The Meaning Behind the Nine-Dragon Wall in Beijing’s Forbidden City

A yellow dragon from the Nine-Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

Chinese dragons are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology and folklore. (Image: Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons)

The two most popular tourist attractions in Beijing are the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a masterpiece of ancient Chinese architecture, and there are countless places worth visiting there. If you happen to be at the Huangji Door, you can see the Nine-Dragon Wall.

In traditional Chinese architecture, what separates the inside of a home and property from the outside and the street is not a gate, but instead, a screen wall, which is also known as the image wall.

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In ancient times, in order to prevent wandering ghosts or spirits from sneaking into private residences, people set up a screen wall in front of their houses. Once wandering ghosts or spirits approached, they would see their own horrendous images, and then they would be scared away.

The central yellow dragon from the Nine-Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
The principle dragon is in yellow, which is the noblest color, so of course, the emperor’s robes were also yellow. (Image: Seamartini via Dreamstime)

Of course, it might only work for cowardly ghosts or spirits. However, the more practical purpose of the screen wall was to prevent strangers from peeking inside. The Nine-Dragon Wall was built in 1733 (the 38th year of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty), dating back over 200 years. It is 67 feet long and 11.5 feet tall.

People standing in front of the Nine-Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.
The dragon in the middle is the principal dragon, while those on either side are ascending dragons and descending dragons respectively. The nine dragons on the Nine-Dragon Wall, large or small, are very colorful and amazingly life-like and vivid. (Image: Zjm7100 via Dreamstime)

The Nine-Dragon Wall used colored glaze

In terms of its artistic value and architectural design, it is second to none. Though this Nine-Dragon Wall is nothing but a screen wall, it fully demonstrates the magnificence of the Forbidden City, as well as the pride and honor of the imperial family. Ordinary people’s screen walls were generally built with bricks, but the Nine-Dragon Wall used colored glaze.

What is most striking and magnificent about the wall is the nine dragons. In Chinese culture, dragons signify a supreme status, and are an extraordinary mascot. That’s why emperors in ancient times often referred to themselves as a true dragon, and a son of heaven. Only emperors were qualified to don robes with dragon-shaped designs, or use anything with paintings of dragons.

Why nine?

A legend explains the reasons why there are 9 dragons as opposed to 8 or 10. According to Zhou Yi (one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts), nine symbolizes yang. Ancient Chinese categorized numbers into yang numbers and yin numbers.

Odd numbers signify yang, while even numbers represent yin, and nine is the largest yang number. It stands for the ultimate and the principle of the Way. The dragon in the middle is the principal dragon, while those on either side are ascending dragons and descending dragons respectively. The principal dragon is in yellow, which is the noblest color, so emperor’s robes were yellow.

The nine dragons on the Nine-Dragon Wall, large or small, are very colorful and amazingly life-like and vivid. They are beyond words.

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