rule of the Mongol Empire. The Yuan ruled China from 1279 to 1368. It was followed by the Ming Dynasty.

The Chinese had fought with the Mongol tribes of the north for hundreds of years. When the Mongols united under the leadership of Genghis Khan, they swept across northern China destroying many cities along the way. The Mongols and the Chinese continued to fight for many years until Kublai Khan took control.

Kublai Khan by Anige of Nepal
[Public Domain]

Under Kublai Khan, the Mongols first allied with the Southern Song Chinese to defeat the Jin Chinese of the north. Then they turned on the Southern Song. Kublai eventually conquered much of China and established his own Chinese dynasty called the Yuan Dynasty.

Note: Kublai Khan declared the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, but the Song weren't fully defeated until 1279. Both dates are often used by historians as the start of the Yuan Dynasty.

Kublai Khan took on much of the culture of the Chinese. He soon realized that, although the Mongols were great warriors, they didn't know how to run a large empire. Kublai used Chinese officials to run the government, but he kept a close eye on them, never quite trusting his former enemy.

Kublai encouraged trade and communications with lands beyond China. He brought in people from all around the world. One of his famous visitors was Marco Polo from Europe. Kublai also permitted freedom of religion including Confucianism, Islam, and Buddhism.

In order to keep control of his Chinese subjects, Kublai instituted social classes based on race. The Mongols made up the highest class and were always given preference over other races. Below the Mongols were the non-Chinese races such as Muslims and the Turks. At the bottom were the Chinese with the people of the Southern Song considered the lowest class.

Parts of the Chinese culture continued to flourish during the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan rulers encouraged advancement in technology and transportation. They also encouraged arts such as ceramics, painting, and drama. In some ways the Mongols became more like the Chinese over time. They were a small percentage of the overall population. Many Mongols, however, attempted to retain their own culture. They continued to live in tents, drink fermented milk, and only married other Mongols.

The Yuan Dynasty was the shortest lived of all the major Chinese Dynasties. After Kublai Khan's death, the dynasty began to weaken. The heirs of Kublai began to fight over power and the government became corrupt. Chinese rebel groups began to form to fight against the Mongol rule. In 1368, a Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuanzhang led the rebels to overthrow the Yuan. He then established the Ming Dynasty.

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Significance: It has disclosed the layout, structure and features of the capital of the Yuan Dynasty.

In the city's long history, the earliest walls were built in Zhongdu, capital of the Jin Dynasty. In 1267, Yuan rulers abandoned the site of the former Jin capital and constructed a new city known as Dadu (or the Upper Capital), centered in the Jin emperor's auxiliary palaces. Construction completed in 1276. The new city walls, with a perimeter of 30 kilometers, measured 21.6 meters at the base and 16.7 meters at the top. This was the embryonic form of present day Beijing.

The entire city area is square, consisting of the palace city, imperial city and outer city, which were set symmetrically along an axis. The palace city is built of bricks, with towers at the four corners. The major buildings are the Daming Hall and Da'an Pavilion. The imperial city surrounds the palace city, and is built of stone. The offices and mansions of the imperial family are located here. The outer city is completely built of earth. On the east and south sides were markets, residential areas and storehouses. In 1430, during the Ming Dynasty, it was abandoned.

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, attacked and captured the Yuan capital Dadu and established his new capital at Nanjing . His son Zhu Di renamed Beiping (Northern Peace) Beijing (Northern Capital) in 1403, and in 1421 officially made it the capital of China. Dadu was then reduced to the rank of secondary capital after the dynasty made Beijing its capital. Every year, from April to July, emperors and ministers would not conduct administrative affairs and escape the heat of the summer here, thus making it another political, economic, military and cultural center.

Mooncake Uprising in Late Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368 AD)

In late Yuan Dynasty, people could not bear the cruel rule of the court. Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of Ming, united various resistance forces to prepare for the uprising. But it was hard to deliver military massage secretly. Liu Bowen, a subject of Zhu Yuanzhang, came up with an idea that put the note writing &ldquoUprising on the 15th night of 8th lunar month&rdquo into the mooncakes, and then sent them to other resistance forces. On the day of the uprising, the uprising troops from different places got together and fight against the Yuan troop. Soon the uprising succeeded and Zhu Yuanzhang presented mooncakes to the ministers as gifts. It is said that since then the custom of eating mooncakes in the Mid-Autumn Festival was formed. This is an essential event in mooncake history.

