McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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Song Li

The Imperial Palace - The Palace That Rules

The Imperial Palace—The Palace That Rules

Song Li

Harbin Institute of Technology

Anyone who visits the Imperial Palace will marvel at its breathtaking magnificence. But the significance of this historical site extends far beyond its esthetic value and visual attraction. It is, in fact, a self-contained communication system in which the very architecture is a dynamic medium that conveys the message of a high demand for social order under the supreme power of the emperor. This paper will discuss the Imperial Palace as both medium and message-in-itself, and the impact of the architectural design in such functions.

  1. The Imperial Palace as medium and message—its social functions

Marshal McLuhan held that housing, like any other creation of human ingenuity, is a medium of communication that shapes and rearranges the patterns of human association and community (1964:121). The Imperial Palace (IP) is but another proof of his insightful perception of the world we live in. To view the IP as a medium enables us to see its social function. Built in the 15th century, the IP served to express the desires and needs of the feudal rulers. Principal among these desires and needs was maintaining a power-centered and hierarchically-ordered society: the IP served as an important means to realize such pursuits.

Centralization of power in the emperor

The function of the IP as a medium, together with its message, is manifested in the general layout of the palace as well as in its architectural design. The IP is actually composed of numerous groups of buildings which are located on three parallel north-south axes, and all the buildings catered for the emperor. The Three Great Halls and the Three Rear Palaces stand on the central axis while all the lesser palaces and specialized buildings are situated along the side axes. In fact, the IP as a whole is right in the middle of the capital city and the Three Great Halls are in the heart of this center.

The palace stretches 960m from south to north and 760 m from east to west and reaches its climax at the Three Great Halls. For thousands of years, Chinese society had been manipulated by the dictatorship of the emperors and the ruling class. Centralized power had been considered the essential means of maintaining such dictatorship and the feudal system. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties inherited this tradition and projected it into their headquarters—the IP . For them it was not so much a luxurious palace as a manifestation of imperial dignity and supreme power, as well as an important means of intensifying their dictatorship.

The maintenance of a hierarchical social order

With the prominence given to the imperial buildings, all the other structures are arranged in carefully planned order. Each has its prescribed position determined by its function, that is, according to who uses it and for what purpose. Such planning is a strong claim for a hierarchical social order. The buildings in the IP can be divided into four classes. The first class stands along the central axis and includes all the buildings intended for the emperor and the imperial family. On the east and west sides, closest to the central axis, are the six palaces for the imperial concubines. Next to this line are the third-class buildings for the officials of the court. The last class of buildings—those that stand furthest from the imperial buildings—is made up of those affiliated to the above three. These buildings were used by people of lowest rank in the imperial city: the lower-ranked officers, guards, craftsmen, eunuchs and maids, etc. Mirroring the differences of the social positions of their occupants, each kind of building varied in size, building materials, pattern of roof, gates and doors, carvings on various structures, etc. And even the colors are used symbolically. So the buildings in the IP demonstrate the social identities of their occupants and at the same time the expectations of their social roles.

So the IP serves as the medium for the emperors and the feudal system. And the social reality it embodies, namely the demand for centralized power and high social order, is the very message it reveals. Such message resides in the buildings themselves, specifically in the designs and uses of gates or doors, walls, passageways, terraces, decorations and space.

  1. Effects of the architectural design of the IP

The IP is no doubt a medium in which itself is the message. But how does this medium work? How is the message effectuated? This article will try to answer these questions from three perspectives.

The impact on the senses

Everyone receives all information about the environment through his or her senses. The impact of the environment is exerted through the senses. Of all the senses, the eye, ordinarily, gathers the largest amount of information. In other words, most of the input of information is done through the eye. And the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and their officials knew this function of visual perception so well that they applied it to the buildings of the IP and made full play of it. The IP strikes the eye with its overwhelming height, breadth and depth. And thus, it projects the supreme image of the emperor to all those who could catch sight of it.

