Upon entering the Meridian Gate, we were ushered into a large square pierced by the meandering Inner Golden Water River, which is crossed by 5 bridges. Beyond the square stands the Gate of Supreme Harmony, behind which is the Hall of Supreme Harmony Square.
A 3-tiered white marble terrace rises from this square. Three halls stand on top of this terrace, the focus of the palace complex. From the south, these are are the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian, the largest), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghedian) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohedian).
The first hall we visited was the Hall of Supreme Harmony which rises some 30 m. (98 ft.) above the level of the surrounding square. It is the ceremonial center of imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It is 9 bays wide and 5 bays deep (the numbers 9 and 5 are symbolically connected to the majesty of the Emperor). Set into the ceiling at the center of the hall is the Dragon Throne (Longyi), an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon, from the mouth of which issues a chandelier-like set of metal balls, called the “Xuanyuan Mirror.” During the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor held court here to discuss affairs of state. During the Qing Dynasty, as Emperors held court far more frequently, a less ceremonious location was used instead, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony was only used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations, investitures and imperial weddings.
The Hall of Central Harmony is a smaller, square hall, used by the Emperor to prepare and rest before and during grand events. Behind it, the Hall of Preserved Harmony, was used for rehearsing ceremonies, banquets and was also the site of the final stage of the Imperial examination. All 3 halls feature imperial thrones, the largest and most elaborate one being that in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
At the center of the ramps leading up to the terraces from the northern and southern sides are ceremonial ramps, part of the Imperial Way, featuring elaborate and symbolic bas-relief carvings. The northern ramp, behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony, is carved from a single piece of stone 16.57 m. (54.4 ft.) long, 3.07 m. (10.1 ft.) wide and 1.7 m. (5.6 ft.) thick. It weighs some 200 tons and is the largest such carving in China.
The southern ramp, in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is even longer, but is made from 2 stone slabs joined together – the joint was ingeniously hidden using overlapping bas-relief carvings, and was only discovered when weathering widened the gap in the 20th century.
In the south west and south east of the Outer Court are the Halls of Military Eminence (Wuyingdian) and Literary Glory (Wenhuadian). The former was used at various times for the Emperor to receive ministers and hold court, and later housed the Palace’s own printing house. The latter was used for ceremonial lectures by highly regarded Confucian scholars, and later became the office of the Grand Secretariat. A copy of the Siku Quanshu was stored there. To the northeast are the Southern Three Places which was the residence of the Crown Prince.
Upon exiting the Hall of the Preserving Harmony, we notices a huge block of marble carved with cloud and dragon designs. Past that, we entered another gate called the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Qianqingmen), the main gateway to the Inner Court.