Yuan Dynasty

Since the late period of the 12th century, an ethnic minority group called Mongolian had grown up in the northern areas of China. In 1204, one of the leaders of the Mongolian tribes, Tiemuzhen, unified all the internal tribes. Two years later, Tiemuzhen was honored as Genghis Khan (meaning - the ruler of the world) and soon established the Mongolian Empire. Successively, it captured Xixia and the Jin Dynasty (1115 - 1234), after which the combative Mongolian army sent its military forces into Central Asia and Europe.

Although the dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, he had his grandfather Genghis Khan placed on the official record as the founder of the dynasty or Taizu. Kublai Khan had claimed the title of Great Khan, i.e. supremacy over the other Mongol khanates (Chagatai Khanate, Golden Horde, Ilkhanate) however this claim was only truly recognized by the Il-Khanids, who were nevertheless essentially self-governing. Although later emperors of the Yuan Dynasty were recognized by the three virtually independent western khanates as their nominal suzerains, they each continued their own separate developments. But the Mongol Empire as a whole remained strong and united. The Yuan is sometimes referred to as the Empire of the Great Khan. The Mongol Emperors of the Yuan held the title of Great Khan of all Mongol Khanates

Kublai Khan and Ariq Böke

In 1259 Great Khan Möngke died while Kublai Khan, his brother, was campaigning against the Song Dynasty in South China and Ariq Böke, his other brother, commanded the Mongol homelands. After Möngke's demise, Ariq Böke decided to attempt to make himself Great Khan. Hearing of this, Kublai aborted his Chinese expedition and had himself elected as Great Khan in an assembly with a small number of attendees in April of 1260. Still, Ariq Böke had his supporters and was elected as a rival Great Khan to Kublai at Karakorum, then the capital of Mongol Empire. The brothers then engaged in a series of battles, ending with Ariq Böke's capture in 1264. Kublai held him prisoner until he died two years later.

Founding of the Dynasty

From the beginning of his reign (1260), Kublai Khan had adopted many customs from earlier Chinese dynasties, such as era names and bureaucracy. After winning the war against Ariq Böke, Kublai Khan began his reign over his realm with greater aspirations and self-confidence — in 1266 he ordered the construction of his new capital at the site that is now the modern city of Beijing. The city had been called Zhongdu during the Jin Dynasty, and in 1272 it came to be known as Dadu ( in Chinese, Daidu to the Mongols, and Khanbalikh ("City of the Khans") to the Turks. In 1271 he established the Yuan Dynasty, which would proceed to be the first non-Han dynasty to rule all of China. Its official title, Da Yuan, originates from I Ching,. Yuan is the first dynasty in China to use Da in its official title. In 1272, Dadu officially became the capital of the Yuan Dynasty.

Rule of Kublai Khan

Unlike his predecessors, whose rule usually involved widespread plunder, Kublai Khan tried to warm to and seek support from the populace. Many reforms were made during Kublai Khan's reign. Kublai Khan began to serve as a true emperor, reforming much of China and its institutions, a process that would take decades to complete. For example, he consolidated his rule by centralizing the government of China — making himself (unlike his predecessors) an absolute monarch. He reformed many other governmental and economic institutions, especially the tax system. Kublai Khan sought to govern China through traditional institutions, and also recognized that in order to rule China he needed to employ Han Chinese advisers and officials, though he never relied totally on Chinese advisers

Early rulers after Kublai

Succession was a problem for the Yuan Dynasty, later causing much strife and internal struggle. This emerged as early as the end of Kublai's reign. Kublai originally named his eldest son, Zhenjin as the Crown Prince — but he died before Kublai in 1285. Thus, Zhenjin's son ruled as Temür Khan for approximately 10 years following Kublai's death (between 1294 and 1307). Temür Khan decided to maintain and continue much of the work begun by his grandfather. He also made peace with the western Mongol khanates as well as the neighboring countries such as Vietnam, which recognized his nominal suzerainty and paid tributes for a few decades. However, the corruption in the Yuan Dynasty began during the reign of Temür Khan.

