Life in the Forbidden City

What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? Life in China’s Forbidden City, by Chiu Kwong-chiu and Eileen Ng, illustrated by the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop; The China Institute, $12.95, 108 pages, ages 9 and up. (Translated by Ben Wang)

China was ruled by 210 emperors over the course of its history, the last being overthrown by the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Published in collaboration with the China Institute and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? offers a fascinating examination of the colorful world of the royal inhabitants of the Forbidden City. The book answers questions such as whether the emperors were reincarnated dragons, what was daily life was like, and where women fit into the scheme of things. Earnest in its objective, the book is a bit on the long side (108 pages) and feels like a mashup of a picture book and reference volume. The information is wide-ranging and incredibly interesting, but unfortunately the material gets lost in the layout. There’s no glossary of terms, and people with specific titles, aren’t defined at first mention. Though the illustrations are charming, they don’t always convey the essence of the topic at hand.

In his introduction, the director of the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City writes that there are 1.8 million historical artifacts in the royal complex–one or two photo spreads of some of those treasures would have been a welcome addition. With a few tweaks, this book would be a marvelous, child-friendly chapter book. Formatting aside, it’s a worthy addition to a home reference library and could come in handy for school projects. 

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