Forbidden City Collections

Imperial throne
  1. Musical instruments

    In true imperial fashion, the more lavish the musical entertainment, the more glory it reflected on the emperor. Court musicians used gongs of all sizes and guqins (zithers), wooden flutes, and heavy bronze bells adorned with dragons, as well as the unusual sheng, a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe with reeds of different lengths sprouting from the top. The collection is displayed in the Silver Vault of the Imperial Palace, on the west side of the Outer Court.

  2. Scientific instruments

    Enlightened Qing emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) appointed Europeans as court officials, and instructed his imperial workshops to copy Western scientific instruments. These included the first calculator, astronomical and drawing tools, sun dials, moon dials, and a special table with measurements and scientific notations scratched on each side leaf, made especially for the imperial studies. The instruments are part of the Imperial Treasures of the Ming and Qing Dynasties exhibit, on the west side of the Inner Court.

  3. Stone drums

    The Hall of Moral Cultivation holds the palace’s collection of stone drums. These are enormous tom-tom shaped rocks that bear China’s earliest stone inscriptions dating back to 374 BC. These ideographic carvings are arranged in four-character poems, which commemorate the glorious pastureland and successful animal husbandry made possible by the Emperor Xiangong’s benevolence.

  4. Jewelry

    Also in the Hall of Moral Cultivation are three of the six halls of jewelry (head north for rooms four through six), including the only hall to display actual jewelry rather than agate cups or jade sculpture. Hall number three has thick jade rings, lapis lazuli court beads, elaborate headdresses made of gold filigree phoenixes, and surprisingly, jadeite Christian rosary beads.

    Butterfly brooch
  5. Beijing Opera

    The pleasantly named Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies sports a three-story stage large enough to accommodate one thousand actors. It was once rigged with pulleys and trapdoors to create dramatic entrances for supernatural characters. The exhibits include a behind-the-scenes model stage, as well as costumes, instruments, scripts, and cast lists. There are screens showing reconstructions of old court performances.

    Nine-dragon screen
  6. Jade

    The Hall of Quintessence was once where dowager empresses went to die; it now exhibits jade artifacts spanning thousands of years. Pieces range from simple cups and ladles to enormous and intricate sculptures of Buddhas in traditional scenic settings. The Chinese considered working this “hard” stone a metaphor for character development and the pursuit of perfection.

  7. Daily life of the concubines

    Every three years, court officials would select girls between the ages of 13 and 17 to join the eight ranks of imperial concubines. The Yonghe Pavilion exhibits clothing, games, herbal medicine, and a food distribution chart relating to the young imperial consorts, as well as the all-important “wedding night bed,” which is covered in a richly embroidered red silk decorated with Chinese mythological symbols.

    Imperial wedding bed
  8. Clocks and watches

    Arguably the finest of the many and varied palace collections, the clocks and watches fill the Fengxian Pavilion in the southeastern corner of the eastern Inner Court. The size and creativity involved in some of the pieces – which are primarily European – is astonishing. One particularly inventive model has an automaton clad in European dress frantically writing eight Chinese characters on a scroll, which is being unrolled by two other mechanical figures.

    Ornate carriage clock
  9. Ceramics

    In a ceramic salute to the Silk Road, several linked halls around the Inner Court display tomb figurines from the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–906) dynasties. Still caked with earth, statues range from six inches to three feet (15 cm to 1m) in height, and depict overweight court ladies, Buddhas on elephants, and floppy-humped camels. A film offers some background on the pottery finds.

  10. Empress Cixi

    The Xianfu Pavilion is a memorial to the Empress Cixi’s devious rise to power, as well as to the great lady’s imperial extravagances, which so nearly crippled her country. Clothes, jewelry, embroidered socks, imported perfume, jade and ivory chopsticks, and pictures of clothes and food form the bulk of the exhibits. There are also examples of the empress’s calligraphic skills in the form of painted wall hangings.

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