Why is it called The Forbidden City?

The first time I tried to go to the Forbidden City almost ended in epic failure because of this. It was my first summer studying in Beijing and wanting to experience a bit of the local culture I trekked down from Haidian to the city center looking for the Forbidden City. Seemed easy enough. My map said it was to the north of the Tiananmen Square but all I found were high red walls. Having come all the way, I was stymied as to where, exactly, was this world famous UNESCO landmark.

Attempts to chat up locals to gain a little insight into the whereabouts of the magnificent palace crashed and burned. In my best academic Chinese, I kept asking for the location of zǐjìn chéng 紫禁城, the historical translation of “Forbidden City.” 

Of course, nobody in Beijing actually calls it that. They all responded to my increasingly frantic inquiries – which by the fourth or fifth iteration had begun to include hand drawings and an improvised street performance of an official bowing to the emperor – the same way: “You mean, the Old Palace (故宫 gùgōng)? It’s right over there. Like RIGHT. OVER. THERE.”

It took me awhile to finally get inside.

But what's in a name? The name I kept calling it, zǐjìn chéng, is the historical name for the palace and is made up of three components.