The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

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

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