Northern Yuan

The Yuan remnants retreated to Mongolia after the fall of Yingchang to the Ming in 1370, where the Yuan Dynasty was formally carried on. Under the name Northern Yuan the Mongols resisted the Ming. According to Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate dynasty whose rulers were blessed by Heaven to rule as Emperor of China (see Mandate of Heaven), and so the Ming and the Northern Yuan denied each other's legitimacy as emperors of China, although the Ming did consider the previous Yuan which it had succeeded a legitimate dynasty. Historians generally regard Míng Dynasty rulers as the legitimate emperors of China after the Yuan Dynasty, though Northern Yuan rulers also claimed this title.


John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

John D. Langlois Jr., ed., China under Mongol Rule (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford & New York: Pergamon, 1979, 1983).

Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

The Mongols: Continuity in the Yuan Dynasty

The Mongols were the most devastating of the nomadic warriors from Central Asia.

By the 14th century, they controlled a vast amount of territory which was eventually divided up into different zones or Khanates, ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan (which means “universal ruler”).

The Mongol heartland and the extent of their empire

In China, the Mongol rulers became known as the Yuan Dynasty. The document below illustrates that (at least in China) the Mongols did not force their subjects to abandon all of their customs.

Examples of Filial Piety
Freezing in a Thin Coat in Obedience to His Stepmother
Min Tzu-chien had lost his mother at a young age. His father remarried and had two more sons with his second wife. She always dressed her own sons in thickly padded robes. But to her stepson she gave only a thin coat padded with cattails [instead of cotton]. One winter day, when Min Tzu-chien was told to hold the reins of his father’s cart, he was shivering so badly that he dropped the reins. This way his father found out that his wife dressed his oldest son very poorly. In his rage he decided to dismiss his second wife. But Min Tzu-chien said: “If she stays, one son will be freezing. But if she leaves, all three sons will suffer from the cold.” When his stepmother heard this, she changed her attitude towards Min Tzu-chien.

Allowing Mosquitoes to Feast on His Blood
During the Chin [Qin] Dynasty (4th-5th Century CE), a boy named Wu Meng was already serving his parents in exemplary filial piety although he was just eight years old. The family was so poor that they could not even afford a gauze net against the mosquitoes. Therefore every night in the summer swarms of mosquitoes would come and bite them. Wu Meng let them all feast on his naked stomach. Even though there were so many, he did not drive them away. He feared that the mosquitoes, having left him, would instead bite his parents. His heart was truly filled with love for his parents.

Sacrificing His Son for the Sake of His Mother
Kuo Chi, who lived during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE-200 CE) and his family were very poor. He had a three-year-old son. Even though there was little food, Kou Chi’s mother would always give part of her share to her grandson so that he did not suffer hunger.

One day Kuo Chi said to his wife, “We are so poor and needy that we cannot give mother enough to eat, and on top of this our son is eating part of mother’s share. It were better if we buried our son.” He started digging a grave. When he had dug a hole of about three chih(3), he discovered a pot filled with gold and the inscription: “Officials may not take it, people may not steal it.”

Wearing Children’s Clothes to Amuse His Parents
During the time of the Chou Dynasty (11th-3rd Century BCE), there was a man named Lao Lai-tzu who was by nature extremely filial. He took care of both his parents and provided for them with the choicest delicacies. After he himself turned seventy, he never spoke about his age. He often wore clothes striped in five colors and acted like an infant in front of his parents. He would carry a bowl of water to them, and then stumble on purpose. Lying on the floor he would cry like a little child in order to make his parents laugh.

Crying in the Bamboo-Grove and Making the Bamboo Sprout
During the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd Century CE) there lived a man named Meng Sung, also known as [Meng] Chien-wu. He had lost his father during his childhood. When his mother was old and sick she craved fresh bamboo-shoots even though it was winter. Sung had no idea how he could get them. In desperation, he went into a bamboo grove, clasped a bamboo stem and broke into tears. His filial devotion moved heaven and earth and they forced the earth to crack open. Numerous shoots of bamboo came out. Meng Sung carried them home and made them into a soup for his mother. As soon as she had eaten she felt much better.

Cleaning his Mother’s Chamberpot
Huang T’ing-chien of the Sung Dynasty, also known as [Huang] Shan-gu,became a member of the Hanlin academyduring the Yuan-Yu reign (1086-1094 CE).
He was by nature extremely filial. Even though he was such an esteemed and famous person, he served his mother with utmost devotion. Every evening he would personally clean his mother’s chamber pot. Not a moment passed without his fulfilling his filial duties.

