Overlooking the Tiananmen Square the Meridian Gate, known as Wumen in Chinese, is the southern and the largest gate of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace Complex, in the heart of Beijing, commissioned by the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1406, and officially occupied the court in 1420.
It was so named as the access to the area beyond its four gates was barred to most of the subjects of the realm. The Chinese emperors believed that they were the Sons of Heaven and the Meridian went through his palace, the centre of Heaven and Earth. As they also believed that the meridian went through the middle of the south gate, it was accordingly named as the Meridian Gate.
Unlike the other gates of the Forbidden City, the imposing structure of the Meridian Gate has two protruding arms on either side, traditionally used to decorate the main entrances of the palaces, temples, and tombs. It is also named as the Five-Phoenix Tower, as its concave layout with five towers gives the impression of a flying Phoenix when viewed together. Standing 125 feet (38 m) high at its roof ridge, the huge structure of the central tower, with double roofs made of colored glazed tiles, is 124`5 feet (39`95 m) high, 198 feet (60.05 m) long, and another 82 feet (25 m) wide. The three central towers of the gate are close together in the main or the central section, while the two flanking towers are farther apart, located between the central section and its protruding arms, raised and covered open-air corridors that go south and end at the spiral roofs on both the west and east side.
The gateway of the central tower was reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor, except for the empress, who could enter it only once, on the day of her wedding. Apart from that, following the interview with the emperor, the top three scholars, who achieved the highest awards in the national examinations presided over by the emperor, were permitted to march through this door as a special honour. There are bells and drums on both the ends of the central tower. While the bells announced the departure of the emperor for the Temple of Heaven, the drums were struck to announce the departure for the Ancestral Temple. The bells and drums were sounded together during the grand ceremonies held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, known as Taihedian.
Apart from the majestic central doorway, the smaller door to the east was used by the ministers and officials, while the door to the west was used by the royal family. The other two doors at the corners were used only during the grand ceremonies. However, today the three central doorways are available for all the tourists, and the two side doors now are reconstructed as toilets.
During its prime days, apart from several special events, ceremonies, and festivals, the Meridian Gate also served as the venue for the promulgation of the emperor’s new orders. During the Ming dynasty, the emperor used to give treats to his ministers and other officials here, on special occasions like the Lantern Festival on 15th January of the lunar calendar, on 4th February, the day of the beginning of spring, on the Dragon Boat Festival on May 5th of the lunar calendar, and the Chongyang Festival on 9th September of the lunar calendar. To the left of the Imperial Way, which passes through the central entrance, is the place where in 1519, around 150 officials, who had offended the Emperor Hongzhao of the Ming Dynasty by trying to dissuade him from going to the south to select beautiful girls, were beaten mercilessly and 15 of them died on spot. That cruel system of punishment was abolished in the following Qing Dynasty.
In the Qing Dynasty, the Meridian Gate was the place where the astronomical specialists presented to the emperor and his wife the calendar of the New Year, on the Winter Solstice, the first of the 19th lunar month, indicating the days on which various ceremonies would be held. It is said that a grand Captives Sacrifice Ceremony used to take place on the square before the Meridian Gate when the Chinese troops returned from an important battle in triumph and the emperor graced the ceremony to inspect his triumphant troops and promulgate the punishment on the captives, known as Accepting War Captives.
However, there is no documentary evidence in support of beheading the prisoners of war out of the Meridian Gate. Nevertheless, the criminals were executed in Caishikou, once a busy local vegetable market, and today the site is around the Caishikou Department Store in Xuanwu District.