Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China’s Imperial Palace

On view July 1, 2001 to September 23, 2001

Located in the: Special Exhibition Galleries

China’s Imperial Palace was the heart of an empire that, to the Chinese, was the center of the world. During each dynasty the finest art was created to surround and celebrate the emperor and his imperial family, whose members lived within the protected walls of the Forbidden City.

Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China’s Imperial Palace brings together a selection of exceptional and beautiful objects, including portraits and paintings, formal robes, armor, jewelry, scepters and seals, and a throne room, from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The Peabody Essex Museum is the only East Coast venue for this unique exhibition, which was organized by the Palace Museum and the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California and is among the largest ever to come out of the Palace Museum. The exhibition is sponsored by the MetLife Foundation; the media sponsor is The Boston Globe.

Through this spectacular ensemble of artworks, visitors will enter a world of ceremony and ritual, birth and death, and banquets and processions. All of this activity revolved around the emperor, the “Son of Heaven,” who for centuries served as supreme authority in a strictly controlled family hierarchy and sanctified power structure.

Among the most remarkable objects on display are the elegant portraits of the emperors and empresses. They range from the painting on silk of the late eighteenth century Dowager Empress Xiaoshengxian in a highly stylized court robe, to a 1917 photograph of the last Emperor, Puyi, standing in front of the Tian Yi Men Gate after a short-lived military restoration of the monarchy.

The Forbidden City

China’s Imperial Palace was built during the Ming Dynasty between the fourth and the fifteenth years of the Yongle Period (1403-1424). Popularly known as the Forbidden City, this magnificent complex occupies a unique place in architectural history. It covers more than 2.3 million square feet and is surrounded by ten-foot-high walls that are crowned by four observation towers and flanked by a deep moat. The layout of the Forbidden City is based on a Chinese cosmic diagram of the universe that clearly defines the north-south and east-west axes. The Forbidden City was the scene of many important and dramatic events in Chinese and world history.

Today the Forbidden City is one of the world’s foremost museums of Chinese art. Its palaces and storage rooms are filled with innumerable works of art and culture, including gifts of state, military campaign treasures, and furnishings and possessions of members of the Imperial household. A glorious gathering of these wondrous objects, Secret World of the Forbidden City offers visitors a rare chance to experience the splendors that filled this architectural masterpiece—a chance that few Chinese had during the days of the Qing emperors.