The Forbidden City palace grounds are divided into two main sections, the Front palace to the south and the inner palace to the north. The long stone ramp, known as cinnabar staircase, carved with dragons sporting in clouds in bas-relief in the center of the staircase called the Imperial Way (or Dragon Pavement), which corresponded with the north-south axis of the city, was for the emperor’s exclusive use(each of these three staircases has 44 steps leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony), imperial family members and civil and military officials no matter how high their ranks had to climb the forty-four steps on either side.
In the center of the Front Palace stand the magnificent and imposing appearance of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Complete Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, commonly known as the “Three Great Hall” derives from the broad, stately 8-metre-high terraces on which they stand. The I shaped terraces are made up of three layers of white marble, each layer bounded by a low balustrade. Carved with exquisitely various designs, the three layers of white marble terraces on which the “Three Great Halls “stand implies meaning of the imperial state power as solid as a rock and lasting forever. The pillars are ornamented at the top with carved cloud patterns, dragons and phoenixes and the panels between the pillars are adorned with vases of lotus (the lotus symbolizes purity and grace) leaves. At the base of the pillars is a small channel for water drainage and beneath each pillar a dragon’s head with a hole in its mouth, which serves both practical and ornamental functions. If a tourist visits the Forbidden City on a heavy rainy day he will witness a magnificent scene of 1.142 gargoyles—a spout carved to represent a grotesque animal figure, and projected from a gutter to carry rainwater clear of the terrace) on the three terraces simultaneously spurting rainwater from their mouths.
On either side of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, outside the courtyard south of the Hall of Supreme Harmony stands a group of important buildings. To the east is the Hall of Literary Glory, which served as a study for the crown prince during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming and Qing emperors also attended lectures here in spring and autumn. Further north is the Pavilion of the Source of Literature, the Qing imperial library where the famous collection Complete Library in Four Treasures was formerly housed. Further east is the Qing Archives. The main building to the west is the Hall of Martial Spirit where the empress received her female subjects during the Ming Dynasty. In 1644 at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Li Zicheng, leader of the peasant uprising, held his coronation here after he led his peasant army into Beijing. Under the Qing, it was the office where scholars compiled the Complete Library in the Four treasures, the Peiwen Yunfu, a dictionary compiled according to Chinese rhymes, and an anthology of famous writings. It was also the site of the imperial printing press. Another important building here is the South Fragrance Hall, one of the few remaining buildings from the Ming dynasty; Portraits of emperors of various dynasties are housed here. It was here that the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties conducted grand ceremonies and held audience with their officials.
On the triple marble terrace, the visitor will find eighteen bronze incense burners. They represented the eighteen provinces in the Qing Dynasty. On this huge terrace stand three big halls: The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Complete Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, all lying on the north south axis. Earth terrace is higher than the other, eight meters in total, encircled by marble balustrades carved with dragon and phoenix designs.
On the terrace in the east stands a sundial. It could be used when there was sunlight. People looked at the markings of time on its upper part in summer adorn its lower part in winter. In the west there is litter pavilion in which a copper grain measure is kept. The measure was used as the national standard in the Qing Dynasty, but it was always in favor of the ruling class. The grain measure and the sundial indicated the emperor’s concern for agriculture. The dragon headed tortoises and storks, a pair of each kind, were incense burners. The tortoise was a symbol of longevity and strength while the stork represented longevity.
These are gilded bronze water vats. Two on earth side. When the Eight-Power Allied Forces (Britain, Germany, France, tsarist Russia, the United States, Italy, Japan and Austria) invaded Beijing in 1900, the alien troops scraped the gold off he vats with their bayonets. On the north side underneath the vats (cauldrons)are air vents to fan the fires set to keep the water inside from freezing in winter. The water vats were not only fire-fighting installations (a frequent hazard in the mainly wooden structures of the palace, and also suggesting the perfection of the emperor’s reign), but also part of the adornments that made up imperial magnificence. In the Ming Dynasty they were mostly made of iron or bronze, but they became much more elaborate and finely manufactured in the Qing Dynasty, being of gold-plated brass and adorned with rings and side knobs in the form of animal heads.
The water vats can be divided into different grades. Flanking the front of such important halls as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony and the Gate of Heavenly Purity as huge water vats, each weighing 3,392 kilograms and measuring 1.6 meters in diameter. Near less important buildings, the water vats weighs 2,166 kilograms and measures 1.28 meters. Still less important pavilions and towers, have iron or bronze water vats of yet small sizes.