A LITTLE CHINA FLIGHT READING
The Forbidden City Geremie R. Barme (Profile Books/Allen & Unwin, $39.95) GEREMIE Barme explains early on in this, the 12th book in the publisher’s Wonders of the World series, that it is not intended to be a conventional guide to the Forbidden City, that extraordinary relic of Beijing’s imperial past. In fact, Barme believes the reader may need a guide to his book.
The narrative is not chronological, but instead takes us through the labyrinthine courtyards, halls and palaces of the ancient complex, superimposing personalities and eras, in a mosaic of sumptuous detail.
In Chapter Three, for example, Barme briefly explains the historic eras of the city and lights on its ‘‘ most impressive and prosperous period in the late 17th and 18th centuries’’, the reign of the three Manchu emperors. The city not being the ‘‘ favoured abode’’ of these three, Barme traces the administrative uses of the buildings, ‘‘ the centre of the emperors’ working lives, and therefore the centre of the Qing empire itself’’.
But there is much more personal history. ‘‘ Palace intrigues surrounding the succession to the throne’’, Barme writes, ‘‘ focused on the inner court and its apartments’’. So how did the emperor choose his nightly companion? There is ‘‘ little reliable documentation’’ but Barme fleshes out the story with fictive histories (in Chinese: ‘‘ history from the wilds’’). Such colourful anecdotes are weighed up against actual records, of household regulations, for example.
Other chapters plunge the reader into the archives of diaries, kitchen ledgers, official documents, imperial ‘‘ comment’’ — at least as labyrinthine as the passageways of the city — recording the slaughter of sacrificial animals, clothing, servants, jewellery and detail such as that one emperor, at 5am, drank iced and sweetened swallow’s-nest soup.
In rather stilted, often convoluted language akin to its subject, this is not always an easy read but will no doubt fascinate anyone already deeply enthralled by its historical subject. Emperors’ names, timelines and plans guide the reader through. Judith Elen