The Dragon Throne of the Forbidden City: symbol of the royal power of the Chinese dynasties

Katerina Bulovska
The Dragon Throne. By Vaiz Ha – transmongolie-676, CC BY 2.0

The resplendent Dragon Throne in China’s Forbidden City was the ceremonial seat of the emperors of China for six centuries.

The dragons with which it is decorated are symbolic of the unquestionable divine imperial power of the Emperor. The throne represented his power and authority.

According to ancient Chinese culture, the Emperor himself was mandated by 天 (Tiān, or Heaven) as the just ruler of the people, and thus represented an embodiment of the dragon.

Ever since ancient times, stories of dragons have featured as an important element in Chinese folklore.

However, Chinese dragons have some key differences with their counterparts from Western legends. They do not breathe fire nor hoard treasure — in China, dragons are benevolent and wingless, believed to bring good fortune and prosperity.

These sacred mythological creatures are frequently depicted as snake-like, though they were also described as being formed from an integration of several animals.

Aquatic beings that live in rivers, lakes and seas, they can fly, albeit not with wings but by their magic.

The Forbidden City viewed from Jingshan Hill. Pixelflake. CC BY-SA 3.0

Members of the Imperial Dynasty of China were believed to be descendants of a dragon, claiming their divinity from Emperor Gaozu of Han who, legend tells us, was the son of a peasant woman and a dragon.

Chinese Emperors were superstitious and the location from which they ruled was very important.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing. Dennis Jarvis – Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Their Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City, was situated in the center of the country, with Taihe Hall, or the Hall of Supreme Harmony, in the heart of the palace. The Dragon Throne stood in the very center of Taihe Hall.

It is believed that 24 emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties sat on the Dragon Throne.

Most scholars agree that the 11th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Jiajing, who ruled from 1521 to 1567, was the first to use the dragon throne.

The gold-lacquered throne stands on a seven-stepped platform. It has three red gilded columns on each side and is made of nanmu, one of the most valuable and slow-growing trees in China.

The Dragon Throne of the Emperor of China. DF08. CC BY-SA 3.0

It is an example of extraordinary craftsmanship and features 13 gold dragons, all looking in different directions, while 12 gold dragons on the back look directly at the throne. The body of the throne is adorned with dragons and lotus petal patterns.

The ceiling above the throne is ornamented with a golden dragon holding a pearl in its mouth, known as the Xuanyuan mirror. It is believed to be the guardian of the true heir to the throne.

According to legend, the pearl would fall off the ceiling if an illegitimate Emperor sat on the throne.

The throne and ceiling. Emdx. CC BY-SA 4.0

The throne is surrounded by animals and mythological creatures, including elephants representing the stability of the royal court and a luduan symbolizing the Emperor’s wisdom.

It has a large Sumeru base and is difficult to lift or move due to its great weight. The throne was not particularly comfortable to sit on, but the Emperor had to use it since he was sitting symbolically at the center of his empire.

DragonThrone, detail. Ancheta Wis. CC BY 2.0

Emperor Yongzheng (1678 – 1735) made it very clear that the dragon throne was not to be regarded as any other piece of furniture in the palace.

One day, he noticed a servant sweeping the floor in the Hall beside the throne with his head up. Yongzheng wasn’t pleased with what he saw. He demanded that everyone should bow and show their respect to the throne as if it was part of the Emperor himself.

The throne in the Hall of Preserving Harmony

Emperor Qianlong (1735–1795), from the Qing Dynasty, took things even further. He demanded that in his absence from the palace, the dragon throne should be treated as if it were the Emperor himself.

For instance, when the Emperor was celebrating his 83rd birthday at the Mountain Resort in Chenghe, many people came to the palace, paying respect to the throne as if the Emperor himself was present.

The event was described in the diary of Sir George Staunton, 1st Baronet, who was among the guests in the Forbidden City: “The aim of the Emperor in such a ceremonial arrangement is to instill within his people a sense of reverence toward the emperor; although he is not physically present, it is as if they believe he can still enjoy the gesture.”

The Hall of Central Harmony (foreground) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (background). Jacob Ehnmark from Sendai, Japan. CC BY 2.0

Today, the dragon throne is still in the luxuriously decorated Hall of Supreme Harmony, or as it is also known, the Hall of the Golden Throne, and is the only seat within the 2,377 square meters of the hall.

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The Forbidden City Museum has been open to the public since 1958 and visitors have the privilege of seeing the magnificent Dragon Throne, although no one is allowed to sit on it.