Secrets of Beijing’s Forbidden City

Joe Nickell

China’s Forbidden City is a 178-acre ancient palace complex in the heart of Beijing. Constructed in the early fifteenth century, it is not only a national treasure but also a UNESCO World Heritage site (since 1987)—fittingly so, because it is the largest such palace site in the world. Double walled and ringed with a wide moat, it was off limits to the uninvited for 500 years under penalty of death—hence its designation as “forbidden.” Now prosaically called the Palace Museum, it welcomes tourists who make it the world’s most visited museum. I spent a wonderful day there in mid-October 2010, when I was the Center for Inquiry’s visiting scholar in China, and began to study some of the labyrinthine palace’s ancient secrets.

Construction Enigma

The Forbidden City served as regal home to two dynasties of imperial rulers—fourteen Ming emperors followed by ten of the Qing dynasty—from 1420 until 1912, the last Chinese emperor abdicating when the new government of the Republic of China took power (Mooney 2008, 66, 72).

Palace construction lasted from 1406 to 1420. It involved an estimated one million workers and was designed according to the ancient principles of feng shui (Bartlett 2014, 48–49). This held that everything was connected by the flow of a universal energy called chi and that the energy could be balanced to create harmony. Although feng shui lacks any scientific basis, a perception of harmony may be induced by using such aesthetic principles as bilateral symmetry. For example, in the Forbidden City features are arranged on either side of a north-south axis. That in turn was linked by astrologers to the North Star so that, when the emperor ascended his throne—there was one in each of three ceremonial halls—he was regarded as being at the epicenter of cosmic power.

Great stone ramps leading up to the ceremonial halls are evidence of a more mundane but ingenious power, as we shall see. The largest, at the north, was discovered in modern times to be composed of two slabs, the joint cleverly concealed by overlapping dragon carvings. But the southern ramp is a single piece, 54.4 feet long and weighing over 300 tons (272 metric tons)—even more before being carved. It is the largest such stone carving in China (Vergano 2013; “Forbidden City” 2016).

The secret of how such massive stones were transported has long evaded solution. However, an explanation—once provided by folklore but dismissed by scholarly books—has now been confirmed by an international engineering team. Whereas textbook authors had stressed the availability at that time of the spoked wheel, which supposedly enabled wagons to do the heavy carrying, wagons could not have hauled anything so heavy, and other methods caused too much friction.

The engineers (including two from universities in Beijing and another from Princeton) searched archival documents and found ancient references to the use of sledges. One 500-year-old record specifically told of a 123-ton stone having been transported from a quarry to the Forbidden City, a forty-three-mile, twenty-eight-day trip, by an ice sledge. The team concluded that a wintertime “artificial ice path”—lubricated by water from wells along the route (as reported in the old documents)—was used, the stones being pulled by teams with as few as forty-six men. The investigators noted that wet ice would have only one-seventh the friction of bare ice (Vergano 2013).

Portrait of Kublai Khan drawn shortly after his death on February 18, 1294.

Kublai Khan’s Lost Palace

The name of Kublai Khan (1215–1294) is best known to the students of English literature from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,1 romanticizing Khan’s legendarily beautiful palace, Xanadu, described by explorer Marco Polo. Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was the famed ruler of the Mongol Empire (from 1260 until his death in 1294) and, by conquest, founder in China of the Yuan dynasty, ruling as its first emperor (1271–1294).

Xanadu (or Shangdu) was the capital of Khan’s Yuan dynasty until he moved it to the Jin dynasty capital at what is present-day Beijing. Afterward, Xanadu became his summer palace, the remains of which, north of the Great Wall, exist today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But where was Kublai Khan’s newer palace at Beijing—a site long lost to history?

In November 2016, archaeologists discovered what they dared to suggest might be Khan’s famously lost imperial palace. They were excavating in what should seem, in retrospect, a very promising place: Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Yuan imperial palace was always thought to have been built somewhere near the present Forbidden City, but the archeologists who work for that complex now believe it had been under their very feet all the time (“Chinese archaeologists” 2016).

Specifically, the archeologists found a “3 meter [9.84 ft.] thick rammed earth and rubble foundation buried beneath the layers of Ming and Qing dynasty construction,” according to the South China Morning Post (McDermott 2016). The foundation’s size seemed unusual for an ordinary building of the Yuan dynasty, but it was credible as the site for a palatial hall.

The deputy director of The Institute of Archaeology at the Forbidden City, Wang Guangyao, told the Post that the newly discovered foundation is similar to another: that at Zhongdu, “one of the four capitals of the Yuan dynasty.” He noted that some of the debris in the foundation dates back to still earlier dynasties, such as the Liao (907–1125) and Jin (1115–1234). What this could mean (I find it exciting to consider) is that Kublai Khan may have superimposed his palace on an earlier palatial site (or sites) and that, in turn, the Ming dynasty utilized Khan’s old site for the Forbidden City. This makes sense in terms of tradition and, in Khan’s case, conquest.

