The Forbidden City

Published in History Today

The Forbidden City: Wonders of the World
Geremie R. Barmé
Profile Books   224pp   £15.99

Chinese politics and Chinese buildings are equally difficult to present to the lay reader. The main story line is never straightforward, and deliberate obfuscation will always have a major role. Tempting diversions are a frequent stimulus to stray and delay.

That the author really knows his field is clear from every page but the cascade of  people, places and dates will overwhelm all but the most dedicated reader. Light and useful facts such as life expectancy rates at court – only one in ten emperors made it to the age of fifty – or the seven-year history of the Starbucks branch there become blurred in a maze of detail on procedures and plots. Far too much transliteration from Chinese is given; how many readers really need to know that chui lian ting zheng is the Chinese for ‘ruling from behind the screen’?

In fact some occasional Chinese characters showing the names of the main halls would have been more helpful, since these can be picked out above the entrance when visiting. Both romanization and characters are missing where they would be of most use, on the map of the Inner and Outer Courtyard, but characters appear on two other maps of the complex both far too small to be of help. A route map would have been a sensible addition; instead we have an unwelcome instruction from the author to download one from Google Earth.

Tour leaders will find this invaluable as a reference book. Metaphorically, their participants are likely, however, to abandon it shortly after passing through Tiananmen Gate, and well before they reach the northern exit.

Neil Taylor is a travel writer who has been a frequent visitor to China since 1971.

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