The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, by Geremie R. Barmé, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008.


My thanks to Jude Shanahan and Di Tang for posting these notes and illustrations, and to Oanh Collins and Dane Alston for scanning images. My friend and fellow traveller Lois Conner has also been generous in allowing me to use her work related to the Forbidden City. I am particularly grateful to the two readers for Harvard University Press whose detailed and generous comments have either been included in the final book, or have informed material in these Notes. Endymion Wilkinson, editor of the magisterial work Chinese History: A Manual, Revised and Enlarged (Harvard University Press), an essential text for the student of Chinese history, kindly corrected a number of errors in the published text. These are marked by reference to Endymion's name in full, or by the initials EW.


By way of explanation

This book is written in keeping with my considerations of what I call 'New Sinology', a subject on which I have written elsewhere (see The approach of 'New Sinology' is one that emphasizes a robust engagement with contemporary China and with the Sinophone world in all of its complexity, be it local, regional or global. It affirms a conversation and intermingling that also emphasizes strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of methods and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretical.

[Photo: GRB]

While paying due head to the disciplines that have developed in the modern academy, New Sinology also engages with a Chinese scholastic and intellectual tradition that sees a seamless and complimentary relationship between the literary, the historical and the philosophical (wen, shi, zhe 文史哲).

This book is written, therefore, in a manner that attempts to engage with the historical Forbidden City while placing it within the contexts in which it has been seen, and in which it has changed, since dynastic times. It is an approach that generates what I think of as a productive ambivalence, an ambivalence that perhaps we all share in relation to historical time, constructed pasts and changing tradition.

[Overview of the Imperial City (Huang Cheng) showing the Forbidden City on the right and the Lake Palaces on the left.]

Reader's will soon encounter the ambiguities that lie at the heart not only of this small volume, but also at the centre of modern Chinese history. These ambiguities concern the relationships between dynastic statecraft and modern political behaviour, as well as between the imperial cultural order and the symbolism of the modern state. While this book provides much evidence for understanding the overlap between these, the format of the book, one produced in the series Wonders of the World, has not made it possible to demonstrate at length or frequently the differences between them.

As a result, casual readers could, in an impressionistic reading of this work, find a certain tendency towards 'essentialism' (the reduction of complex and changing realities over time to a narrative of continuities and constancy), reinforced at times in the way the book is arranged. Given the guilt I experienced in regard to an ever-expanding text (one that started out as a commissioned work of 40,000 words but which over the months reached its final form of over 60,000 words)—I have done my best to address such doubts and allow the more alert reader to enter into the very quandary that all thinking Chinese people, and students of China, confront at every turn: where does the dynastic/imperial/imperious end, and the modern/civil and individual begin? And, indeed, how do they relate to each other. These are ambiguities that this book acknowledges from the start, and ones that it tracks in particular through the narrative of chapters 1, 7 and 8.

The dilemma is clearly articulated at the beginning of the work where I state:

As much as Mao and his fellow revolutionaries might rail against the habits of the feudal past, their language, literary references and political infighting were carried out in its shadow. (pp.xiv-v)

and again,

The Forbidden City loomed large in China's twentieth century as the material centre of defunct imperial rule, and as a shade of inward-looking despotism. The rulers of modern China have actively worked to transform China into a strong and modern nation while in their various ways rejecting, affirming and falling prey to the autocratic attitudes and practices that found concrete expression in the Forbidden City. (pp.xvii-xviii)

Or, as I say in the opening pages of chapter 1:

In the twentieth century it [the Forbidden City] would haunt politicians and activists who found themselves enmeshed in the complex legacy of imperial power. The responses to it of power-holders—be they democratic, autocratic, revolutionary or reformist—as well as thinkers of every persuasion tell a history of modern China itself. (pp.1-2)


Throughout their rule, Mao and his supporters would use the symbols and language of the dynastic past and convert them into elements of their own political performances and vocabulary. They employed tradition when it suited them and repudiated it when the need arose... While its [the Forbidden City's] buildings were subject to decay and change, the China of secretive politics, rigid political codes and autocratic behaviour continued to exert an influence far beyond the walls of the former palace. (p.2)

As the primary focus of the book is, and remains, the Forbidden City and those in its thrall (and indeed the complex issue of how the place and its history exert that influence into the modern era), I did not believe that I had the luxury of space to venture further into the territory of countervailing evidence in regard to modern political practice. Some of these questions are, however, explored further in my essay 'Don't Treat Me like a Dead Ancestor', a chapter in The Cambridge Critical Introduction to Mao edited by Timothy Cheek (forthcoming 2009, Cambridge University Press).

[Tiananmen Square from Tiananmen Gate, 1998. Photo: Lois Conner]


Material from books listed in Further Reading is not necessarily referred to in these Notes. However, some material that could not be accommodated in the published text is included as 'mini-essays' in the Notes.


page ix Franz Kafka, 'The Great Wall of China' (Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer, 1917, first published in 1931). This translation is by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC. For the full text, go to

For more on the Great Wall of China, see 'The Great Walls of China', Issue 6 (June 2006) of the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly at:

page x Simone de Beauvoir, The Long March, trans. Austryn Wainhouse, 1958, quoted in Gilles Béguin and Dominique Morel, The Forbidden City, Centre of Imperial China, Ruth Taylor trans. (New York, 1997), p.130.

page xi (and also page 26) 'In the 1410s, the Ming emperor Yongle... moved his court from Nanjing ('the southern capital')....' Actually, Zhu Yuanzhang made his capital (Jingshi), Yingtian Fu in 1375. It only started to be called Nanjing in 1421 and was officially named Nanjing from 1441. [EW]

page xi (and also page 180). '...over 900 rooms'. These 'rooms' are, in fact, 'bays' ( jian), that is the space between roofbeams, a measure used for counting the size of buildings. [EW]

pages xi-xii Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows (New York, 1978).

page xiv (and also page xxvii, etc) The Lake Palaces, or Zhongnan Hai, are more commonly called the Sea Palaces in English, although the 'seas' (hai) are actually lakes.

page xvi The final quotation is from Peter Quennell's A Superficial Journey through Tokyo and Peking (London, 1932; reissued Hong Kong and Oxford, 1986, with an introduction by Geremie Barmé).