Barmé’s Forbidden City

A place such as the Forbidden City can acquire an imagined personality, and become an actor in its own history. As great an actor as it is, its own stage is far more compelling, and complex than is usually presented in conventional history books or tour guides.

Historians are not supposed to cross lines into fiction, but they can scarcely survive if the stories they tell are not compelling. Geremie Barmé’s Forbidden City certainly provides a great read about one of the most extraordinary collection of buildings in the world. This engaging text takes us into all kinds of unexpected corners of Chinese history. Barmé offers a closely woven history of the Qing empire and some of its inhabitants and the narratives and tales of the imperial palace which have shaped and molded both Chinese and international perceptions of China.

Much has been written on the imperial palace. The value of the book is that it delves into so much more than just a cluster of halls, palaces and courtyards in the imperial palace. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote on The China Beat:

'The Forbidden City is, finally, a book of great value even to those who care far less about Chinese buildings than they do about Chinese politics, and more about the contemporary scene than about Qing history. This is because, along with its other virtues, it provides, via comments scattered throughout its pages, the best account I've seen to date of an enduringly important and complex present-day political issue. Namely, the parallels but also the crucial contrasts between the modes of rule and styles of life of Mao and other Communist Party leaders, on the one hand, and imperial rulers and emperor wannabes like Warlord Yuan Shikai, on the other.'

The Forbidden City has taken on a life of its own online at China Heritage Quarterly with footnotes and extended commentary from Barmé and other scholars.

This I hope will be the future of history books: an online companion that explores, refines, and augments issues among an army of scholars not confined to any one discipline and provides countless hours of productive distraction.

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