For consideration:
Which Chinese tradition values filial piety? Why might the conquering Mongols have allowed such a tradition to continue?

Trade and Currency under the Yuan

During the Yuan dynasty, trade flourished and peace reigned along the newly revived Silk Road, contributing to a period known as the Pax Mongolica.

Learning Objectives

Describe the trade and monetary policies of the Yuan dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Kublai Khan, who established the Yuan dynasty in China as an extension of the already dominant Mongolian Empire, promoted progressive policies that allowed trade and prosperity to flourish.
  • The Mongolians revived the Silk Road and established peace throughout their extensive trade routes, leading to the so-called Pax Mongolia.
  • Many Europeans, most famously Marco Polo, travelled to Yuan China and observed Chinese cultural and technological innovations.
  • One of the more notable applications of printing technology in China was the chao, the paper money of the Yuan, which became one of the first instances of a unified paper money economy in the world.

Key Terms

  • Pax Mongolica: A historiographical term, modeled after the original phrase Pax Romana, that describes the stabilizing effects of the conquests of the Mongol Empire on the social, cultural, and economic life of the inhabitants of the vast Eurasian territory that the Mongols conquered in the 13th and 14th centuries.
  • Silk Road: An ancient network of trade routes that for centuries were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Chao: The official banknote of the Yuan dynasty in China.
  • Marco Polo: A Venetian merchant traveller whose travels, especially to Mongolian-ruled China, are recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo, a book that introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China.


Kublai Khan promoted commercial, scientific, and cultural growth. He supported the merchants of the Silk Road trade network by protecting the Mongol postal system, constructing infrastructure, providing loans that financed trade caravans, and encouraging the circulation of paper banknotes. Pax Mongolica, Mongol peace, enabled the spread of technologies, commodities, and culture between China and the West. Kublai expanded the Grand Canal from southern China to Daidu in the north. Mongol rule was cosmopolitan under Kublai Khan. He welcomed foreign visitors to his court, such as the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who wrote the most influential European account of Yuan China. Marco Polo’s travels would later inspire many others, like Christopher Columbus, to chart a passage to the Far East in search of its legendary wealth.

Marco Polo on the Silk Road: A closeup of the Mallorquín Atlas depicting Marco Polo traveling to the East on the Silk Road during the Pax Mongolica.

Trade under the Yuan Dynasty: Pax Mongolica

Pax Mongolica is a historiographical term, modeled after the original phrase Pax Romana, that describes the stabilizing effects of the conquests of the Mongol Empire on the social, cultural, and economic life of the inhabitants of the vast Eurasian territory that the Mongols conquered in the 13th and 14th centuries, including the Yuan dynasty in China. The term is used to describe the eased communication and commerce the unified administration helped to create, and the period of relative peace that followed the Mongols’ vast conquests.

Before the Mongols’ rise, the Old World system consisted of isolated imperial systems. The new Mongol Empire amalgamated the once-isolated civilizations into a new continental system and re-established the Silk Road as a dominant method of transportation. The unification of Eurasia under the Mongols greatly diminished the amount of competing tribute gatherers throughout the trade network and assured greater safety and security in travel. During the Pax Mongolica, European merchants like Marco Polo made their way from Europe to China on the well-maintained and well-traveled roads that linked Anatolia to China.

On the Silk Road, caravans with Chinese silk and spices such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg from the Spice Islands came to the West via the transcontinental trade routes. Eastern diets were thus introduced to Europeans. Indian muslins, cotton, pearls, and precious stones were sold in Europe, as were weapons, carpets, and leather goods from Iran. Gunpowder was also introduced to Europe from China. In the opposite direction, Europeans sent silver, fine cloth, horses, linen, and other goods to the near and far East. Increasing trade and commerce meant that the respective nations and societies increased their exposure to new goods and markets, thus increasing the GDP of each nation or society that was involved in the trade system. Μany of the cities participating in the 13th century world trade system grew rapidly in size.

Along with land trade routes, a Maritime Silk Road contributed to the flow of goods and establishment of a Pax Mongolica. This Maritime Silk Road started with short coastal routes in Southern China. As technology and navigation progressed, these routes developed into a high-seas route into the Indian Ocean. Eventually these routes further developed to encompass the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the sea off East Africa.

