The Forbidden City by Geremie R Barme

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The Forbidden City by Geremie R Barme

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Category: History
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Academic Geremie Barmé explores its architecture and history of the palaces at the centre of Imperial China, and their role in the mindset of modern China. Not the easiest read for the generalist, but a useful reference work for anyone with a specific interest.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846680113

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How to use this book instructions are something I can cope with when, in my darker moments, I've picked up a self-help manual or a business-management workbook. Finding them at the beginning of a book on a 'Wonder of the World', Beijing's "Forbidden City", filled me with trepidation.

If their very presence were not warning enough, then the phraseology provided another signpost: this book was not designed to be a conventional guidebook to the Forbidden City... It is a book that has a particular architecture, one to which the reader might need a guide. The problem with understanding architecture is that a 'guide' is rarely sufficient... you need detailed years of study.

The main problem with Barmé's book is that he has it, and we do not.

He goes on: It offers a non-chronological history of the Forbidden City from its creation in the 1410s, as well as an account of some of its inhabitants... guiding the reader through the numerous courtyards, halls and palaces... the book describes the events that surround the imperial centre of China, be they in the distant and the recent past.

I was already confused.

I'll admit that this may be my fault. I'm a traditionalist in that I prefer my history - especially history of a place I do not know - served up chronologically. This is the only way I can fix who did what when, and what the influences were upon what came next. Barmé's tendency to flit about forwards and backwards, trying to explain these influences and connections at the same time as giving us the tale itself for the first time simply did not work for me.

I would not for a second slight the author's knowledge of his subject. As a professor in Chinese History at the Australian National University in Canberra and joint editor of the online China Heritage Quarterly - he clearly has the qualifications. More than that - it does come over in the book, just how much this man knows: not just about the history of China in general and of the Forbidden City in particular, but also about anything and everything related to it. He quotes literature of all kinds from mediaeval Chinese verse through Mervin Peake's Gormenghast to the words of Chairman Mao. He explains architectural traditions in detail and how they were applied. He talks of the daily life of court... and its politics... and the scope there has been for one or other or both to have been misinterpreted, deliberately or otherwise, over the years. He gives us the latest reassessments of such interpretations. He's as knowledgeable on film as he is on literature.

At under 300 pages including forewords, notes, timelines, plans, pronunciation guides, glossaries, visitor information, ideas for further reading and index The Forbidden City is an exemplar of cramming a vast amount of detail into the shortest possible volume.

As a work of reference, therefore, it is worth having.

As a book for the general reader, with only average, sketchy knowledge of any of the time-periods covered and no visual notion of the Forbidden City other than that gleaned from dubiously-accurate western-made movies, it is hard work.

There are a number of difficulties, many of them probably resulting directly from the author's academic background (and the reader's lack of same).

Firstly, the non-chronological approach: Barmé has tried to address his subject thematically. This is only occasionally successful. The Day in the Reign chapter looking at 28th January 1765 in the life of the Qianlong Emperor is both entertaining and enlightening. Elsewhere, however, Within and Without skips from the Dowager Empress's regency in the late 19th/early 20th century back to the 1640s, forward to the mid-20th, back again to mediaeval times... without being familiar with the key characters of Chinese imperial history it is simply impossible to keep track. Attempts to make this easier by the insertion of dates and parenthetic references, slows the fluency and can be as counter-productive as it is helpful.

Secondly, the focus: too often the theme strays away from the Forbidden City itself into the generality of Chinese history. Whilst the reasons for this are obvious - the City cannot be properly understood without the context - it diffuses what should be the central focal point.

Thirdly: descriptions of the City itself: the detail is intellectually overwhelming, but at the same time emotionally unengaging. Even by frequent reference to the plans it is sometimes difficult to follow exactly where in the palace you are - perhaps a function of the nature of the place itself - but what I found more disappointing was the lack of any sense of atmosphere. The fact that all of the photographs are monochrome is disappointing, since they fail to convey the extravagance of the decoration. Maps are often so detailed, and bearing original Chinese script, that the scale of their reproduction again makes interpretation difficult.

And finally: language. The structure of the Chinese languages, their ideographic nature and script, is so far removed from the European concepts that attempts at literal translations - of names in particular - is perhaps inevitably clumsy. Whilst it is interesting to know the literal translations, I cannot help but think these convey a misrepresentation of how the names sound to the Chinese ear. The Hall of Literary Flourishing, for example... or The Palace of Established Happiness Garden. I feel sure that a writer of worth and a lover of language could render these into their English equivalents - losing the literalness, but maintaining the concepts. This isn't a specific criticism of the author or the book... but it does once again, slow the reading, and for this reviewer, detract from the enjoyment of the book.

On balance, I did not enjoy the book. I found it very academic and a particularly difficult read. However, that is in the context of reading it cover to cover, cold. For those familiar with the Forbidden City - even from a tourist point of view - or for those about to embark on such a discovery, it is a worthwhile addition to the guidebook collection. There are different slants and interpretations that almost certainly bear further contemplation.

In his acknowledgements the author credits novelist's Linda Jaevin's endeavours to turn the wordy and academic original into something non-specialist readers can enjoy. In places this has been achieved, but the whole remains essentially an academic work. Approached on that level, it is a reference book worth its shelf-space. The time-lines, index and bibliographies alone would grant it that... but my overall impression is that reading specific bits, with a specific aim in mind, would also be more pleasurable (as well as intellectually rewarding) than trying to absorb the whole.

The middling rate therefore seeks to balance the shortcomings as a work of generalist interest and the strengths as a reference piece.

Anyone interested in things oriental might also like to consider Alan McFarlane's take on Japan Through the Looking Glass.

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