Forbidden City – Treasures

The Forbidden City in Beijing is an architectural marvel. Among its 9,999½ rooms, many halls and rooms are converted into modern use galleries, turning the palace into a giant  cluster of museums like the Smithsonians.

It’s great to see antiques among the centuries old complexes of the Forbidden City. There are 3 permanent exhibition areas currently still open inside the palace. Some others are under renovation or repurposing.

  • 钟表馆 Timepieces Gallery
  • 珍宝馆 Treasure Gallery
  • 雕塑馆 Sculpture Gallery

钟表馆 Timepieces Gallery

奉先殿 Hall of Ancestral Offerings

Located at Hall of Ancestral Offerings (奉先殿), this set of buildings on the eastern side of the Inner Palace now houses the Palace Museum’s clocks display, the major portion of which are elaborate European-style mechanical clocks – including a calligraphy-writing automaton! Demonstrations are held at 11:00 and 14:00, where some of the fanciest clocks in the collections are put on show.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, European missionaries introduced western technology to China along with Christian proselytizing. At the same time they introduced European clocks and watches. In 1601, the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci presented the Ming Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620) with two chiming clocks, which caused a stir at the court. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) had a great enthusiasm for science and collected many western devices and a variety of clocks.

Then every missionary coming from Europe brought several clocks as gifts to present to the emperor or high officials. The clocks were an important medium for Chinese to understand Western culture and technology. Of the foreign clocks in the Qing court some were directly purchased from the West India Company in Holland and England; a few were made to order to meet imperial taste. The rest were presented to the court by local officials who purchased from foreign traders.

The foreign clocks and watches in the Palace Museum come primarily from Great Britain, France, and Switzerland. With remarkable design and technology as well as beautiful appearance and splendid colors, they are both practical timepieces and artistic objects for display. The high quality of all aspects of the clocks and watches, including imaginative decoration and mechanical craftsmanship, fully reflect the artistry of eighteenth and nineteenth century European clockmakers. This exhibition presents a selection of the finest imported clocks and watches used at the imperial court.

珍宝馆 Treasure Gallery

Located at Palace of Tranquil Longevity (宁寿宫), it is a palace in itself with its own “Outer Court”, “Inner Palace” and “Imperial Garden”, this complex was designed for the Qianlong Emperor to enjoy his retirement after abdication – but he was too busy giving his son instructions on government to ever use it. Look for the glaze-tiled Nine Dragon Screen in front of the main entrance.

It consists of six gallery rooms displaying pieces from the imperial collection and extant accoutrements for palace life. All of these exquisite items are made of precious materials, such as jade, jadeite, gold, silver, pearls, and other precious and semi-precious stones. The superb craftsmanship and inestimable value of each piece is aptly summarized in the title of the gallery.

Religious Relics and Utensils

Occupying a large area in the northeast of the Forbidden City, the Palace of Tranquil Longevity Sector was originally designed as the private paradise of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) for after his retirement from imperial duties. The courts in this sector contain expansive halls, intimate residential chambers, a grand theatre (now the Gallery of Qing Imperial Opera), a scenic garden, and solemn Buddhist shrines. The overall layout of this rectangular sector is modeled after the Forbidden City. This relatively secluded and independent area creates the perfect environment for displaying the treasures of dynastic glory.

雕塑馆 Sculpture Gallery

The Palace Museum Sculpture Gallery is located in the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (慈宁宫), with five exhibition galleries entitled: Supreme Sculpture, Han and Tang Terracotta Figures, Stone and Brick Reliefs, Xiude White Stone, and Buddhist Statues. The display area is about 1,375 square meters, with a total of 425 exhibits.

