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Experiencing the Rich Depth and Vast Diversity of Chinese Civilization Through the Palace Museum

By Wang Xudong Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-07-08

The Palace Museum, located in Beijing and once known as the Forbidden City, is a vital repository for more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization and a focal point for the best of China’s traditional culture. It stands as a product of the creative genius of ancient China’s working people and a testament to the history of exchanges and integration between diverse cultures. The museum’s vast collection of artifacts provides a window into the essence of China’s material and cultural history across the ages, enabling us to fully appreciate the profound heritage and diversity of Chinese civilization.

I. The pinnacle of ancient Chinese palace architecture

Constructed primarily during the dynas­ties of the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1616–1911), the Forbidden City is the largest and best-preserved ancient palace complex in China. Spanning 720,000 square meters, it encompasses over a thousand wooden buildings from the Ming and Qing periods. Showcasing a full array of building types and architectural designs, it is a definitive encyclopedia of ancient Chinese official architecture and illustrates the unique features of Chinese civilization.

Continuity in architectural thought and an enduring philosophy of harmony

The Forbidden City directly inherits design elements from the Mingzhongdu Imperial City in Fengyang County, Anhui Province, and the Ming Palace in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Its architectural and design principles can also be traced back to the palatial designs of successive imperial capitals, beginning with the palace city of the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC) at Erlitou, located in Yanshi, Henan Province.

Over the course of the Yuan (1206–1368), Ming, and Qing dynasties, i.e., a period from 1206 to 1911, the city of Beijing was planned and constructed with the Forbid­den City at its heart. The layout includes four concentric city walls, which divide the imperial palace (the Forbidden City), the imperial city, the inner city, and the outer city, all constructed with strict symmetry and precision. The central axis of Beijing, which extends north to south for a distance of 7.8 kilometers, creates a striking sense of grandeur.


The Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, Beijing. The Forbidden City is the largest and best-preserved ancient wooden complex in the world and an exemplar of the ceremonial system embodied in ancient Chinese palaces. THE PALACE MUSEUM

Against the backdrop of multiple city walls and the central north-south axis, the Forbidden City projects a majestic presence that embodies its status as “the center of the country.” Archaeological excava­tions within the grounds have revealed a stratified relationship between the palace buildings of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Additionally, the Forbidden City also adheres to the traditional Chinese palace design principles of positioning the imperial court at the front and residential quarters in the rear and comprising three main sections and five principal gateways. All these architectural traditions can be traced back to important systems of cosmo­logical and spatiotemporal knowledge and thought, which were established during the early days of Chinese agricultural civiliza­tion by “observing celestial phenomena to tell the time.”

Over a long period, the ancient Chinese philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical concept of “achieving harmony” evolved to become a core idea and guiding principle of Chinese culture. With its symmetrical and well-ordered layout, the Forbidden City complex fully embodies the pursuit of cultural ideals like balance and harmony. The commitment to the highest pursuit of “preserving equilib­rium and achieving harmony” is evident in the three outer halls—the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Preserving Harmony—as well as the three inner palaces—the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, and Palace of Earthly Tranquility.

Furthermore, the Chinese character for harmony is present in the names of many other buildings and gateways in the Forbid­den City, including the Palace of Eternal Harmony, the Hall of Harmonious Conduct, the Bower of Well-Nourished Harmony, and the Gate of Following Harmony. A number of palace plaques also contain the character for harmony, such as those of “Justice and Benevolence” in the Hall of Mental Cultiva­tion, “Wandering in Harmony” in the Hall of Joyful Longevity in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, and “Supreme Harmony Fulfilled” in the Bower of Well-Nourished Harmony. These examples, and many more, highlight how the pursuit of harmony is woven into the fabric of the Forbidden City.

Innovation in craftsmanship and a new style blending influences from northern and southern China

While inheriting the traditions of its predecessors, the Forbidden City also integrates architectural elements from both northern and southern China. During construction in the Yongle reign (1403– 1424) of the Ming Dynasty, the project welcomed a large contingent of craftsmen from southern China, most notably the renowned “Xiangshan carpenters” from Suzhou, represented by Kuai Xiang. This period was marked by continuous innova­tion in craftsmanship achieved through the fusion of southern and northern styles.

Made in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, the “golden” bricks used extensively on the palace floors were the result of sophisti­cated brick-making techniques developed during the Ming Dynasty. Another major innovation was the choice of materials and colors for the roofing, with the extensive use of yellow-glazed tiles marking a strik­ing departure from the past. These tiles contrasted sharply with the muted tones of the dark- and light-gray tiles used in the palaces of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and the green-glazed tiles that were prevalent in the palaces of the Song (960–1279) and Kin (1115–1234) dynasties, although the main palace of the Kin Dynasty did feature yellow-glazed tiles. They also differed from Yuan Dynasty palaces, which featured a variety of colored glazed tiles on roof ridges and eaves, alongside the extensive use of white-glazed tiles. The result of these choices was a design that was not only magnificent but also harmonious and unified.

