The Forbidden City

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Read supplementary material prepared by Geremie Barmé

Read the Bldg Blog interview with Mary Beard about the Wonders of the World series
(Part I and Part II)

The Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng) lying at the heart of Beijing formed the hub of the Celestial Empire for five centuries. Over the past century it has led a reduced life as the refuge for a deposed emperor, as well as a heritage museum for monarchist, republican, and socialist citizens, and it has been celebrated and excoriated as a symbol of all that was magnificent and terrible in dynastic China’s legacy.

The Forbidden City’s vermilion walls have fueled literary fantasies that have become an intrinsic part of its disputed and documented history. Mao Zedong even considered razing the entire structure to make way for the buildings of a new socialist China. The fictions surrounding the Forbidden City have also had an international reach, and writers like Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mervyn Peake have all succumbed to its myths. The politics it enshrined have provided the vocabulary of power that is used in China to the present day, though it is now better known as a film set or the background of displays of opera, rock, and fashion.

Geremie Barmé peels away the veneer of power, secrecy, inscrutability, and passions of imperial China, to provide a new and original history of the culture, politics, and architecture of the Forbidden City. Designed to overawe the visitor with the power of imperial China, the Forbidden City remains one of the true wonders of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

The Times
A prime site, in Beijing, is the Forbidden City, a walled palace founded in the 15th century by Ming emperors and later elaborated by emperors of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Barme describes the fabric of the palace, interpreting its history in the context of Chinese politics, psychology, religion and social conventions.
— Iain Finlayson
South China Morning Post
Barmé's book has an ironic heart and is a carefully constructed exploration of a cultural institution that sweeps the reader along as it examines the intrigues, absurdities and grotesques of everyday life in the Forbidden City; in doing so it brings the collection of buildings to life...If you are going to the Forbidden City soon, read this book.
— Clifford Coonan
Sunday Telegraph
Barme presents a vivid and compelling portrait of this extraordinary attraction, which encapsulates much of the country's history, from imperial China through to communism and the forthcoming Olympics.
— Clover Stroud
Sunday Times
This Rolls-Royce of a guidebook covers almost every conceivable physical and historical nook of the 72-hectare imperial enclave in Beijing first constructed by the 15th-century Yongle emperor, Zhu Di. Barme's history packs a veritable palace of information into its pages from the story of the sadistic Jiajing emperor, nearly strangled to death by his concubines, to the tale of the clandestine plundering of the city's treasures during the cultural revolution...Barme deftly illuminates the symmetries between the imperial court and the Communist party--whose officials took up residence in palaces outside the city. Tellingly, even as they swept the feudal past aside, neither the First Republic nor the People's Republic could bring themselves to occupy or alter the Forbidden City; Chairman Mao never set foot inside it.
— Robert Collins
Sydney Morning Herald
Beyond the rich contextual insights, the book also contains an excellent history of the palace with an explanation, which is truly frightening, of how it was saved from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution...Each section of the Forbidden City's vast structure is described in such a way that the book successfully fuses history with aesthetics. But always it is the deeper context that makes this book special. There are even explanations for the feng shui of certain sites in the complex. If you visit Beijing, this guide should be in your luggage.
— Bruce Elder
The Australian
In The Forbidden City [Barmé] brilliantly interweaves illustrative accounts from the 600-year history of the palace with broader insights into Chinese culture, its encounters with the wider world and contemporary reflections on where the country is heading. It provides a wonderful starting point on China, just as a visit to the awe-inspiring Forbidden City itself provides the perfect entrée to the country as a whole.
— Rowan Callick
The Economist
The Forbidden City is the latest in an excellent series from Harvard University Press...A compact volume, it is an ideal and elegant history, good for keeping in the hand while visiting the vast extraordinary complex, which has at least been preserved. Mr. Barmé, a noted Australian scholar of modern China, is as good at describing the Communists' imperially-derived impulses as he is at banishments from the medieval court.
Library Journal

Covering almost 178 acres, the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing was designed to be an earthly expression of the Chinese celestial emperor's majesty, inspiring awe in his subjects. Though the Chinese imperial dynasties are no more, the "Great Within" continues to entrance people around the globe. Barmé (Pacific & Asian history, Australian National Univ.; Shades of Mao) applies his extensive expertise to creating this guide, written for "the intelligent ignorant," as the series' editor defines its readership. Barmé has hit the mark, offering a richly detailed yet accessible thematic history of the Forbidden City, including its architecture and its inhabitants, with commentary on international perceptions of Chinese culture. He does an excellent job of providing enough background information to aid those not as well versed in Chinese history as he is while objectively presenting historical events that could be easily politicized. Recommended for academic and public libraries. (Illustrations not seen.)
—Tessa L.H. Minchew

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674027794
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2008
  • Series: Wonders of the World Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 4.60 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Geremie R. Barmé is Professor of Pacific and Asian History at The Australian National University.

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Table of Contents

A Reader's Guide

Emperors and Their Names

A Note on Romanisation



Ch. 1 A Palace of Blood and Tears 1

Ch. 2 The Architecture of Hierarchy 25

Ch. 3 Rise and Decline 47

Ch. 4 A Day in the Reign 72

Ch. 5 The Dowager 91

Ch. 6 Within and Without the Palace 114

Ch. 7 Three Hundred Years On 143

Ch. 8 The Banquet of History 170

Ming and Qing Rulers 193

Glossary 196

Visiting the Forbidden City and Imperial Properties 200

Further Reading 209

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