The Three Great Halls are the most outstanding and most elaborately-treated building in the IP. And of these, the Taihe Tien (the Hall of Great Harmony) is the focus of attention. As the throne hall of the emperor, this building soars high into the sky, overlooking all the others. This hall itself is 26.92 meters high and, with the three layered terraces on which the hall rests, this single palace reaches as high as 35.05 meters. With nothing else blocking the sight, the immense building reaches into the heaven from which the emperor was believed to have descended. The imposing height and size (2,377sqm) casts on the visual receptor a most powerful image of the emperor—son of Heaven, to be treated with utmost respect and obedience. When at big ceremonies all the officials knelt down towards TaiheTien, which was imagined just like the emperor on his throne. Inside this palace, surmounting a base and two platforms, the throne is so high that the emperor’s feet were 11 meters above the heads of his officials when they knelt in the courtyard. Such design intensifies the imposing dignity of the ruler and surrounds the throne and building with an atmosphere of mystery. The solemnity and sense of mystery is also created by the penetrating depth that one can experience with the maze of doors, bridges, passageways, terraces, etc.

If one experiences a sense of impending anxiety and oppression while going through the long passageway to reach the gate of Taihe, he will be overwhelmed by the majestic openness of the courtyard in front of Taihe Tien, the area of which is 65600m², or 9% of the total. The abrupt widening in space exerts a powerful deterrent forces on the senses.

Indeed, one’s spatial experience of the IP is not just visual, but multisensory. The impact of the architectural designs of the IP, and those of the THT in particular, can also be sensed through tactility. The visual height, depth and breadth of the architectural designs create a strong sense of distance and separation between the emperor and his people. And this distance and separation in turn demands unconditional respect and absolute obedience to the ruler.

No matter what senses are involved, the perceived message is the same: the emperor is the focus of power and the center of the Chinese world.

The regulating function of the fixed-feature space in the IP

With the emperor as the center, a hierarchical social order was built up in the IP. Hall points out that "No matter what happens in the world of human beings, it happens in a spatial setting, and the design of that setting has a deep and persisting influence on the people in that setting. " (1990:xi). The IP is in a way the feudal society in miniature. When the palace was planned, how people inside and out should live and behave themselves was also decided. This is very clear when we look at the fixed-space feature of the IP. E.T.Hall classifies architectural space into 3 categories: the fixed-feature space, the semi-fixed feature space and the informal space. The fixed-feature space includes material manifestations as well as the hidden, internalized designs. This space is one of the basic ways of organizing the activities of individuals and groups. Buildings are one of fixed-feature space patterns that govern the behaviors of man. The IP is very typical in this function. Modeled on a power-centered and hierarchically-ordered feudal society, the IP maintains a self-contained system of varying social classes and ranks. According to the functions and users, all the buildings with more than 9000 rooms in the IP are constructed in proper positions and the space each building occupies, the sizes, the shapes and patterns of roofs, terraces, pillars, platforms, decorations and ornaments, and even the colors used all help to determine the identities of their occupants and their relative roles in the society. The important point about fixed-feature space is that it is the mold into which a great deal of behavior is cast. In the case of the IP, the unique architecture functions as a dynamic mechanism that regulates man’s social behavior. What one should do and can do are all prescribed by the fixed-feature patterns. When someone approached the imperial buildings for example, he would be greeted by the overpowering atmosphere in the surroundings, and would instinctively adjust his behavior to the way expected in such settings. This would happen even when the emperor or his families and high officials were present. At big ceremonies too, the hundreds and thousands of officials and subjects only knelt down to the throne buildings instead of to the emperor whom only a small group of people could see. In fact the imperial buildings became incarnations of the emperor and his dictatorship. The social command on behavior was so well integrated into the architectural designs and buildings that the impact of architecture prevailed with or without the presence of the emperor.

The figure and ground method

  1. Conclusion.

To regard a building as a medium can provoke insightful perceptions of our relation to the physical environment and aid us in discovering new ways to experience life. The often-quoted words of Churchill, " We shape our buildings and they shape us," point directly to the effects of buildings as media. And the IP is one very typical example of such a medium. It is both the palace of the feudal ruler and at the same time the palace itself that rules.



Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

McLuhan, Marshall, et al . City as Classroom. Agincourt, Ontario: The Book Society of Canada, 1977.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: New American Library, Inc. 1964.



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