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Thu, 24th Mar 2016
Museum of Art shows architecture of Forbidden City (March 2016)

A row of 11 yellow glazed figures guard the roof of a building in Beijing’s Forbidden City. They include a dragon, a phoenix, a lion, a sea horse and a bull that can drive out evil spirits.

If you go to the spot in Beijing, you can barely see them, on the top of the building – but they were up close in a hall of the Macau Museum of Art (MAM), part of an exhibition on the architecture of the Forbidden City, in partnership with the Palace Museum (PM), from last 11th December to 13th March this year.

“I have visited the PM but you cannot see these things in such detail,” said Lin Mei-lin, a visitor from Shanghai. “I like having such a close look. Despite all the wars and changes of dynasty, the PM was left alone. It has a special aura about it.”

“The Magnificent Palace – Imperial Architec-ture of the Forbidden City” featured nearly 110 exhibits, including cultural relics that celebrated ancient Chinese architecture. It was the first such exhibition held outside the Forbidden City. There were four themes – “Glazed Glamour”, “A Miniature Universe”. “Gilded Windows, Embroidered Doors” and “Literary Charms”.

It was the 17th year of co-operation between the Macau Museum of Art and the PM; the previous 16 covered precious cultural relics and paintings.

This exhibition presented a special challenge because it was not artefacts or sculptures that could be shown within a glass case. Instead, it aimed to let visitors see the architecture of this unique building.

Museum Director Chan Hou Seng said that it was a great challenge to show the architecture of the PM. “We could not solely display the architec-tural materials because they are non-artistic or have low artistic value. By organising a relevant exhibition of cultural relics such as architectural materials, components, interior furnishings and combining it with the introduction of techniques, we could comprehensively introduce the art of architecture of the Forbidden City in a three-dimensional and systematic way.”

To help the public better understand the subject, the museum organised seminars on the art of architecture, interior furnishing and decoration of the palace buildings. “We held promotional activities for the public, such as those on MAM’s page on Facebook, as well as quiz games together with the media with the offer of prizes,” Chan said. 

For the seminar, the museum invited specialists from the PM to give talks on their area of expertise. For example, Zhang Shuxian, a researcher in its ancient building department, spoke about “Gilded Windows, Embroidered Door,” to explain the art of interior decoration and finishing in Qing palaces.

“The feedback we received from the public was positive,” said Chan. “They appreciate the exhi-bition and the activities and are curious about how to incorporate the Forbidden City into the arts, as all arts is abstract while architecture is concrete.”


The PM is a building like no other in the world. It was built between 1406 and 1420 by more than one million workers. It had nearly 1,000 structures and covered an area of 720,000 square metres; it was the largest building in China and one of the biggest in the world. 

It was built for the Ming emperor, whose successors lived there. When the Qing dynasty came to power in 1644, it also chose to live in the palace. Emperors lived there for more than 500 years, until the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, was expelled in November 1924. The Palace Museum opened its doors on 10th October, 1925.

The museum is the largest wooden structure and the most complete royal palace made of wood in the world. Its collection of glass pieces represents the highest quality of glass craftsmanship in the world. Colours represent different grades – yellow is the emperor. It is the dominant colour in the palace. Green represents the east, a symbol of growth and prosperity. Black represents water and can resist fire.

Director Chan said that the Forbidden City was different to other palace buildings. “Through different thematic introductions, we hoped to highlight the status of the emperors’ residence and workplace, such as the tablets and couplets used in the palace decorations, the interior spaces of the palace with flower patterns. The wordings on the tablets or couplets have a specific meaning, which are different from palace buildings in other countries, as they are unique.”

Many of these items were on display at the exhibition, including gilded windows, decorated doors and examples of wooden furniture made of phoebe nanmu, padank, rosewood and other rare woods: many have decorations of animals or Chinese characters. There was also painted glass, calligraphy on silk, bronze treasure boxes, tables with literary inscriptions, the tools of the palace carpenters and the ‘dougong’ wooden brackets they used for corners.

There was also a wooden model of the palace, to give visitors an idea of its size and careful, symmetrical design, to meet the requirements of feng shui and cosmic harmony.

The experts invited from the PM to give seminars helped the public to better understand better what they were seeing. 

One was given by Yang Xincheng, a re-searcher in the ancient building department of the PM; his field of study is the research and preservation of Chinese ancient buildings, focusing on studying the layout of palaces in the Forbidden City of Qing and Ming dynasties.

Using Ming and Qing historical records and archives, he described the history and development of the Forbidden City palaces, introducing their evolution along historical lines, from the perspectives of planning and layout, construction, as well as decorations and display of furniture and ornaments.

Chun Hua, a researcher in the PM library spoke on the production, development and transformation of tablets in Qing imperial buildings. She researches ancient books, specialising in Manchu and Mongolian philology, linguistics, and geography.

In ancient China, tablets served not only to decorate a building but also had other purposes and functions. As the Qing dynasty declined, buildings were destroyed and tablets disappeared. She analysed how different ethnic customs and traditions changed the display order of languages on a tablet. For instance, changes in Manchu text on tablets were brought about by the taboo on using personal names and posthumous titles of emperors, by the changing hands in court regimes and also the development of Manchu and Mongolian scripts.


One element of the exhibition was a Lego workshop, conducted by Andy Hung, the first LEGO certified professional from Greater China.  He designed a small LEGO model based on the architecture of the Forbidden City. The aim was to let participants understand the architectural composition of its wooden structures through designing and building LEGO models. Hung held two workshops, each lasting one hour, with 15 attendees; they were for parents with children above the age of four. 

“We hope that the LEGO workshop can be an effective activity to promote the art of architecture,” said Chan. “Since building LEGO models is popular among the public, this activity helped to attract the public to participate in other activities and visit the exhibition. We know that some visitors headed to the MAM only because of the big LEGO model on exhibition there. It does not matter whether the public wants to explore the exhibition by visiting the LEGO model or that the LEGO model attracts the public to visit the exhibition. Our goal is to attract the public to enjoy this cultural activity.”


In his message to the exhibition, Shan Jixiang, director of the PM, said that he wanted to offer to those who had not visited the Forbidden City an opportunity to appreciate the magnificence of its palatial structures… and extend co-operation with the Macau Museum of Art into a new area.

Ung Vai Meng, president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, said in his message: “it may inspire visitors to ponder how to achieve long-term preservation and development of the Historical Centre of Macao, as they get to understand the architectural art of the Forbidden City as a World Heritage site.”

Lok Po, chief editor of the Macao Daily News, wrote: “its (the Forbidden City’s) planning and layout follows ritual regulations traditionally observed by all emperors, as well as the Zhou dynasty imperial system, the Palace modular construction system developed since the Tang and Song dynasties, the standardised modular system of the Qing dynasty and ancient feng shui theory.” 


The museum is already working on its next, the 18th, exhibition with items from the PM that will open at the end of this year.

It will be an exhibition of flower vessels of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. “Our goal is to revitalize the cultural relics and artefacts. As the slogan ‘Life.Love.Art’ conveys, we think our lives must have artistic elements,” said Director Chan.

“During the planning of the exhibition, we consider how to integrate the arts in our lives. This year the annual exhibition is about flower vessels, with diverse forms of vases, planters, floral paintings, plant painting, Ping Hu Pu (Chronicle of the Vase Flower) and other relevant ancient books. With appreciative, practical, informative, interesting and academic features, we hope the exhibition can raise the public’s aspiration for a beautiful life.”

Text Mark O’Neill​

Photo Eric Tam, Nono Press and courtesy of Macau Museum of Art

(Issue N.33, March 2016)