I’ve often heard that the Forbidden City in Beijing is one of the scariest places in China. I didn’t think so when I was there, but I still have some tingling and unforgettable memories of my visit. Afterward, I dug up some famous Forbidden City ghost stories and thought again about my experiences. 

Note: this post is updated in February 2024.

The Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng, 紫禁城 in Chinese; literally “Purple Forbidden City”) has over 600 years of history of assassinations and plotting behind it, so no wonder that it’s also said to be occupied by several ghosts.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t familiar with this folklore when I walked inside its tall, broad walls many years ago. But if I ever go there again, I will look at the Forbidden City with entirely different eyes.

Whether you believe them or not, there are many haunting Chinese ghost stories to tell, especially from the Forbidden City.

The Most Famous Forbidden City Ghost Stories

One of the most famous Forbidden City ghost stories involves a weeping woman dressed in white. Another describes flute music being heard during the dark hours of the night from the empty city—or is it empty, after all?

Also one especially intriguing story is about ghost dogs that have been seen running in the narrow corridors at the edges of the Forbidden City’s labyrinth. Ghost stories about animals are always unusual and intriguing. It would’ve been interesting to see those dogs when I was there.

Unfortunately, I saw no ghosts or ghostly apparitions during my visit. But I did experience a strange nervousness, like someone—or something—would’ve been watching me all the time.

I felt a “presence” of a kind. My grandmother filled my imagination with ghost stories when I was a kid, so I didn’t really think so much about it then. Because of her, I’ve also never been afraid of ghosts. But when having some second thoughts about the ghosts of Forbidden City, maybe I should’ve been a bit.

When I was in Forbidden City in 2004, I only had a small “point-and-shoot” film camera—no fancy DSLRs.

But I still managed to get something out of those grainy photos and did some digital improvements to a few of them shown here. So the photos in this post are those old-fashioned, film photos that I have scanned.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find that one particular, strange photo where something odd was in the frame that definitely wasn’t there when I took the picture. It was like a giant orb on the left edge of the frame. If I ever find this photo from my archives, I promise to update it here!

The Tianmen Gate to the Forbidden City, Beijing, China
The Tianmen Gate to the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Ghosts in the Chinese Tradition and Folklore

Ghosts are taken very seriously in the Chinese culture. According to Chinese tradition, you should avoid ghosts at all costs. Superstition also lives wide and well in China. Even Confucius said: “Respect the ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.”

Maybe the most noticeable form of this tradition is the two “gate-keepers” who always stand on practically every Chinese doorstep. These two demons are guardians, and their job is to keep evil spirits from entering through the door.

Also, all the doorways in Forbidden City have those high thresholds you must carefully step over. I remember someone in our group asking about them, and our guide told us, “They are there because ghosts can’t jump, and they’d be trapped inside the room.”

Ghosts have a remarkable status in Chinese culture; depending on their classification, there are nine or ten different types of ghosts in Chinese folklore.

The Forbidden City is not the only place considered to be haunted. The Yonghegong palace may also have spirits.

A room inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, China
A room inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

One Core Legend About the Forbidden City Which Says It Is Cursed

The legend tells that the Forbidden City is cursed and has been since the day it was officially opened by its builder, the Ming Emperor Yongle, in 1421. The “Evil Emperor” slaughtered over 2800 people in his harem when trying to suppress an alleged sex scandal on New Year’s Eve when the official opening ceremonies were held.

A few years after that horrendous incident, a fire ravaged the Forbidden City, burning over 250 buildings to the ground and killing numerous people. Despite the place being covered with lucky charms, they didn’t prevent the destruction.

Emperor Yongle sank into depression, thinking that it was a punishment for his actions, and he died in 1424.

So Much Suffering With Residual Haunting?

After that, thousands of people perished inside the walls of the Forbidden City, so you’d think that spirits overpopulate the place. Maybe it is. Perhaps it isn’t. I leave that for you to decide.

But to find out, you must visit and experience the place first-hand. Other people are more sensitive to these things than others, of course. But so many people talk about strange feelings and odd experiences inside those walls that all of them can’t be only imagination, can they?

Most of the Forbidden City’s 720,000 square meters also remain off-limits to visitors. Why, exactly?

Is it because maintaining all the visitor sectors would be too expensive? Or is it because it would be too dangerous because of the spirits inhabiting the place? We will never know for sure.

We do know that it’s strictly prohibited to be inside the Forbidden City at night. They will always close the gates at 5 pm sharp. That time is said to be the most mysterious, and many scary phenomena would appear. Doesn’t that arouse your imagination or what?!

Tell us about your experiences! Have you visited the Forbidden City and seen some ghosts? Did you have any strange observations?

You can book your Fordibben City (Ghost Story?) visit here. Or pre-book your admission ticket and go independently.

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