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An earthquake-proof palace built 600 years ago

YOUNG ARCHITECT Kuai Xiang had a problem. He had to build a huge palace out of wood—but didn’t have a single nail.

Worse still, the terraces outside would need large pieces of stone—but they were too heavy to carry from the quarry to the building area.

The palace he was building had to be earthquake-proof and last a lifetime—but none of the materials were particularly strong.

It all must have seemed impossible. But Kuai Xiang and his colleagues had very good incentive to get it done.

They had been given the job by the Yongle Emperor. Although the ruler came to be a respected figure in Chinese history, he was a ruthless man. He killed his enemies and then slaughtered every member of their families, even distant cousins, to prevent his victims’ descendants returning to take revenge.  

But the Yongle (say it “yong-lo”) Emperor, hard though he was, had a vision that would eventually change China. Among the most dramatic of his developments was to take a small northern town called Beiping and turn it into Beijing, the new capital of China.

And so it was that in the year 1403, the Emperor decided to order thousands of artisans to work in the heart of Beijing to build the greatest palace they could imagine. They would create a city-within-a-city – a collection of buildings which would eventually become known around the world as The Forbidden City.

The above-mentioned carpenter Kuai Xiang, who was in his early 30s when he started the project, set to work in the year 1406. Using traditional Chinese wood-forming methods, which involved no nails, he created a series of strong wooden structures which formed the heart of the Forbidden City—and which still stand strong today.

The stone masons eventually worked out a way to get the huge pieces of rock to the site. They waited until the coldest part of winter and created a road of ice along which they could slide the stone elements needed.

And instead of trying to make his materials strong, the carpenters used a special series of interlocking brackets called dougong that made the buildings super-flexible—and capable of surviving strong earthquakes.

The Forbidden City is a one-of-kind monument. A former imperial palace, it is also one of the largest and best-preserved collections of ancient buildings – and popular enough to attract more than 14 million visitors a year.

The glorious palace has been home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was the political and ritual center of ancient China for about 500 years since its completion in 1420.

To build it, there were several hundred thousand workers, and some sources say more than a million. They created a rectangular complex of buildings lying along the central axis of Beijing, facing south. Over the centuries, more buildings were added. Today, the Forbidden City consists of 980 buildings with more than 8,700 rooms.

The Forbidden City’s beams and columns are made of wood, with the pillars of the most important halls made of whole logs of a precious hardwood tree with the Latin name Phoebe zhennan (楠木), transported from the jungles of southwestern China.

The magnificent structures that support the halls’ roofs use wooden joints set into columns and pillars. More than a beautiful signature, the technique is intricate yet durable enough to support buildings for centuries.

Separated into an inner and outer court, the Forbidden City is made up of numerous gates and halls, large and small, each with individual names. The inner court was where the Emperor and his families lived, and the outer court was where official functions were carried out. The complex roofs are mostly yellow to symbolise the emperor’s supreme power: the first leader of China was the legendary Yellow Emperor.

The outer court has three famous great halls: the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿), the Hall of Central Harmony (中和殿) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿).

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the venue of grand imperial ceremonies and it is the highest-ranking palace in the Forbidden City.


And of course there are mythological animals. The Forbidden City is synonymous with a dragon world. As an imperial symbol, dragon ornaments of different kinds can be found inside the palace.  One of the remarkable highlights the is Yunlong Stone Carving made from a giant piece of white marble, with curling waves at its base topped by nine dragons amid clouds.

There are also sacred animal creatures built on roof ridges and it was believed these beasts drove demons away.

The Gate of Heavenly Purity stands as the main entrance to the inner court, with a succession of exquisite courtyards, halls, towers and pavilions.


Perhaps most attractive of all, the Imperial Garden in the inner court was a refuge for emperors and it is the most notable example of Chinese classical garden design. It has numerous buildings, each of a different style, and the ways in which they harmonize with trees, pavilions, rock gardens, and beautiful sculptural items are of unrivalled harmony.


But the Forbidden City lost its importance in the political arena when the last Qing Emperor Puyi abdicated in 1912.

In 1925, it started to attract people for different reasons, with the opening of the Palace Museum. Today, the former imperial palace is famed not only as home to emperors, but as the location of invaluable collections of treasures representing 5,000 years of Chinese culture.

And the complex has just passed its 600th birthday. Pretty good for a project that started as a wooden structure built by a worried young man with plenty of wood, and lots of hammers, but not one nail.

Image at the top by Carlos Adampol Galindo/ Wikimedia Commons

To read more about Chinese culture and history, click here.

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