The displayed items include the world-renowned Terracotta Warrior of Qin Shihuang; most of them were made in the Han (206BCE-220CE) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. The stone reliefs unearthed in northern Shaanxi and Southwestern Shanxi areas are diverse in content and form. The white stone Buddhist statues of Quyang, Hebei Province, employed perforating techniques and diversified the craftsmanship. These statues, dated from the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) to the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties, are organized in chronological order. The Palace Museum was established on the basis of the Ming and Qing imperial palace, where the court collections held the Tibetan Buddhist copper statues dated to Yongle (r. 1403-1424) and Xunde (r. 1426-1435) periods. These statues in their rounded regularity are solemnly graceful, which marks the characteristic of Ming court style. The statue of the sixth Panchen Lama is a classic of Tibetan Buddhist statues created in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Stone Drums of Qin

The Palace Museum’s collection contains ten stone drums from the Warring States Period (475–222 BCE) incised with four-character poems in seal script (篆书) that describe activities such as fishing, hunting, and warfare. The inscriptions are believed to be the earliest known sets of Chinese characters carved in stone.

In a rare collaborative effort with Google, you can see the details of this exhibition by following this link:

汉唐陶俑馆 Ancient Terracotta Figurines

The exhibits on display in the Sculpture Gallery are grouped into three themes: terracotta figures, stone and brick reliefs, and Buddhist statues. The terracotta figures, dating from the Warring States period (475-222BCE) to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) with masterpieces created through the ages, constitute a complete development history.

Large jade and marble carvings

These are located in the main chambers of Emperor Qianlong’s retirement home.

Special Exhibitions

Once in a while at 景仁宫, there are special themed exhibitions examining a certain facade of imperial life or special exhibits from museums around the world.

Ming Royal Porcelain – a comparison of three emperors

The Palace Museum and the municipal government of Jingdezhen (Jiangxi Province) jointly present “Ceramics of the Ming Imperial Kilns: Comparing Ceramics Unearthed at the Ruins of the Imperial Kilns of Jingdezhen and Ceramics of the Jiajing, Longqing, and Wanli Reigns in the Palace Museum Collection” at the Palace of Great Benevolence (景仁宮) in the Forbidden City.

In 2014, the Palace Museum and the Jingdezhen government signed an agreement which included a series of joint exhibitions of ceramics produced by the Ming (1368–1644) imperial kilns. From 2015 to 2017, the two parties organized five exhibitions featuring the following groupings: the Hongwu (1368–1398), Yongle (1403–1424), and Xuande (1426–1435) reigns; Chenghua (1465–1487) reign; Hongzhi (1488–1505) and Zhengde (1506–1521) reigns; Zhengtong (1436–1449), Jingtai (1450–1457), and Tianshun (1457–1464) reigns; and Ming and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The current exhibition is the sixth and final of this series and features works from the Jiajing (1522–1566), Longqing (1567–1572), and Wanli (1573–1620) reigns.

This current exhibition is divided into three sections. Section I is entitled “Radiant Beauty” and features blue and white ceramics with white or yellow grounds or with added vitriol red. Section II is “Pure Elegance” showcasing ceramics with single-colored glazes. Section III is “Colorful Profusion” with a range of variously-colored, contrasting-color, polychrome, and red-green ceramics. While most of the works on view are from the imperial kilns and made during the aforementioned reigns, the exhibition also includes several examples of ceramics made in privately operated kilns.



Due to the turbulent political climate during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (Zhu Yijun, 1563–1620), ceramic production declined in quantity and quality. The operations of the imperial kilns deteriorated into a crisis and operations eventually ceased in 1608 (the thirty-sixth year of that reign). Consequently, private kilns flourished for several decades until the fires of the imperial kilns were reignited in 1681—the twentieth year of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty. (Some scholars argue that the restoration did not occur until 1683.) The ceramics produced during the Wanli period essentially show a continuation of aesthetic trends of the Jiajing and Longqing reigns. Since the Longqing Emperor lifted the isolationist ban on maritime trade, many ceramics produced by private kilns during the Wanli reign were sold overseas.

[Information from the Forbidden City official websites, Wikipedia, et al]

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