Hauntings of the Forbidden City in Beijing

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Have you ever heard of a haunted cow pasture? What about a haunted hike? Ghosts on the inside of a bank vault? Poltergeist activity in 2023 Toyota Tacoma?

There's a combination of qualities, an unspoken set of criteria that most haunted places fit. It's something we don't really think about much, but it does shape our perception of a place's potential for ghosts.

  1. Made by humans
  2. Humans died there
  3. Age of structure

Humans don't spend much time in cow pastures, and few people die in cow pastures, so you don't hear much about haunted ones. Estimates for deaths on hikes in the United States are about 120-150 per year, so with the hundreds of thousands of miles of hiking trails, it's unlikely you'll encounter a spot where someone died. Both of those places, a cow pasture, and a hiking trail, aren't buildings built by people. Bank vaults are built by humans, but there are even fewer deaths inside bank vaults than on hiking trails. As far as poltergeist activity in a late-model vehicle, it just doesn't have the same vibe as a creaky old house with cobwebs.

We can look at those three qualities, though, discover places that fit, and easily find ghost stories about them.

Case in point: Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

History of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a palace complex that used to house China's imperial family. It fits the three criteria I mentioned above. In addition to being over 600 years ago, there are records indicating some pretty violent deaths—which some people believe makes a place even more likely to be haunted. However, the Forbidden City doesn't get brought up in conversations about ghosts, maybe since no one lives there anymore, so any strange occurrences might remain unnoticed.

A painted scroll from 15th century China depicting the Forbidden City and figures in the forefront.
The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), from the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), the scroll depicts figures like the chief architects of the Forbidden City.

The complex is enormous, covering about 57 acres (22 hectares) of land, and consists of nearly 1,000 buildings with almost 9,000 rooms that cover a total area of around 720,000 square meters (7,750,015 square feet). With that kind of size and hundreds of years of history, you'd think it would be all over everyone's list of top haunted places in the world. Maybe it should be, but no one lives there anymore. China's last emperor, Puyi, was evicted after a coup in 1924, and the palace complex was turned into one massive museum.

Overlooking the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Overlooking the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Just picture yourself in one of those ghost-hunting shows, whispering to your crew of three about a strange noise as you try to explore the equivalent of 80,000 houses in a few hours. Well—more like 48,000 houses in a few hours because only about 60% of the palace complex is open to the public. I'm guessing they have good reason to keep the other 40% closed off, probably because of unruly ghosts. Also, you can't visit it at night. I'm sure that has nothing to do with ghosts, though. 🤔🧐

The Forbidden City at night.
The Forbidden City at night.

Reported Hauntings of the Forbidden City

The stories of hauntings vary and cover at least decades, but most of them lack much detail.

Orbs and mists in the backgrounds of photos from visitors. A feeling of being watched or followed. A ghostly touch on some visitor's arms. Ghost dogs run the halls, charging and pouncing at some people—disappearing right before impact. Hushed voices from concubine quarters. Headless or gruesomely wounded apparitions dressed in garb spanning various centuries. Phantom animal sounds scurrying around. Flute music from the palace walls. Disembodied footsteps in empty rooms. Doors that open and close on their own.

A woman in white sobbing, wandering the grounds. Some who have seen her say she vanished before their eyes, while others say she shrieked and chased them.

One of the clearest stories we have is, supposedly, in 1995, a guard at the Forbidden City was watching TV in the guard's room when two colleagues burst into the room looking scared. The two claimed to have seen a woman dressed in all black walking away from them. The guards chased her, yelling at her to stop. They finally cornered her at a locked door and ordered her to turn around. When she did so, she had no face. The men dropped their flashlights and ran back to the guard's room. The three guards took guns and returned to the location, only to find the flashlights on the floor, still on. The woman was nowhere to be found.

Visiting the Forbidden City

The official stance from the management of the Forbidden Palace is that the rumors and stories of ghosts are entirely unfounded. And, utterly unrelated to anything ghost related, they won't let you inside at night. Why? Because they said. No ghosts to see here. Move along.

I usually put links and information here on how to visit places, but the official visitor information on the Forbidden City seems to be all in Chinese or via travel sites that provide services to get you there. Instead of either of those, here's a wonderful little write-up by Shannon O'Donnell at alittleadrift.com that is in English and isn't trying to sell you anything: How to Visit the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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