<Home/Articles/China’s Forbidden City – Our Favourite Intrigues

China’s Forbidden City – Our Favourite Intrigues


This week China’s Party Congress will announce who will lead China for the next ten years. Occurring every five years, it is the greatest gathering of the political great and good of China. The Congress is held in the Great Hall of the People, sitting at one end of Tiananmen Square. At the other end of the square sits the Forbidden City, the former centre of political power in Imperial China, and home to a succession of 24 emperors, constructed by a million workers between 1406 and 1420.

The Party Congress is a highly choreographed display of public unity. As you might expect behind the scenes officials jostle for position, cut backroom deals and plot against one another. In that respect the exercise of power has remained unchanged for centuries – except that it has moved from the Forbidden City at one end of Tiananmen Square to the Great Hall of the People at the other. In homage to a new ‘Emperor’ of China, here we present a selection of our favourite tales of political intrigue from China’s past.

1) Gang Bing‘s self-castration. Gang Bing was a favourite of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. Left in charge of the Forbidden City whilst the Emperor went hunting for a few days, he feared that one of his rivals would accuse him of improprieties with one of the Emperor’s 72 concubines – a severe offence punishable by death. To avoid this he took a knife and castrated himself before the Emperor departed, placing his severed organs in a bag under the Emperor’s saddle. Sure enough, on his return, one of the Emperor’s ministers informed him of Gang Bing’s relations with the harem. When accused, Gang Bing asked the Emperor to look under the saddle where he found the blackened remains of Gang Bing’s organs – thereby proving his innocence.

2) Heshan and the Qianlong Emperor. While a young prince, the Emperor Qianlong accidentally ran into the room of one of the imperial concubines. Surprised, she turned round to see who it was and accidently hit the young prince – a severe breach of protocol which led to her demotion. Unable to bear the shame, she committed suicide. The young prince was said to have felt so guilty that he bit his own finger and left a bloody mark on her neck, so he’d recognise her in the next life. Years later, the now Emperor Qianlong spotted Heshan, a guard stationed at the gates of the Forbidden City. Finding him to be similar in appearance to the unfortunate concubine, the Emperor showered him with gifts and promotions to overcome his guilt. Heshan eventually rose to have control of the entire revenue of the empire, and in the process became the most corrupt official in Chinese history. He appointed his own henchmen to many key positions, and established corruption in many state institutions, which, some say, led to the weakening of Imperial China and ultimately to its downfall.

3) The Empress Dowager Cixi. One of Imperial China’s most colourful characters, Cixi was a concubine to the 19th century Emperor Xianfeng. Upon his death, her infant son inherited the throne. She used her considerable guile and cunning to outmanoeuvre no less than eight regents to become the defacto ruler of China for 47 years, exerting an iron influence on her son. When he died – of smallpox, though rumours abounded that it was from syphilis – she put her three year old nephew Guangxu on the throne. He made numerous attempts to loosen Cixi’s grip on power, and on himself, all rebuffed. His favourite concubine, Consort Zhen, encouraged him to be independent – Cixi had her thrown down a well in the Forbidden City (which now bears her name). Eventually she effectively had the Emperor held prisoner in a palace in the middle of an artificial lake in the Forbidden City. When she sensed her own approaching death, it is thought that she had the Emperor Guangxu poisoned – he was found to have high levels of arsenic in his blood. One of her final actions was to install the infant Puyi as Emperor – commonly known as ‘The Last Emperor’. She died the day after; the Qing Dynasty and Imperial China collapsed a few years later in 1912.

Plan your trip

Beijing and the Forbidden City can easily be included in any of our China itineraries. All trips created by our local travel companies are 100% bespoke and unique to you. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.

Get inspired

Here's some articles to inspire you...

Our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites

June 19, 2023

Top 5 natural wonders of the world

March 7, 2023

Your bucket list destinations for 2023

December 15, 2022

Book with confidence