Journey Into the Forbidden City at the ROM


Forbidden City is the Royal Ontario Museum’s 100th anniversary blockbuster exhibit.

Grab this opportunity to see what was behind closely-guarded gates of the Forbidden City, the world’s largest imperial palace complex, which served the emperors of China from 1421 to 1911. The Forbidden City, which is now known as Palace Museum of China, was only accessible to the Chinese Emperor, his family, servants and a restricted few for 500 years.

What was once forbidden is now allowed. So come and have a peek at the personal lives of those who lived in The Forbidden City.

This beautiful designed exhibit engages the senses, the mind and the imagination. It brings to you over 200 national treasures from the Palace Museum, with eighty artifacts outside of China for the first time. So step inside the world of imperial China to expand your understanding and appreciation of Chinese art, culture and imperial life.

The ROM’s set up transports you through increasingly restricted areas starting with the palace’s great hall and grand courtyards, and eventually advancing to the most private space of all, the emperor’s personal study.

First, the imperial throne set. The lacquered wood and jade throne was not made for comfort, but as a symbol of the ruler’s imperial and authoritative power. Surrounding the throne are screens, fans, incense holders and other imperial objects, symbols of wealth and authority.

Imperial Throne Set in lacquered wood and jade, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period at Forbidden City, photo The Palace Museum
Imperial Throne Set in lacquered wood and jade, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period at Forbidden City, photo The Palace Museum

Then comes the towering racks of bells. For over 3,000 years, orchestral music was a traditional part of ritual ceremonies in China. Bells played a very important role in this tradition. Chimes were rung when the emperor rose from his seat or departed from the room. As you stroll through, you can hear how grand it sounded.

Continuing along the journey, you see exquisite gold, silver and jade objects, paintings, textiles and stunning imperial furnishings on display. It is an extraordinary collection.

I’m fascinated with the pomp and ceremony of palace life – especially the wearing of nail guards by elite women in the Forbidden City who used them to protect extremely long fingernails. Only someone who didn’t perform manual labour could grow nails so long. Thus, long nails were a status symbol for the privileged – those who had others to do the work. The guards not only protected their pinky and ring nails, but were also works of art, made of tortoiseshell, gold, silver, or enamel and embellished with filigree or inlaid jewels. The most splendidly decorated is the guard of the Empress Dowager Cixi, and her image was rarely captured without them. See this NPR page for fantastic photos of the Dowager.

Over-indulging of dogs is not a new thing – even China’s royalty were fond of doing so. On display is a luxury silk with imperial dog outfit with peonies on the outside dog’s name inscribed on the lining. They reportedly lived in their own digs with marble floors, sleeping on silk cushions, tended by specialized eunuchs who worked for the Dog Raising Office. Royal dogs got royal treatment!

It is easy to walk by this vase and think it is simply designed with patterns. Upon taking a
closer look, notice that it is decorated with a hundred bats, emblems of luck and prosperity.

Being an emperor is a lot of work but not without its consolations. Life was made comfortable with a type of air conditioner  – totally surprising to me! Did you know they had hand warmers? The emperor and his ladies had elegant hand warmers, such as the one seen below, to keep toasty. From legions of eunuchs at his beck and call to hundreds or thousands of concubines who provided entertainment and pleasure, these guys were living the high life.

Hand warmer in gold and black lacquer on wood, Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Period, photo The Palace Museum
Hand warmer in gold and black lacquer on wood, Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Period, photo The Palace Museum

Stories of China’s Forbidden City, its emperors, and their families have captivated people for centuries. The Forbidden City exhibit is likely to stir up memories of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), the story of Pu Yi. After seeing the exhibit, I was inspired to re-watch the movie. This time I saw the movie with new eyes and a deeper understanding, knowing so much more than I knew when I first saw it 27 years ago. I think you will also enjoy the story and get a better sense of the vast scope of the art and history of the Palace Museum – the movie is shot in the Forbidden City.  It is fun to see what you can remember from the exhibit as you watch the film. You’ll keep close attention to details you might have otherwise overlooked  and watch out for those nail guards – how do they do ordinary activities without damaging anything or anyone?

Fun facts:
The Qing Dynasty isn’t ancient at all. It ran from 1644 to 1912. There are still people alive today who were around during the Qing Dynasty.

A few women wielded power. The Empress Dowager Cixi started out as an imperial concubine and effectively ruled from 1861 to 1908. She was know as the Dragon Lady.

If you were a high-ranking official who was granted entrance to the Forbidden City, you could not talk, spit or cough if the emperor was present.

Only the Chinese emperor and empress are allowed to wear yellow. Did you see anyone there who dares to wear yellow?

Puyi  became Emperor at the very young age of 3. Check out his elaborate bathtub.

Bathtub in gold-gilt and lacquered wood, Qing Dynasty, photo The Palace Museum
Bathtub in gold-gilt and lacquered wood, Qing Dynasty, photo The Palace Museum

Forbidden City exhibit reveals to us the arts, personalities, and rituals associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties. Throughout your journey here, we’re not only aware of the power of the Emperor over the millions of inhabitants, but we are also amused about the curiosities of imperial living. From dog clothes fit for a king to one of the most dazzling architectural masterpieces in the world, you are sure to find Forbidden City a rewarding exploration of an enchanting civilization.

Interested in learning more? Here are a couple of talks:

Explore the Forbidden City: Nature All Around Us
How was nature present or represented in the Forbidden City? What is the symbolic meaning of plants and animals found in the architecture, on objects, and on clothing? At the ROM on June 17, 2014.

Dr. Chen Shen will talk on June 24, 2014 regarding the multiple perspectives and deeper exploration of themes from the Forbidden City exhibition at the Deer Park branch of Toronto Public Library.

Beginning June 7, 2014, see 50 new objects! This extensive object rotation, required to protect light-sensitive and fragile artifacts, includes several new textiles and paintings for visitors to experience.

Forbidden City continues until Monday, September 1, 2014.

Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queens Park, 416-586-8000