During the Qing Dynasty, emperors Kangxi and Qianlong made several tours to the Jiangnan region of southern China, which helped to further spur the integra­tion of northern and southern architectural styles. With the construction of the Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness and the Qianlong Garden, the distinctive Jiang­nan style of garden entered the Forbid­den City, profoundly changing the look of the palace. The interior decorations of the buildings in the Qianlong Garden also featured some of the finest craftsmanship from southern China.

A diverse and unified architectural complex incorporating a wide array of cultural elements

The Forbidden City is a prime illustration of the development of China as a unified multi-ethnic nation. In addition to Han Chinese palace architecture, it also incor­porates features from other ethnic groups. For instance, the renovations to the Palace of Earthly Tranquility exemplified Manchu-Han cultural integration during the early Qing period. The main entrance was moved from the center to the eastern side of the palace. Inside, the palace took on a tradi­tional Manchu “pocket room” layout and featured a “wanzi kang”—a traditional heated brick and earth bed built along the western, southern, and northern walls of the room on the palace’s western side. These modifications reflected typical Manchu architectural traditions.

Another example is Yuhua Pavilion, which is the most iconic Tibetan Buddhist struc­ture in the palace. The pavilion seamlessly blends Han and Tibetan Buddhist archi­tectural styles. Many of the plaques on buildings and gates also display bilin­gual inscriptions in Manchu and Chinese, with some tablet engravings also follow­ing this practice. The plaque on the Gate of Compassion and Tranquility goes even further, featuring inscriptions in Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese scripts.

The Forbidden City thus fully embodies the development of a diverse and integrated culture with Confucian philosophy at the core, as well as the harmonious coexistence of various religious beliefs in China. Beyond its principal palatial structures, it is home to more than 40 Buddhist structures, includ­ing Yuhua Pavilion, Baohua Hall, Hall of the Solemn Buddha, Building of Auspicious Clouds, Fori Building, and Fanhua Build­ing. It also features Taoist structures such as Hall of Imperial Peace and Xuanqiong­bao Hall, as well as sites that represented folk religions and the original religious beliefs of the Manchu people, such as the Chenghuang Temple and Palace of Earthly Tranquility.

More than just a representation of tradi­tional Chinese palace architecture, the Forbidden City was a venue for the exchange and fusion of architectural styles from around the world. For example, Yude Hall, positioned in the northwestern section of the Hall of Martial Valor courtyard, features a typical Central Asian Arabian-style dome. In the Juanqin Studio within Qianlong Garden, a large panoramic painting merges the Western linear perspective with tradi­tional Chinese painting techniques, offer­ing viewers a lifelike and immersive vista. Additionally, in the courtyard of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, one of the Six Eastern Palaces, the ruins of the Bower of the Spirit Pool are still retained. This modern steel structure, which features a “Crystal Palace” design, was based on Western architectural principles.

II. The artifacts of the Palace Museum: treasures and legacy of Chinese civilization

The collection of artifacts related to the Forbidden City forms a vast and diverse treasure trove, with over 1.86 million items or sets housed in the Palace Museum. These artifacts are organized into 25 major categories, including ceramics, paintings, bronzes, furniture, and timekeeping instru­ments. Together, they showcase the diverse and splendid material culture and intel­lectual pursuits of the Chinese nation over thousands of years.

Historical collections and artifacts that testify to enduring national unity

The artifacts housed in the Palace Museum stand as a testament to China’s ancient and enduring civilization. Spanning the Neolithic Age through successive dynasties to modern times, these collections weave a continuous narrative of Chinese history.


Rubbings from a drum-shaped stone block. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), 10 boulders resembling drums were discovered in south Baoji, Shaanxi Province. The boulders each bear an inscription of a poem in four-character rhymed verse. As the stones resembled drums, the engravings became known as shiguwen, or stone drum inscriptions. These inscriptions bridge the gap between the bronze inscriptions of the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BC) and the small seal script of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), making them invaluable artifacts for studying the evolution of Chinese characters. THE PALACE MUSEUM 

The Palace Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of ceramics, encompassing approximately 370,000 pieces. This exten­sive range covers sand-tempered wares and the red, black, painted, and white pottery of the Neolithic Age. It includes the stamped hard pottery and primitive celadon from the dynasties of the Shang (1600–1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046–256 BC), as well as the celadon and black porcelain that marked the Han, Wei, and Six Dynasties period (206 BC–AD 589). The collection also showcases the “southern green and northern white” paradigm in ceramics production during the Tang Dynasty, the renowned kiln ceram­ics of the Song Dynasty, and the exquisite “Shufu” glazes, blue-and-white porcelain, and underglaze red porcelain of the Yuan Dynasty. It features pieces from the imperial kilns of the Ming and Qing periods and even includes Jurentang-style porcelain from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, and ceram­ics produced in Liling, Hunan Province, during the Republican era (1912–1949). An extensive and systematic collection, it tracks the development of Chinese ceramics over thousands of years, bearing witness to the seamless transmission and enduring vitality of this aspect of Chinese culture.

