Copper vats in the Forbidden city

Functions & Effects:

This was a fire protection facility in the Forbidden City at the time. A long time ago, people came up with a way to put a large tank in front of the door in order to save the fire in time. As long as the water is always filled, when the fire occurs, the water can be used to put out fire. At that time, people called the big vats “the sea in front of doors.” It is not difficult to understand literally. It is believed that there will be no more fires when there is a sea in front of the door. Therefore, the big vats is also called “Auspicious vat” and “Vat of peace” for keeping palaces away from dangerous fire. At the same time, the big vat is also a small five-elements circulation: Gold generate water and water against fire! The most luxurious bronze vat gilded with real gold in the Forbidden City is placed in front of hall of supreme harmony, which symbolizes the imperial power. It is said 3 kg of gold was used for gilding each of the vat at that time.

How does it work?

In the Qing Dynasty, the copper vats in the palace were managed by the House of internal affairs. Every morning, the officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs ordered Sura (duty service) to draw water from the well and fill all the large vats for fire prevention. Every year in the snow season, the eunuch in the palace will put a special cotton cover on vat’s body , and a thick cap on it’s top. At the same time, a pot of charcoal fire is placed in the white marble base under the copper vat, and it is guaranteed to burn around the clock, These two measures prevent the water in the vats from freezing. Heating work has not been going to end until the next March, when the earth rejuvenates, the climate has gradually turned warm , and the eunuchs will remove the cotton cover and the charcoal fire. In order to ensure that there is enough water in the palace for fire fighting, many large vats were set up in the palace. According to the Record of”Ceremony in Great qing dynasty”, there are 308 large vats in Forbidden city. But with the change of regime, For various reasons, there are only 231 now. These large vats are divided into three types: iron, copper and Gold gilded copper. Generally speaking, the iron vats were cast in the Ming Dynasty; the copper vats were cast in the Ming Dynasty while the gold gilded copper vats were all cast in the Qing Dynasty. Among them, copper vats are most popular, so people call them collectively “copper vats”.

Value & symbolization

The original intention of setting up a large number of copper vats in the palace was to prevent fire, but the actual value of them is not limited to fire fighting. It is also an indispensable display in the palace hall and courtyard. What texture, size and number of auspicious vats should be placed in different palaces really depend on the specific circumstances. The gold gilded bronze vat is top ranking among them,  so they were set up in front of the red wall outside the Hall of supreme harmony, Hall of complete harmony, and the Palace of heavenly purity ,To the rest of palaces such as concubine’s palace or palaces with lower rank,  Only small copper or iron vats were allowed to be placed.

How they were made?

The Ming and Qing Dynasties spent considerable material and financial resources to build these large vats. In the case of a gold-plated copper vat, the making process could be very complicated. The method is first to apply a gold and mercury alloy on the surface of the metal object, and then bake it to evaporate the mercury and leave the gold behind. At present, there are still 18 gold and bronze cylinders in the Forbidden City. Although they have been partially damaged, they are still looks dazzling and gorgeous. As for the cost of the gold plated copper vat, On a book of Emperor Qianlong”The emperor’s record”, it has been recorded the gilded copper vats with a diameter of 1.66 meters weighs about 1696 kilograms. Only the copper vat body cost more than 500 silver, plus 100 taels of gold on the copper vat. The total casting could be at least 1500 silver.

Why scar was left?

However, now the gold and bronze vats beside the three halls of the Forbidden City are not only variegated, but also scarred. In 1900, When Eight-Power Allied Forces captured the Forbidden City, they made military parade in front of the meridian gate. The heads of the aggressors took pictures when sitting on the throne of the Emperor Qinglong, and looted a large number of treasures in the palace. They also used a bayonet to scrape away the gold on the gold-plated copper vats, leaving deep scars on the body. After the erupts of the Pacific War, the Japanese aggression forces pulled the copper and iron vats from the Forbidden City several times to cast the cannonballs! As a result, these large water vats have become the ironclad proof of foreign aggressors invading China.

The oldest iron vat:

There is a circle of iron vats around the hall of supreme harmony. they are all rusty and convey feeling of vicissitudes. When look at it, one has to keep a distance and more reluctant to touch it for fear of knocking off the iron scrap. Judging from the shape and texture of these  vats, it should be made in Ming Dynasty which is 600 years before, but the casting year has never been found on most of the vats. Fortunately, on the two sides of the Gate of supreme harmony, which is,  the south ramp way out of zhendu gate  , there were two iron vats. Although they have long been rusted, they are written in the age of casting. The handwriting is still clearly identifiable: “Fourth year  of Da Ming Hongzhi Emperor’s reign, royal supervision”. “Hongzhi” is the year number of the Ming Dynasty’s ninth emperor Zhu Youzhen with title of Ming Xiaozong. It was 18 years from 1488 to 1505, and the Hongzhi four years was 1491 AD. It has been about 520 years from now.
Compared with the 200 years old vats on both sides of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and the 400 years old vats under the stairway of hall of heavenly purity, this 500 years old iron vat can be regarded as the oldest vat in the Forbidden city. Now, it was quietly placed there, witness the vicissitudes of this ancient city.