Beijing Time/The Forbidden City

By Hubbert, Jennifer | The China Journal, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Beijing Time/The Forbidden City


Hubbert, Jennifer, The China Journal


Beijing Time, by Michael Dutton, Hsiu-ju Stacy Fo and Dong Dong Wu. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xiv + 265 pp. US$26.95 (hardcover).

The Forbidden City, by Geremie R. Barmé. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xxxvi + 251 pp. US$19. 95/£12.95/euro15.00 (hardcover).

Historian Geremie R. Barmé and political scientist Michael Dutton are well known to contemporary China scholars for their consistently incisive analyses of contemporary mainland China. Their most recent publications, The Forbidden City (Barmé) and Beijing Time (Dutton, Hsiu-ju Stacy Fo and Dong Dong Wu) converge upon the city of Beijing and its material manifestations. The two volumes offer a delicious romp through the geographical and philosophical world of China's most vaunted architectural wonders as well as through the refuse dumps, karaoke bars and revenant alleyways of the capital city. In so doing they address a readership both within and beyond the confines of academic sinology; their wanderings through the material world of Beijing allow access to a vast citystate more typically but incompletely confined to history textbooks and popular travel guides.

Barmé' s The Forbidden City examines the physical and ideological complex in central Beijing which housed the imperial family from the early 15th century through the last years of dynastic rule. The Forbidden City constituted the political and ceremonial locus of Chinese government during the imperial era and reemerged in the present as the Palace Museum, a World Heritage Site and one of the world's most popular tourist attractions. Published in Harvard University Press' "Wonders of the World" series, which includes studies of the Parthenon, the Coliseum and Westminster Abbey, The Forbidden City defies categorization. Its lack of footnotes and the appended visitors' guide and suggested reading sections (the latter including a Frommer' s guide), reminiscent of both traditional tour books and suburban book group selections, furnish a decidedly non-academic feel. On the other hand, its attention to the minutiae of the historical record locate it firmly within a realm of scholarly production. Nonetheless, its non-chronological progression through the various dynasties and republics, combined with the frequent insertion of captivating anecdotes about its inhabitants (that the Qianlong emperor was a prolific poet whose art works were forgeries, for example) make its inclusion as a purely scholarly "history" a rather limiting classification. One of Barmé' s appealing asides is his discussion, throughout the various historical eras, of classic Western texts that endeavored to explain the Forbidden City and its inhabitants to an English-speaking authence. There is no need to push hard to understand how this book will fit neatly into this trajectory of representation.

Part anthropological exploration, part alternative travelogue, part political exposition, Dutton, Lo and Wu's Beijing Time similarly defies easy categorization. It moves outside the palace's walls to examine the ancient alleys, flea markets and garbage dumps that, though constituting a Beijing foreign to visitors to the Forbidden City, nevertheless equally represent the capital. One of the more forceful aspects of this book is its highlighting of the quirky human element. These moments are compelling, frequently poignant and sometimes comic. The chapter entitled "The Community", for example, takes us on a tour of "old Beijing". Yet, whereas "old Beijing" has more commonly come to refer to the antiquated hutong (alleyways) of the city which have been renovated and equipped with Starbucks, trendy clothing shops and Western-style cocktail bars, this old Beijing is centered on the sense of community that came of common sacrifice and mutual purpose during the Maoist era. This story of a neighborhood community of predominantly elderly people working collectively to win an award for their district is not the globally ubiquitous one of rising Chinese property values but of the rejection of the social values which those market ideals imply. …

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