The artifacts housed in the Forbidden City also illustrate China’s evolution as a unified multi-ethnic nation. Weaving an unbroken historical narrative, they provide a vivid insight into the formation and development of this unified multi-ethnic nation. Take, for instance, the Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, a painting traditionally attributed to Tang Dynasty artist Yan Liben. It depicts Emperor Taizong receiving Gar Tongtsen Yulsung, the envoy of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. This is not only a rare artistic masterpiece but an important historical record of the interactions between the Han and Tibetan peoples. Similarly, a series of battle paintings by artists at the Qing Dynasty court provide a dynamic account of the consolidation and develop­ment of China as a unified multi-ethnic state in the early Qing period. Another example is the Qing Imperial Illustrations of Tributary Peoples, portraying hundreds of figures from vassal states, foreign nations, and various minority ethnic groups from all across China, includ­ing today’s Xizang Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and the provinces of Fujian, Hunan, Guangdong, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. Behind these artifacts is a living history; they provide a link to the major figures and events of the past and illustrate the strong internal cohesion and unity of the Chinese nation.

Tangible evidence of peaceful exchanges and the crystallization of a diverse and inclusive culture

The Palace Museum artifacts are a testament to China’s history of peaceful exchanges. In conjunction with its cultural ethos of pursuing harmony, China also has a longstanding tradition of pursuing peace­ful coexistence and friendly exchanges with neighboring countries and other civili­zations. According to available data, the Palace Museum houses over 10,000 foreign artifacts, including artworks, scientific instruments, clocks, weapons, books, paper, medicines, carpets, furniture, musical instruments, and other various everyday items. Originating from countries such as the United Kingdom, France, the Nether­lands, Russia, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Nepal, these artifacts were collected through tributes from Western missionaries, gifts from diplomatic missions, offerings from officials, and trade. They serve as historical proof of China’s peaceful interactions with neighboring countries and nations around the world.

These artifacts have also borne witness to exchanges and mutual learning between China and other civilizations. China’s peaceful interactions with other countries have, in fact, also been a process of adopt­ing and integrating the achievements of other civilizations. This began in 1601, the 29th year of the Wanli reign (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, when the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci first arrived at the imperial court in the Forbidden City. For over two centuries following this event, Westerners with specialized skills served the imperial court.

To advance its understanding of European technologies, the Qing court established special workshops, including glass facto­ries and clock-making facilities. These workshops applied Western science and technology to make exquisite artworks and timepieces. In painting, the Western technique of linear perspective was combined with traditional Chinese brush and ink styles, creating a new hybrid style. A successful example of this integration is a work titled The Qianlong Emperor and the Royal Children on New Year’s Eve, which was a collaboration of Chinese and Western artists. In addition to such works, the Palace Museum also houses a variety of scientific and technological artifacts from the West, including astronomical, geological, mathe­matical, and surveying instruments.

Artifacts illustrating continuous evolution and the integration of new artistic techniques

The Palace Museum’s artifact collec­tions chronicle the continuous evolution of Chinese civilization. Encompassing the entirety of Chinese history, these collec­tions feature representative artifacts from every era. Each collection highlights a new peak in craftsmanship, which left behind numerous exquisite masterpieces. Across these various collections, we can see the emergence of distinct schools and techniques in various times and regions, yielding a rich array of outstanding works that capture the groundbreaking advances of their respective periods.

Furthermore, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, numerous missionaries intro­duced Western culture to China. This meeting of cultures sparked new innova­tions in many fields, including porcelain, painting, cloisonné enamel, clocks, scien­tific instruments, lacquerware, glassware, silk fabrics, and religious artifacts. Prime examples of this innovation are clocks and painted cloisonné enamel. Matteo Ricci was the first to present a clock to Emperor Wanli, initiating a continuous influx of exquisite timepieces into the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the Qing era, Emperor Yongzheng was not content with merely adopting Western timekeeping methods; he commissioned craftsmen to create a chiming clock that would announce the time during the day and sound the night watch, which was part of the traditional Chinese system of timekeeping. This invention represented the seamless integration of Western mechani­cal timekeeping technology with traditional Chinese timekeeping methods, a landmark innovation driven by the fusion of different technologies and cultures.