Along with tangible goods, people, techniques, information, and ideas moved lucidly across the Eurasian landmass for the first time. For example, John of Montecorvino, archbishop of Peking, founded Roman Catholic missions in India and China and also translated the New Testament into the Mongolian language. Long-distance trade brought new methods of doing business from the Far East to Europe bills of exchange, deposit banking, and insurance were introduced to Europe during the Pax Mongolica. Bills of exchange made it significantly easier to travel long distances because a traveler would not be burdened by the weight of metal coins.

Monetary Policies and Paper Money

One of the more notable applications of printing technology in China was the chao, the paper money of the Yuan, made from the bark of mulberry trees. The Yuan government first used woodblocks to print paper money, but switched to bronze plates in 1275. The Mongols experimented with establishing the Chinese-style paper monetary system in Mongol-controlled territories outside of China. The Yuan minister Bolad was sent to Iran, where he explained Yuan paper money to the Il-khanate court of Gaykhatu. The Il-khanate government issued paper money in 1294, but public distrust of the exotic new currency doomed the experiment.

Foreign observers took note of Yuan printing technology. Marco Polo documented the Yuan printing of paper money and almanac pamphlets called “tacuini.” The vizier Rashid-al-Din recognized that printing was a valuable technological breakthrough, and expressed regret that the Mongol experiment with printing paper money had failed in the Muslim world. Rashid-al-Din’s view was not shared by other chroniclers in the Middle East, who were critical of the experiment’s disruptive impact on the Il-khanate.

In 1253, Möngke established a Department of Monetary affairs to control the issuance of paper money in order to eliminate the overissue of the currency by Mongol and non-Mongol nobles since the reign of Great Khan Ögedei. His authority established united measure based on sukhe or silver ingot however, the Mongols allowed their foreign subjects to mint coins in the denominations and weight they traditionally used. During the reigns of Ögedei, Güyük, and Möngke, Mongol coinage increased with gold and silver coinage in Central Asia and copper and silver coins in Caucasus, Iran, and southern Russia.

The Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan issued paper money backed by silver, and again banknotes supplemented by cash and copper cash. The standardization of paper currency allowed the Yuan court to monetize taxes and reduce carrying costs of taxes in goods, as did the policy of Möngke Khan. But the forest nations of Siberia and Manchuria still paid their taxes in goods or commodities to the Mongols chao was used only within the Yuan dynasty. Ghazan’s fiscal reforms enabled the inauguration of a unified bimetallic currency in the Ilkhanate. Chagatai Khan Kebek renewed the coinage backed by silver reserves and created a unified monetary system throughout the realm.

Yuan dynasty money: Yuan dynasty banknote, the chao, with its printing plate (1287)

View of the Tongzi moat surrounding the Forbidden City , Beijing The Forbidden City is a large precinct of red walls and yellow glazed roof tiles located in the heart of China’s capital, Beijing. As its name suggests, the precinct is a micro-city in its own right. Measuring 961 meters in length and 753 meters in width, the Forbidden City is composed of more than 90 palace compounds including 98 buildings and surrounded by a moat as wide as 52 meters.

Aerial view of the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum), Beijing,
15th century and later, Google Earth ©2015 Google The Forbidden City was the political and ritual center of China for over 500 years. After its completion in 1420, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors, their families and servants during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The last occupant (who was also the last emperor of imperial China), Puyi (1906–67), was expelled in 1925 when the precinct was transformed into the Palace Museum. Although it is no longer an imperial precinct, it remains one of the most important cultural heritage sites and the most visited museum in the People’s Republic of China, with an average of eighty thousand visitors every day.

One of two enormous bronze Ming Dynasty lions guarding the Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum)

Construction and layout

The construction of the Forbidden City was the result of a scandalous coup d’état plotted by Zhu Di, the fourth son of the Ming dynasty’s founder Zhu Yuanzhang, that made him the Chengzu emperor (his official title) in 1402. In order to solidify his power, the Chengzu emperor moved the capital, as well as his own army, from Nanjing in southeastern China to Beijing and began building a new heart of the empire, the Forbidden City.

