600 Years of History

Seat of China’s supreme power for over five centuries (1416-1912), the Forbidden City constitutes a priceless testimony to Chinese history during the Ming and Qing dynasties. 

Completed in 1420, the landscaped gardens and courtyards of the Forbidden City make any other architectures of its time pale in comparison. The 720-thousand-sqm sprawling city went on to house emperors their households over a span of nearly 500 years — all the way up until 1912, when China’s last emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated. Throughout China’s turbulent history, it came close to an annihilation by Western and Japanese invasions.  

24 emperors took the palaces in Central Beijing as their home. But even without the emperors, there was still so much history made in the Forbidden City. Its main entrance, Tiananmen, is famous for witnessing many political events that shaped China’s contemporary history, including the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. 

Today, the Forbidden City is not forbidden any more. It has been transformed into the Palace Museum, which houses more than 1.8 million cultural relics. The palatial miracle is one of the most popular tourist attractions throughout China, second only, perhaps, to the Great Wall. 


2020 is a special year for the Forbidden City as it marks the 600-year anniversary of the palaces and 95-year anniversary of the Palace Museum. Announced by the Palace Museum, a series of seminars, exhibitions and events will be held throughout 2020 to celebrate this grand occasion.  

However, controversies have been sparked most recently as the snapshots of two rich women driving their S.U.V into the old palaces. Netizens poured outrage online, expressing their concerns about heritage conservation, management faux pas and social inequality.  

The Controversy

When Lu Xiaobao posted her snapshots with a friend in the Forbidden City on the Internet, she was maybe just feeling happy and probably attempted to show off. 

“As it’s closed on Monday, we avoided the crowds and enjoyed the palace. “ Lu Xiaobao wrote on the China’s most popular social media platform Weibo.


But driving a Mercedes-Benz into an off-limits zone of one of China’s most iconic locations just for some selfies was not funny at all to many Chinese people. Her words and deeds soon sent the Forbidden City into a social-media firestorm. 

Indignant netizens rushed to heap insults on the twitter-like Weibo account of Lu Xiaobao. Many worried that the 600 years old flagstones are too fragile to bear the weight of any motorcades. Many couldn’t accept such disrespectful behaviors, as the Forbidden City is not just the UNESCO-listed heritage and a world-class museum to them. Its significance transcends a historical site and an educational institute. The cultural and historic uniqueness of the Forbidden City has made it a symbol of Chinese civilization, the oldest living one in the world.  

People also mocked that the Forbidden City has become a McDonalds Drive-Thru. While the outcry went deeper, China’s state media outlets weighed in to question about the privileged.

“Why are guests still able to enter on a closing day? Why were people allowed to drive in? Is this a loophole in management or is this the flaunting of privilege,” China’s the People’s Daily newspaper said in an editorial. 

The backlash resulted in the suspension of two senior managers at the Palace Museum. The museum’s director, Wang Xudong, also issued an official apology. But the apology didn’t sit well with many people who believe that the family backgrounds and wealth of the two women were the culprits of their apparent defiance and ignorance of the museum’s ban on vehicles. Thus, the doxxing war on the run-wild ‘Benz intruders’ continues on the Internet.   

The controversy came at a time when the Forbidden City is to celebrate its 600-year anniversary. A series of highlighted exhibitions, symposiums and public educational activities are scheduled to display this year, no wonder that the former imperial palace will continue to be in the limelight on social platforms in 2020.

The controversial snapshots and the heated debate reflect the popularity of the Forbidden City and its relevance to Chinese public opinion, thanks to the successful marketing and branding strategies the Palace Museum has been adopting in recent years. 

The Creativity 

While the museum industry around the world is stuck in the past, the Forbidden City in China manages to outshine itself. The secret to success is to keep its relics relevant to the public, especially to the young generations. And the secret weapon is social media and online merchandizing. 

The Palace Museum, embraced the social media by opening its Weibo account in 2010 and WeChat in 2013, with the attempt to make history more accessible and inclusive to the mass audience. 

The past few years have seen the Palace Museum launched a wide range of peripheral products on China’s e-commerce giant Taobao.com. From niche souvenirs with limited quantities to art-inspired selections of daily-use products, the Forbidden City’s online shop sheds its dull image and adopts an ‘acting cute’ designing style and a creative approach to target the young people. In its marketing campaigns, even the emperors and the concubines were introduced to promote the Forbidden City’s image and online sales. 

Taking the niche souvenirs for instance, inspired by the colors of ancient architectures in the Forbidden City, the colors of the lipsticks designed by the Palace Museum fitted the taste of many traditional culture enthusiasts. More than 90,000 lipsticks were sold within just four days in December 2018 on its Taobao shop. Eye shadow, blushers, highlighters and other museum-themed cosmetics were sold out during that period. 


The bold moves proved to be an enormous success. Today, the official Weibo page of the Palace Museum has over 6 million followers while its generic WeChat posts regularly receive more than 100,000 views. Now the Forbidden City’s flagship Taobao store attracts 1 million fans. According to Shan Jixiang, former director of the Palace Museum, the revenue of the museum’s cultural and creative sales reached 1.5 billion RMB, or 300 million AUD in 2017. 

As a non-profit organization, the Palace Museum has invested all its sales profits into upgrading the facilities at the museum and improving visitor-friendly services and educational program.

When many museum professionals around the world are scratching their heads for declining visitation and revenue, the Forbidden City has made itself an exception. The visitation of the Forbidden City exceeded 19.3 million in 2019, setting a new record for attendance since the Forbidden City became a public museum in 1925. It has surpassed the Louvre in 2017 as the most visited art institution in the world. Notably, 40 percent of the visitors to the Forbidden City were under 30 years old. 24 percent of the demographics are between 30 and 40 years old. And this is assumingly correlated to the marketing strategies mentioned above. 


Looking into Another 600 Years

Today, creativity industry and information technologies have injected new vigor into the 600-year-old imperial palace. The Forbidden City has become a hot topic in Chinese pop culture and a famous Intellectual Property (or IP) in the digital world. It is a nice blend of past and present where tradition and contemporary trends go parallel.

In the past 600 years, the Forbidden City has emerged from its old path and improvised present. Thus, it evolves into a more comprehensive future. It has been a miracle, a shrine, an icon and a dream in the past 600 years and it will continue to be in the next 600 years. 

Story by Lei Zhang