Today, the Palace Museum boasts a collec­tion of over 1,600 clocks from both China and abroad, crafted between the 18th and early 20th centuries. Included in this collection are masterpieces from Britain, France, and Switzerland, items that blend Chinese and Western styles, exquisite pieces produced by the imperial clock-making workshop, and others made in Guangzhou.

Colored cloisonné enamelware was a new kind of porcelain successfully developed under the direct supervision of emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. The process of innovation began with the recruitment of Western technicians and the importation of Western materials before culminating in the independent production of materials and artistic pieces by China. This marked a further enrichment in the styles of Chinese porcelain.

III. Protection, preservation, and utilization: working hard for the benefit of future generations

Chinese civilization shines like a radiant star, and every museum serves as a repository preserving the legacy of human civiliza­tion. For over 90 years since the Palace Museum was founded, each generation of staff has demonstrated a deep sense of duty and mission and, with great reverence and care, has done their utmost to protect, preserve, and properly utilize these cultural treasures.


A staff member at the Palace Museum cleans a textile artifact. Preserving our artifacts, which are non-renewable cultural resources, is akin to safeguarding the heritage of Chinese civilization. THE PALACE MUSEUM

Passing on the torch of cultural heritage and the enduring symbols of our national spirit

On October 10, 1925, the Palace Museum was officially established. This was a pivotal cultural moment in modern China, as the Forbidden City and its royal treasures became cultural heritage belonging to the public. During the turbu­lence, flux, and conflict of modern times, the artifacts of the Palace Museum were moved first southward, then westward, before eventually being returned to northern China. Over more than 20 years of upheaval and displacement, these treasures remained largely intact, marking a moving chapter in the efforts to safeguard China’s cultural legacy. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Palace Museum undertook systematic efforts to restore ancient structures, audit and verify artifact inventories, and enhance conservation and restoration efforts. It also organized exhibitions and academic research initiatives.

Throughout its nearly century-long history and particularly more than seven decades since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Palace Museum has steadfastly focused on its core mission of protecting, studying, and promot­ing Chinese culture. In the new era, the museum has further defined its guiding philosophy by remaining committed to fundamental principles and break­ing new ground. It has embraced the historic responsibility of fully and faithfully preserving and transmitting the traditional culture embodied by the Palace Museum.

Serving as a messenger for peaceful dialogue and a bridge for mutual learning between nations

Today, as one of the world’s most renowned heritage sites, the Palace Museum is not only an important window into Chinese civilization but also an important platform for promoting cultural exchange and mutual understanding between civiliza­tions. Its artifacts serve as messengers for peaceful dialogue on the global stage and function as a bridge for cultural exchanges by highlighting the peaceful and inclusive nature of Chinese civilization.

While respecting the diversity of the world’s civilizations, the Palace Museum seeks to promote Chinese culture around the world by exhibiting its artifacts. The overseas exhibitions it has hosted include “Stories Untold: Figure Paintings of the Ming Dynasty from the Palace Museum,” “Yuanmingyuan: Art and Culture of the Imperial Garden-Palace,” and “Ziming­zhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City.” In this way, the museum has worked to introduce China’s long and magnificent history and culture to the world, offer a glimpse into the unique charm of Chinese civilization, and tell China’s story to the international community.

The Palace Museum has also hosted exhibitions of precious artifacts from other countries and regions. These include “The Antikythera Shipwreck,” an exhibition featuring antiques that were buried at the bottom of the Aegean Sea for over 2,000 years, “Gandhara Heritage along the Silk Road: A Pakistan-China Joint Exhibition,” and “The Glory of Ancient Persia: Exhibi­tion of Iranian Cultural Relics.” Such events have helped to introduce the cultures of these civilizations to the Chinese public. This is our way of ensuring that estrange­ment is transcended by cultural exchanges, that clashes are transcended through mutual learning, and that coexistence transcends feelings of superiority.

Promoting a rich and evolving heritage and sustaining a vibrant cultural foundation

While striving to safeguard its cultural heritage, the Palace Museum is also engaged in the creative transformation and innova­tive development of traditional Chinese culture. The museum places particular emphasis on using contemporary digital technologies in the collection, storage, research, preservation, display, and publicity of its artifacts. Such efforts have led to the development and production of films, short videos, and special exhibitions aimed at educating the public and promoting tradi­tional culture.

Over the years, initiatives such as the “Digital Palace Museum” and “Vibrant Palace Museum” have emerged as new achievements, helping to significantly advance both the preservation of cultural heritage and public education. These initia­tives have not only become a crucial support for foundational research of Gugongology (The Palace Museum Studies) but are also highly visible multimedia platforms that serve as a bridge between the public and China’s cultural heritage.


Wang Xudong is Member of the CPC Lead­ership Group, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and Director of the Palace Mu­seum in Beijing.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 6, 2024)