The history of the Forbidden Citydates back to 1406 when Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty decided to build an imperial palace in Beijing, modeled after the one in Nanjing. Fourteen years later, the construction of the magnificent palace was finished. It functioned as the political center of China for over 500 years until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911. Later in 1925, the Forbidden City was transformed into the Palace Museum to display traditional Chinese architecture, rare treasures and curiosities. In 1987, it was declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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Upon ascending the throne, Ming Emperor Yongle decided to move the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing and ordered the construction of an imperial palace, which was called the Forbidden City, in central Beijing. The palace was designed by the great architect Kuai Xiang. More than 230 thousand artisans and millions of laborers participated in the construction. In1420, the splendid imperial palace was completed and Emperor Yongle moved in. Ever since then the Forbidden City functioned as the political center of the Ming Dynasty. Thirteen succeeding emperors of the Ming Dynasty also worked and dwelled there with their royal families.

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However, during the late Ming Dynasty there were peasant uprisings all over the country. The Peasant Uprising led by Li Zicheng was the most broad-based and powerful one. The rebels defeated the imperial troops, and occupied the Forbidden City. In consequence, the Ming Dynasty came to an end in 1644 with the suicide of its last Emperor Chongzhen. Later, Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty, a regime from northeast China, ordered his army to fight southward. The troops led by Regent Dorgon defeated the army of Li Zicheng, and seized the Forbidden City. Thereafter, the ten Qing emperors exercised their supreme power from the Forbidden City.

Puyi - the Last Emperorever Lived in Forbidden City

Before the retreat, Li Zicheng burned down most of the palaces and halls in the Forbidden City. After moving into the imperial city, Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty spent fourteen years renovating the major buildings along the central axis. Other damaged buildings were rebuilt and restored from 1683 to 1695. More importantly, Emperor Qianlong made some alterations and enlargements during his reign from 1735 to 1796, returning the Forbidden City to its previous scale.

After ruling the country for about three centuries, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911. Emperor Puyi abdicated, and the Forbidden City ceased to serve as the country’s political center. However, he was allowed to live in the Forbidden City until 1924. In 1925, the Forbidden City was transformed into the Palace Museum and opened to the public. Thus, the mystery of the imperial city was unveiled gradually, and became known to the ordinary people.
After the Sino-Japanese War broke out, millions of rare treasures and curiosities were packed into over 15 thousand boxes, and transported to Shanghai, and from there to Nanjing to prevent them from being destroyed. Finally, they were transported to Sichuan province, and stored in three different locations until the end of the war in 1945. In 1947, these cultural relics were transported back to Nanjing. During the Civil War (1945-1949), about three thousand boxes of the 15 thousand boxes of rare treasures were moved to Taiwan, and were kept in the Taipei Palace Museum. In 1951, more than 10 thousand boxes of treasures were transported back to the Palace Museum in Beijing, while the rest remained in the Nanjing Museum. Finally, these national treasures came back home after a series of journeys and wars, and the Palace Museum was re-opened to the public.
In 1961, the Palace Museum was declared a key national historical and cultural relic under state protection and was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. Because the museum had not been repaired for years, the palaces and halls had become worn-out. Some even collapsed. The Palace Museum was in dire need of repair and renovation. A large-scale restoration started in 2002, and will last until 2021. Hopefully, the imperial city will present its beauty and magnificence to later generations.
Timeline of Forbidden City History (Click to enlarge)

1406The construction of the imperial palace begins
1420The construction of the imperial palace is finished.
1421The three main halls in the outer courtare burned down in a fire.
1440The three main halls and the Palace of Heavenly Purityare restored.
1459The palaces along the west wingare built.
1557The three main halls in the outer court, the Meridian Gate, and other buildingsare burnt down in a fire.The renovation lasts four years until 1561.
1597The three mains halls in the outer court and the three main halls in the inner courtare burnt down in a big fire.The restoration lasts thirty years until 1627.
1644Li Zicheng occupies the imperial palace, and the Ming Dynasty ends.Li burns most of the buildings in the imperial city before retreat.Emperor Shunzhi of succeeding Qing Dynasty move the capital city from Shenyang to Beijing.Emperor Shunzhi rebuild the buildings along the central axisduring the next fourteen years.
1683The restoration of other buildings starts and lasts twelve years until 1695.
1735Emperor Qianlong ascend the throne. He enlarges and alters the imperial city during his reign from 1735 to 1796.
1813The Forbidden Cityis attacked during a peasant uprising led by Lin Qing.
1900Beijingis controlled by the Eight-Nation Alliance Forces. They hold a military review in Forbidden City.
1911The Qing Dynasty ends with the breakout of the Revolution of 1911.Emperor Puyi is no longer emperor but still allowed to dwell in the inner court of the imperial palace.
1923A great fire breaks out in the Palace of Establishing Happiness (Jianfugong).
1924Emperor Puyiis driven out of theimperial palacein a coup.
1925The imperial cityis transformed into the Palace Museum.
1933A large number of cultural relics in the palaceare moved to south China for better protection after the Sino-Japanese war breaks out.
1948About three thousand boxes of the cultural relicsaretransported to Taiwan during Civil War.
1949The Palace Museumis reopened to the public after the war.
In the 1950s and 1960sRenovation of the museum is put forward by many people, but laid aside for various reasons.
1961The Palace Museumis listed in the first group of the key historical and cultural relics under state protection.
1987The Palace Museumis declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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2002A large-scale restoration of the museum is begun, and will last until 2021.
Further Reading: Forbidden City Facts