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Chenlong Lu and Jianfei He. The Imperial Gates Open: From Forbidden City to Palace Museum

In 1406, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, Yongle (Zhu Di; r. 1402–24), decreed that a great palace complex should be built in Beijing. Completed in 1420, the Forbidden City, as it came to be known, constituted the seat of imperial power, with Beijing (the northern capital) and Nanjing (the southern capital) evolving into the political and cultural centres of China’s empire. For the next 500 years or so, the complex was home to the emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and their huge courts and entourages. The Chinese name for the Forbidden City, Zijin Cheng, literally means ‘Purple Forbidden City’, referring to the emperor’s title Ziweixing, or ‘Purple Numinous Star’, the traditional Chinese astrological term for the North Star. Today, however, it is known as the Palace Museum, or Gugong (‘Former Palace’). This article presents the history of this transformation of the Forbidden City, and tells the story of how the imperial treasures were kept safe during wartime, surviving a time of protracted social and political turmoil. 

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