The Art of Symbolism in Beijing’s Forbidden City


It is impossible not to be in awe at the grandeur and spectacle of Beijing’s most famous historic site. The Forbidden City, built in the fifteenth century, sheltered two dynasties of emperors behind its imposing walls. While many areas of the City remain tantalisingly closed to the public, the main thoroughfare through the centre of the complex has been carefully designed to impose and impress. While the scale of the buildings and their surrounding landscape immediately create a sense of majesty there are smaller details included in their design and decoration that contribute to the story.

Photo by Emma Henderson
Photo by Emma Henderson

The mighty lion guardians that flank the entrances to buildings of significance are the first to be noticed. Gleaming in polished bronze their open jaws and fearsome stares would be enough to speak for the strength of the Emperor; a closer look, however, reveals a deeper meaning.

To one side, the male lion rests his powerful paw on a sphere. It is there to signify the world and the lion, acting as agent for the Emperor, demonstrates his mastery of it. On the opposite side the female lion guards a lion cub beneath her claws. Her control of the cub represents the Emperor’s fertility. Combined, the symbolism of the guardians leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the importance of China’s Emperor and their own corresponding insignificance.

Photo By Emma Henderson
Photo By Emma Henderson

Before the Hall of Supreme Harmony sits a bronze turtle. His role is to signify the enduring nature of China and the steadying hand that the Emperor provides in his rule. Although not lit for the benefit of today’s tourists the turtle once breathed billows of smoke when his caretakers lit incense in the chamber of his belly – a mythical creation come to life.

Photo by Emma Henderson
Photo by Emma Henderson

Further into the City, at the entrance to the Imperial Garden, the power of the Emperor forces an elephant to kowtow before him, the impossible bend of his knees inconsequential before the might of China’s ruler. To kowtow, a sign of deep respect, one must kneel and bow low enough to touch one’s head to the ground. What authority the Emperor must wield to command such a response from the elephant.

Photo by Emma Henderson
Photo by Emma Henderson

At every turn the careful construction of the Forbidden City offers glimpses into a history rich with symbolism. Colour, orientation, position, and artistic design all carry meaning and significance that stretch back into centuries of culture and tradition that would take a lifetime to study. The power of these images is such that they still resonate today.




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