How The Chinese Used Ice To Build The Forbidden City

“Just because it’s forbidden doesn’t mean it’s good for you.” —George Hammond

In A Nutshell

The Forbidden City, is one of the largest palaces in the world. It’s a large, sprawling, ancient city, and has baffled historians for centuries as to how it was built. The materials used in its construction were taken from a faraway quarry, and how they got to the city has been a mystery for years. We now know that ice roads were used to transport materials during construction.

The Whole Bushel

The Palace Museum, formerly The Forbidden City, is located in Beijing, China. Beginning in 1406, it took 14 years to build the main part, which went on to house Chinese emperors for almost half a millennium, until 1911, when Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China, abdicated. But for 491 years, it was the center of Chinese power. As well as being the location for government offices, it housed a total of 24 emperors and their families. Fourteen of these were from the Ming Dynasty, with the other 10 being from the Qing Dynasty.

With a huge moat 52 meters (170 ft) wide, The Forbidden City was so called because it was off limits to the general public. At 74 hectares (183 acres), the city is bigger than the Vatican, the smallest internationally recognized country. Inside the city itself, it is estimated that there are up to 10,000 rooms, although no official survey has ever been done. Its walls are over 8 meters thick and 6 meters tall in places (26 by 20 feet), and these walls completely enclose the city. In short, it required a hell of a lot of materials to build.

As with many ancient structures, its construction lay shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years. Not because of its gargantuan size, but because the materials from which it was built were enormous and extremely heavy. One rock in particular weighed over 300 tons. Adding to the mystery of how these rocks were moved was the fact that they came from about 70 kilometers (43 mi) outside of the city. How people managed to transport such materials over such a long distance stupefied historians and engineers for years. Various theories and methods of transportation were put forward and tested, but none seemed to be a realistic answer. The transport of the time, such as wagons, simply couldn’t have done the job.

Then, a few people from the University of Science and Technology Beijing decided to investigate, and found a document from 500 years ago that solved the mystery. It turned out that the Chinese had decided the safest and most efficient way to transport the materials was to build ice roads between the construction site and the quarries, and move the rocks using sledges. Temperatures in the area would have been cold enough in January to allow such roads to be built and maintained for the 28-day period it took to move the rocks, which were pulled by up to 46 men. Water was applied from periodically placed wells to help the sledges slide along, and the ice was strong enough to withstand the mind-boggling weight of the rocks. With so many similar mysteries of heavy materials transported over great distances, such as the rocks used to build Stonehenge, the answer to this mystery could give insight into others.

Show Me The Proof

Beijing’s Forbidden City Built on Ice Roads
Forbidden City (Palace Museum)

  • Ivan V.

    Woooow, ice roads!
    It’s brilliant!

  • Ryan Samuels

    This was recently discovered (2013), and coverage on Live Science / National Geographic is much better. Not really a nut of knowledge, more like a stub.

    • Carl

      What’s your point? It shouldn’t be on here because it’s so recent? And oh wow, national geographic are better reporters than a site that puts everything into a few short paragraphs, what a surprise. If only they had specifically linked the national geographic in the sources. Oh wait….

      • Ryan Samuels

        Hi Carl, thanks for your comment, I like how it finishes with ellipses – makes you seem mysterious.
        My point is that, well, my point is: What is the point of these knowledge nuts? Previous ‘nuts’ seem to have the tinge of obscurity, but if one Googles ‘Forbidden Palace’, you’ll find that the top results are all around this story, with recent coverage!
        I certainly like the lists (on listverse), as they seem to have a spatter of originality in them, while these knowledge nuts just seem like interesting stories reduced to a single fact.

        • Carl

          But not many people google forbidden palace on a regular basis. That’s what makes the facts on this site good. It keeps you updated on interesting stories that might not come up otherwise. But it distinguishes itself from things like wtffacts in that it doesn’t post very dubious “facts” without sources, and on any topic whatsoever.

          Basically my point is just because somethings been covered doesn’t mean a lot of people will have heard about it. Furthermore, knowledgenuts is just like any other site reporting on it. It’s part of all the recent coverage you’re talking about. If people want to read up more on it, the sources are there. This is just meant to spread the word and basic gist of the story

          • Chaos

            I agree with you Carl, I have NEVER googled the forbidden palace but when little tid bits like this come up on this site, it peaks an interest and then I go looking for more information

  • lin_lu

    Simply amazing. Bring on more chinese history please!

  • VoiD

    How it was built? Countless slaves with their lives

    • Hadeskabir

      Millions of them, that’s the strong thing in the Chinese, their numbers.

  • WhiteExodus

    Looks like this is the chinese version of Ice Road truckers

  • Hadeskabir

    I love the movie about the Emperor Puyi. The movie is called “The Last Emperor”, watch it. You can take a very good look inside the forbiden city, and the movie is amazing.

  • helena louise

    Same question applies on how did they build the great wall.

  • Brp Goyo

    China is an awesome country if only it can stop claiming territories that ain’t China’s. I mean China owns the South China Sea because it has China in it so watch the Chinatowns in your countries 😀

    • lonelydisco

      We’re calling them Taiwan Towns in a few months.

  • Hillyard

    This is interesting. I wonder how many other ancient civilizations thought of something like that to move large objects. Good article.