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PERSPECTIVES ON CHINA AND THE FORBIDDEN CITY

Part I: Introduction

The Forbidden City, today called the Palace Museum, is located in the northern city of Beijing, which is south of the Great Wall. The Ming dynasty capital was moved to Beijing from Nanjing in 1403, in order to consolidate power and better defend against invasions from northern neighbors. Using the foundations left from the previous dynasty with a capital in Beijing, the Yuan, the Forbidden City was planned, built and completed by 1421.

The architecture of the Forbidden City invokes aspects of Confucian philosophy, like respect for hierarchy, which express the power of the Emperor. In addition, it takes inspiration from Chinese folk beliefs, for example in its statuary. While the Forbidden City was traditionally closed to the public, certain quarters or areas were only open to specific ranks. The decorations, buildings, even the color of the walls, also all indicate particular beliefs.

In 1644 the Ming dynasty was overthrown, and the Qing dynasty was established. As opposed to the Ming dynasty, which had strong roots in the ethnic majority Han Chinese population, the Qing were a federation from northern China that was overwhelmingly ethnically Manchurian – at the time a people with more in common, culturally and linguistically, with Mongolians than Han Chinese. After a period of strict racial segregation, the Manchurian Qing assimilated culturally in many ways with the Han Chinese, and found a Confucian philosophy that allowed them to maintain an at times uneasy alliance with the Han population.

Under the Qing, culture inside the Forbidden City flourished. Multiple languages were spoken, Tibetan Buddhism was imported to exist alongside native strains of Buddhism, and the arts there received lavish funding. Unfortunately, money directed towards culture in the Forbidden City was badly needed for defense. The Qing not only turned a blind eye to the corruption that was seriously sapping funds, but were often arrogant and inept in their dealings with foreign invaders. After foreign powers forced open ports and annexed land belonging to China, those powers increasingly directed affairs in China by sheer military might.

In 1911 the Republic of China was established, after years of failed reforms within the imperial system that came too late to remedy problems in the Qing court. China was given its first president, and the Forbidden City was left, semi-abandoned, to decay as warlords fought over control of China, and while Japan invaded (during World War II). After the successful repulsion of the Japanese, civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists broke out. Beijing, being a seat of power, was crucially contested, and the Nationalists held Beijing until the end. In 1949 the Communists emerged victorious, re-asserted Beijing as the political center of China, and began repairs on the Forbidden City.

From 1949 to the late 1970s, the Forbidden City was only sporadically open, but curators patiently repaired and catalogued artifacts. Although curators discovered that the Nationalists had taken many of the finest artifacts with them to Taiwan, they were able to salvage over 1.5 million artifacts. Today the Forbidden City, and those artifacts, are mostly open to the public through the Palace Museum.

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