Carved, painted dragons, lintel, Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum) The establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644 did not lessen the Forbidden City’s pivotal status, as the Manchu imperial family continued to live and rule there. While no major change has been made since its completion, the precinct has undergone various renovations and minor constructions well into the twentieth-first century. Since the Forbidden City is a ceremonial, ritual and living space, the architects who designed its layout followed the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology that had held Chinese social structure together for centuries. This layout ensured that all activities within this micro-city were conducted in the manner appropriate to the participants’ social and familial roles. All activities, such as imperial court ceremonies or life-cycle rituals, would take place in sophisticated palaces depending on the events’ characteristics. Similarly, the court determined the occupants of the Forbidden City strictly according to their positions in the imperial family.

The architectural style also reflects a sense of hierarchy. Each structure was designed in accordance with the Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards (Yingzao fashi), an eleventh-century manual that specified particular designs for buildings of different ranks in Chinese social structure.

View of the Meridian Gate from outside the Forbidden City
(Imperial Palace Museum)

Public and private life

Public and domestic spheres are clearly divided in the Forbidden City. The southern half, or the outer court, contains spectacular palace compounds of supra-human scale. This outer court belonged to the realm of state affairs, and only men had access to its spaces. It included the emperor’s formal reception halls, places for religious rituals and state ceremonies, and also the Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south end of the central axis that served as the main entrance.

Looking to the Meridian Gate from the north (Imperial Palace Museum)
(photo: inkelv112, CC BY-NC 2.0) Upon passing the Meridian Gate, one immediately enters an immense courtyard paved with white marble stones in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). Since the Ming dynasty, officials gathered in front of the Meridian Gate before 3 a.m., waiting for the emperor’s reception to start at 5 a.m.

View of the Hall of Supreme Harmony from the south
(Imperial Palace Museum)

Throne, Hall of Supreme Harmony While the outer court is reserved for men, the inner court is the domestic space, dedicated to the imperial family. The inner court includes the palaces in the northern part of the Forbidden City. Here, three of the most important palaces align with the city’s central axis: the emperor’s residence known as the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong) is located to the south while the empress’s residence, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), is to the north. The Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian), a smaller square building for imperial weddings and familial ceremonies, is sandwiched in between.

Left: Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong)
Center: Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian)
Right: Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong)

Although the Palace of Heavenly Purity was a grand palace building symbolizing the emperor’s supreme status, it was too large for conducting private activities comfortably. Therefore, after the early 18th century Qing emperor, Yongzheng, moved his residence to the smaller Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) to the west of the main axis, the Palace of Heavenly Purity became a space for ceremonial use and all subsequent emperors resided in the Hall of Mental Cultivation.

Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian) The residences of the emperor’s consorts flank the three major palaces in the inner court. Each side contains six identical, walled palace compounds, forming the shape of K’un “☷,” one of the eight trigrams of ancient Chinese philosophy. It is the symbol of mother and earth, and thus is a metaphor for the proper feminine roles the occupants of these palaces should play. Such architectural and philosophical symmetry, however, fundamentally changed when the empress dowager Cixi (1835-1908) renovated the Palace of Eternal Spring (Changchungong) and the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiugong) in the west part of the inner court for her fortieth and fiftieth birthday in 1874 and 1884, respectively. The renovation transformed the original layout of six palace compounds into four, thereby breaking the shape of the symbolic trigram and implying the loosened control of Chinese patriarchal authority at the time.

Aerial view of the north end of the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace Museum) looking south, Google Earth ©2015 Google The eastern and western sides of the inner court were reserved for the retired emperor and empress dowager. The emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–96) built his post-retirement palace, the Hall of Pleasant Longevity (Leshoutang), in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. It was the last major construction in the imperial precinct. In addition to these palace compounds for the older generation, there are also structures for the imperial family’s religious activities in the east and west sides of the inner court, such as Buddhist and Daoist temples built during the Ming dynasty. The Manchus preserved most of these structures but also added spaces for their own shamanic beliefs.

Scholar’s Rock, Imperial garden

The Forbidden City now

Today, the Forbidden City is still changing. As a modern museum and an historical site, the museum strikes a balance by maintaining the structures and restoring the interiors of the palace compounds, and in certain instances transforming minor palace buildings and hallways into exhibition galleries for the exquisite artwork of the imperial collections. For many, the Forbidden City is a time capsule for China’s past and an educational institute for the public to learn and appreciate the history and beauty of this ancient culture.

Watch the video: History of the Yuan Dynasty: Every Year (May 2022).