In any event, Wang urges caution regarding the discovery: “Even if we think a certain site is important for an archaeological finding,” he told the Post, “We can’t just dig the ground up because it is not allowed. All we can do is wait and collect as much evidence as we can until sometime later, probably in a generation or two, work is done in those places and we can put all the finds together to see if all are connected” (McDermott 2016). Meanwhile, the Forbidden City plans to ready the archaeological site so that visitors may actually view the new discovery.

Otherworldly Secrets

Ghosts are believed in around the world. During years of travel, I have investigated the phenomena of ghosts and hauntings across the United States as well as Canada, Europe, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Morocco, Russia, China, and elsewhere. There are cultural differences, to be sure, a fact that perhaps nowhere is more apparent than in China.

Ghosts take many forms in Chinese culture, from malevolent entities to revered ancestral spirits. Notable among the latter are certain practices dedicated to the memory and respect of one’s deceased loved ones. For example (comparable to Mexico’s Day of the Dead), there is a special day in early April celebrated by “the Tomb-Sweeping Festival.” During this time, families ritually cleanse ancestral gravesites and provide offerings to their spirits. These include not only flowers, food, and wine but even “ghost money”—paper currency burned as an offering and intended for use by the spirits (Nickell 2012, 178–179).

In the Forbidden City, the Hall of Ancestor Worship formerly housed the “spirit tables” of the dead emperors and empresses (Mooney 2008, 75). Upon them were placed small shrines or niches containing the all-important “spirit tablets,” also known as ancestral or memorial tablets, which are made of wood and bear the name of the deity or past ancestor. Placed before the tablets were offerings, often on a separate lower table for the purpose. Such ritual displays are seen in temples, shrines, and home altars across China. Unfortunately, all the shrines and statues in the Hall of Ancestral Worship were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, although Premier Zhou Enlai intervened to save the Forbidden City itself from destruction.

While the soul is held to reside in the tablet, it does not mean that it is confined to it. In fact, a common belief is that a person has three souls: Besides the one that takes residence in its tablet is another that yet remains in the grave, and yet another goes to an otherworldly domain (Addison 1925).

In addition to ancestral spirits, there were also folkloric ghosts and evil spirits. To ward off the latter, large mirrors were placed beside the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City (“Visit” 2016). Also believed to be powerfully protective were guardian lion sculptures—usually in pairs, male and female—that typically stood watch at temples and imperial buildings in China, as in the Forbidden City, dating from both the Ming and Qing dynasties. Another protective element against ghosts is said to be the ubiquitous bottom doorsill (or threshold step) in doorways, supposed to keep out shuffling ghosts. Actually, the custom was more likely to exist for its practical functions (to keep out wind, rain, small animals, etc.) and cultural purposes (for example, as a symbol of boundary and status) (“The culture” 2017).

As this brief sketch shows, in China as elsewhere ghost beliefs and practices have their own cultural expression, but everywhere they appear to be prompted by the same hopes and fears that motivate people universally.


I find we have much to learn from the ancients as we study their remarkable achievements—those of the Forbidden City among them—and try to understand their thinking. Ultimately, we may learn not only their secrets but more about ourselves as well.

Note

  1. Coleridge’s famous poem uses for its title the earlier English spelling of Khan’s name: “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” It was written in 1797 following a dream induced by a prescribed anodyne (probably opium), after he had read a work describing Xanadu. The poem—an example of Romanticism in English verse—was published in 1816 at the urging of Lord Byron.

References

Addison, James Thayer. 1925. Chinese Ancestor Worship. Available online at http://anglicanhistory.org/asia/china/addison_ancestor1925/02.html; accessed December 20, 2016.

Bartlett, Sarah. 2014. Guide to the World’s Supernatural Places. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Chinese archaeologists solve mystery of Beijing’s Forbidden Palace. 2016. South China Morning Post, International Edition. Available online at http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/1941678/chinese-archaeolgists-solve-msytery-beijings-forbidden-palace; accessed December 28, 2016.

The Culture of Chinese Doorsill. 2017. Available online at http://China-talk-blogspot.com/2015/01/the-culture-of-chinese-doorsill.html; accessed January 3, 2017.

Forbidden City. 2016. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_City; accessed December 19, 2016.

McDermott, Alicia. 2016. Chinese archaeologists may have solved the mystery of the lost palace of Kublai Khan. Ancient Origins. Available online at https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/chinese-archaeologists-may-have-solved-mystery-lost-palace-kublai-khan-020861; accessed December 28, 2016.

Mooney, Paul. 2008. National Geographic Traveler: Beijing. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Vergano, Dan. 2013. Beijing’s Forbidden City built on ice roads. Available online at http://news.nationalgeographic./com/news/2013/10/131104-china-ice-road-forbidden-city-culture-science/; accessed December 29, 2016.

Visit Our China: Forbidden City. 2016. Available online at http://visitourchina.com/beijing/attraction/forbidden-city.html; accessed December 30, 2016.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.


China’s Forbidden City is a 178-acre ancient palace complex in the heart of Beijing. Constructed in the early fifteenth century, it is not only a national treasure but also a UNESCO World Heritage site (since 1987)—fittingly so, because it is the largest such palace site in the world. Double walled and ringed with a wide …

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