Investigating the “Forbidden” in the Forbidden City

Grades K-5, Beliefs/Religion, History, Science & Technology
  • View of the Tongzi moat surrounding the Forbidden City , Beijing, China

  • Frontal View of the Forbidden City

This lesson is intended to teach students about the concept of forbidden spaces through an interactive, hands-on activity based on the history and design of the Forbidden City. Students will use primary sources to discuss how different spaces in the Forbidden City’s outer courts and living quarters evoke different feelings. From this class, students will learn elements of Chinese symbology, architecture, and cosmological principles as well as more general concepts of forbidden space.

Title: Investigating the “Forbidden” in the Forbidden City
Author: Melanie Nan
Subject Area: Social Studies
Grade Level: 4th Grade
Time Required: Three days of informal introductory provocation, and three 45-minute class sessions
Standards: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
Keywords/Vocabulary: forbidden, Forbidden City, symbols, Emperor, patterns, spaces
Essential Question(s):
  • If something is forbidden how does it make you feel?
  • How do the various parts of the Forbidden City make you feel?
  • Who may have lived in the Forbidden City?
  • What do you think it was called the “Forbidden City?”
  • What are the significant symbols in the Forbidden City?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims:
  • To experience the concept of forbidden
  • To explore the Forbidden City through the use of primary source materials.
  • To have a sense of the feeling of space.
  • To investigate and notice patterns using photographic evidence.
  • To explore photographs to find possible symbols that may be significant.
  • To be introduced to the concept of the Forbidden City and to explore it as a place.
Introduction: Historically, no site in Beijing has possessed as much political authority as the Forbidden City. Since its completion in 1420 under the Ming Emperor Yongle up until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Forbidden City, as the residence of the ruling emperor and Son of Heaven, held an undisputed monopoly on political power in the empire. Despite its location at the heart of Beijing, the imperial palace was very much isolated from the rest of the city; no one could enter or leave the walled and moated compound without the emperor’s approval. The outer court which would receive imperial guests is grand and overwhelming while the living quarters where the emperor’s family resided are labyrinthine but intimate. Nowadays, however, the site has been opened to the general public, and some eight million tourists walk the once sacred grounds every year.
Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy:  Collaborative constructivism is used throughout the set of lessons.  The students are invited to explore the materials and discuss what they notice, the commonalities and differences they see and any ideas that might lead to finding significance.Introductory Provocation – to explore the concept of forbidden.These three days would not be formal lessons.  The idea is to create suspense, to get the feeling of forbidden. By day three the children will be invited into a discussion of the concept of Forbidden. How they have felt over the past two days and what forbidden means to them – making connections with their own lives.

Day 1: The students will arrive at school to see the screen up, behind the screen will be a yellow box. A stop sign is placed on the screen and the children will be told they cannot go behind it.  The teacher would document any comments from the children.

Day 2: The students will find paper attached to the screen that invites them to express their feelings about not being allowed to go behind the screen, and to write any questions they may have.

Day 3: The students will be invited to a discussion on the idea of Forbidden.  What does it mean?  What is Forbidden in their own lives?

Session 1: The students may go behind the screen and retrieve a yellow rectangular box.  As a group they can open the box and explore the contents.

Session 2: In groups the students will be invited to explore sets of photographs taken in various places in the Forbidden City.  They will explore the set of photographs as a group, they will be noting their observations of the spaces, what they notice, the commonalities, colors and shapes they may see. They will record their ideas on large paper, then later will share their ideas with the entire class. (jigsaw technique) The students will then look for commonalities with all the pictures and discuss further their ideas.  I will then ask the question of who may live in the Forbidden City and why they think this?

Session 3: Class discussion of  the idea that a space provokes emotions. Can this change if you invited in/ or forbidden to enter a space?

The students will then return to their sets of pictures.  Are the spaces large or small? How does the spaces make them feel?  Who do they think would be allowed in the space or forbidden from it?  Then give reasons for their thoughts.

Discussion Points/ GroupInteraction: Session 1:

  • What is in the box?
  • What do you notice about the items in the box?

Session 2:

  • What do they notice about the sets of photographs?
  • What things are similar in the pictures?
  • What is significant in the pictures?
  • Who may have lived here?

Session 3:

  • Are the spaces large or small?
  • How do the spaces make you feel?
  • Who do you think would have been allowed in the space, who would have been forbidden?
Assessment: Ongoing assessment throughout the lessons. Documentation would include:

  • Do they understand the concept of Forbidden?
  • Are the students able to glean information from the photographs?
  • Can they use the photographs to have an idea of the feeling of a space?
  • Can they make connections and see patterns in the materials?
  • Can they use the materials to make predictions on who may use the space?

Final individual reflection on the week.  Show their understanding of the week’s ideas using writing or drawing.  What are their ideas about the Forbidden City, what has been their learning? What are there feelings about the Forbidden City and who lived there? What questions do they have for further study?

Closure:  A closing discussion would be held to summarize what we have learned and where the students would like to take their investigation.The teacher would film the discussion for documentation purposes.
Instructional Resources/ Materials: Materials:

  • yellow box
  • piece of blue fabric
  • piece of yellow fabric
  • the number 9
  • folding screen, large pieces of paper and markers
  • a map of the Forbidden City
  • photographs of the Forbidden City

Sets of photographs for investigation:

  • The outer court
  • The living quarters
  • The outside and the gates
  • Details on the buildings

Sample photo sets can be found on the Teach China Pinterest board “Investigating the Forbidden in the Forbidden City” [Click to View]

Examples for follow-up materials:

  • Scene from the Last Emperor, where the young emperor is shown the model of the city.
  • Scene from the last emperor that shows the vastness of the Forbidden City and when the emperor is running with another boy with the entourage running along behind.
Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: Grades K-5, Beliefs/Religion, History, Science & Technology


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.