by May Holdsworth and Caroline Courtauld
Odyssey Books, HK$195
Anyone who has visited the Forbidden City will have been struck by its vastness and majesty. But there is more beyond the vermilion walls that concealed the emperor and added to his inscrutability. One million workmen and 100,000 artisans built the extravagant palace in Beijing for Yongle, who planned the layout on the advice of his astrologer with the Pole Star determining the palace's position. Since it was completed in 1420, 23 other emperors have occupied the palace. Forbidden City: The Great Within does justice to its history, which is presented with gorgeous photographs and illustrations portraying half a millennium of imperial China. The book grew out of a 1994 Discovery Channel documentary on the Forbidden City, for which May Holdsworth undertook the research and scriptwriting. The latest edition of the book includes a chapter on treasures collected, lost and recovered and the creation of the Palace Museum. Biographical portraits (such as that of Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci) and descriptions of palace life and pursuits (for example the attachment of whistles to the tails of pigeons) afford an absorbing trip back in time.