THE FORBIDDEN CITY
By Geremie Barmé,
Reviewed: 29 March 2008
After numerous visits, I can’t think of a better one-word response to the Forbidden City than “Awesome!” The architects of that complex should approve that response. Around 1416AD, their primary design purpose was to awe the subjects of the Ming Empire, and even more any barbarian visitor. Safety as a royal residential enclave, and utility as a centre of imperial administration, would be organized within that monumental principle. The Forbidden City was to be the apparent but unknowable source of temporal might, the point of contact between the human ruler of All Under Heaven and the elemental powers of Heaven itself.
Professor Geremie Barmé is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary sinologists, with a solid international reputation and an impressive network of research collaborators in Chinese cultural circles. He has published extensively on the cultural significance of Qing (Manchu) Dynasty imperial sites in Beijing. Few anglophones could be better qualified to produce a cultural overview of the role of the Forbidden City through 600 years of Chinese history. But the task itself is an awesome one.
This book belongs to a series entitled Wonders of the World. The publishers say they select sites or monuments that “have achieved iconic stature and are loaded with a fair amount of mythological baggage”. Big tick for the Forbidden City. The editors aim “to get something much more enlightening, stimulating, even controversial, than straightforward histories or guides”. Over to Professor Barmé.
Beijing’s Forbidden City or, more accurately, the more extensive Imperial City, has for around six centuries (with brief interruptions) been the effective seat of government for the world’s most populous state.
Don’t look to this book for a strict chronological history, nor for a systematic architectural or museum guide. An introductory “Reader’s Guide” warns us that the book itself has “a particular architecture” to which the reader might need a guide. What follows is not so much a guide as a statement of purpose: the book will relate events “surrounding” the imperial centre of China that have shaped Chinese and international perceptions of China, including the “paradoxical” relationship between China’s Republican and Communist rulers and their Imperial legacy as embodied in the Forbidden City, both material and metaphoric.
Barmé addresses the Forbidden City’s “a metaphorical life”, holding that over the centuries the reality of a sequestered imperial administration has fed the perception of China as perpetually enigmatic and inscrutable.
Chinese rulers have understood the strategic power of knowledge at least since Sun Zi’s Art of War (circa 500BC) wrote of intelligence and misinformation as keys to winning a war without fighting. The Ming dynasty listed books of history as prohibited exports, lest barbarians should gain dangerous knowledge of the empire’s strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of history in China has always been to serve the present rulers. Even today, all information concerning state, political or economic affairs may be deemed to be a “state secret” unless published with specific state authority.
The Ming Emperor Yongle constructed the main Forbidden City buildings in four years (1416-20), to replace those of the Mongol Yuan dynasty who had been expelled from China some fifty years earlier. The function of courtyards and pavilions is explained in some detail. Don’t expect to remember the procession of “quaint” polysyllabic names in English. The concision and poetic resonance of formal Chinese naming conventions is a problem for any English translator, and the resulting oddness contributes, in the anglophone ear, to the sense of alienation and general mystery. We follow the Ming to its decline in less than twenty pages, and by Chapter 3 we are already into the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1908).
Royal succession has always been contestable in China, and the many tales of palace intrigue here only skim the simmering cauldron of dynastic power politics. There are centuries of jockeying for position and preferment among shifting coalitions: the palace eunuchs; the wives, concubines and their factional supporters; the royal siblings; the military and civilian officials; the foreign powers co-opted with dire consequence.
About half the book traces the loci of power and the machinations of personality beyond the walls of the Forbidden City itself, and into the adjoining zone of the Lake Palaces (principally the Zhong Nan Hai compound). Here the later Qing located some of their royal residences and places of official business, and here the Republican and Communist governments of the twentieth century established themselves.
These days, it’s the Forbidden City that is open to the public, whilst Zhong Nan Hai remains the zealously private walled city for China’s political elite – the modern Forbidden City, in fact.
Barmé’s “paradox” thesis on the locus of power is as convincing as a paradox can be. The Republican warlord Yuan Shikai tried to appoint himself Emperor in the 1920s, and in the 1950s it did not take long for the Communists to slide from planning to erase the Forbidden City from history, to co-opting it as a “negative example” for the masses, to adopting elements of its operating principles and then moving right in.
In Communist times, Chairman Mao supported plans to demolish the whole Forbidden City and replace it with Soviet-inspired monuments to the communist future, but eventually accepted it should be retained.
here is intriguing reference to historical revisionism in regard to the legacy of the Manchus. For all of the twentieth century, Chinese orthodox opinion has been that the Manchus, with a language and culture distinct from the general Han population, were foreign barbarian invaders whose Qing dynasty deserved to be ended on grounds of Han nationalism.
Now China has commissioned a new 30-million word history of the Qing Dynasty. One can speculate that this revised history will strengthen claims that all new territory added to the Empire by the Manchu dynasty (about half the land area of the current Peoples’ Republic of China, including Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria itself) was in fact acquired by “China” rather than by a temporary empire of foreign barbarians.
This would be consistent with a 1980s historiographic backflip concerning Genghis Khan, in which the Mongol world-conqueror was officially rehabilitated by Chinese historians from his previous status as “barbarian invader of China” to a new status as “great unifier of the Chinese peoples”.
There is gold sprinkled throughout this book, in anecdote, analysis, and particularly in quotes from the vast and meticulous archives of the Forbidden City itself. Here Barmé acknowledges the assistance of Chinese scholarly friends.
I was less interested in the numerous accounts of recent Western cultural representations of the Forbidden City in movies, documentaries, opera staging and so on. Anyone who picks up this book is already participating in the Western fascination with the Forbidden City as a brand and as a metaphor, and will soon recognise the contemporary Chinese willingness to exploit that for both commercial and propaganda purposes.
Recent Chinese movies like Zhang Yimou’s Hero are more interesting examples of a revival of palace-centred Han imperial mystique. These stylized epics are appreciated by international audiences for their deft, westernized aesthetic appeal, but in contemporary Chinese audiences they also stir memories of an imperial ethos that claimed the Forbidden City to be not just the heart of a nation central in the world (Zhong Guo), but the natural ruler of a boundless All Under Heaven (Tian Xia).
The text is solidly sourced and annotated with further reading. There are several guides, lists and chronologies useful to the reader, including a walking itinerary for the Forbidden City itself.
Illustrations have been carefully chosen from both antique and modern sources but, regrettably, the publishers have opted for such mediocre reproduction quality that the impact in many cases is lost. Landscape formats are oriented so that they appear half-size on an otherwise blank page, and captions are inconsistently informative. What a waste!
In a book about a place, readers may well yearn for more visual illustration to this generally fascinating text. Barmé has worked previously with documentary film, and the material here would seed a great documentary if only the barriers that define the Forbidden City (real and metaphoric) do not preclude such a project.
The image of the real, vast, Forbidden City looms over this multi-threaded narrative like a mid-stage theatre scrim – sometimes visible, sometimes fading, the action sometimes before and sometimes behind it, sometimes even as noises offstage.
This is not a guidebook to be read on the plane to Beijing, nor the night before a visit to the Forbidden City. If planning a visit (or a re-visit) read this well in advance and with leisure to digest the complexity of time, space and humanity it surveys. Then make your own map of the places you don’t want to miss. Or enjoy the whole visit in your head, free to skip at will over those forbidden walls.
Richard Thwaites was Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1978-83.