The best books about the Forbidden City

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the Forbidden City and why they recommend each book.

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Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai,

Book cover of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

My favorite Ming dynasty source. It is rich with details on the eunuch institution during the Ming dynasty including its supply chain— the parts of society and of the world where eunuchs were historically drawn. Described here, are the various agencies within the Beijing Forbidden City where Ming dynasty eunuchs worked: Carpentry, Palace Servants, Palace Foods, Royal Clothing, the Nursing Home, and others, including a Toilet Paper agency. Readers not only gain insights on the imperial palace’s operations, but also on the eunuch ranking system, the emperors’ policies concerning eunuchs, and the rise of powerful eunuchs in the Ming secret police (Eastern Depot) and in Ming diplomacy. The latter came to its apogee with Admiral Zheng He, himself a eunuch, leading the Ming fleet during seven world voyages.

Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study of Chinese eunuchs illuminates the entire history of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, and provides broad information on various aspects of pre-modern China.


Who am I?

I am an honours graduate in aerospace engineering and psychology and I have written five historical novels. My debut novel, The Ming Storytellers, is set during China’s Ming dynasty and was well-reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. To pen this 600-page saga, I spent six years researching the Ming dynasty while studying a year of mandarin. I have travelled to Beijing, along the Great Wall, and to China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Being a descendant of the Vietnamese royal family gave me access to rich genealogical sources passed down from my scholarly ancestors. These stories of concubines, eunuchs, and mandarins made the past come alive, complementing my research with plausible drama.


I wrote...

The Ming Storytellers

By Laura Rahme,

Book cover of The Ming Storytellers

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of China’s sixth naval expedition in the early Ming dynasty, this is the story of an imperial concubine’s rise in the reign of the Yong Le emperor, and her forbidden relationship with one of China’s most illustrious figures, Admiral Zheng He. A complex tale of thwarted love, adventure, crime, and mystery, The Ming Storytellers brings a cast of fascinating supporting characters. We meet a mysterious storyteller on board Zheng He’s ship whose long winding tale will turn out to be more than it originally seemed. Also traveling with the Ming fleet and bound for her home in Zanzibar, the secretive Persian traveller, Shahrzad, watches Zheng He closely. But what does she seek? 

A rich story unfolding in Beijing, on the Ming ships, and in a mountainous village in Yunnan, The Ming Storytellers explores a distant world and brings to life key events in China’s history.

Peking

By Juliet Bredon,

Book cover of Peking: A Historical and Intimate Description of Its Chief Places of Interest

Even though it was ahead of its time, Juliet Bredon’s Peking, published in 1931, is less well known than Arlington and Lewisohn’s comparable guide to the city, In Search of Old Peking released in 1935, both books written by longtime expats fully informed of their adopted country; Bredon was niece to the famous China Customs official Sir Robert Hart. Both books are chock full of historical detail and passionate about their subject matter and still serve well today as guides to Beijing’s temples and palaces. Bredon’s is the more eloquently written and captivating, and for me, the more personable companion in guiding the armchair traveler through Peking’s labyrinthine lanes. Along with her expert advice on buying antiques, I can relate to her spontaneous descriptions of street life as if I were sitting next to her in her rickshaw: “Who can forget the delicious surprise of his first journey…

Peking

By Juliet Bredon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Step back in time to Beijing as it was in the 1920's as Juliet Bredon guides the reader to a magnificent time of the past. The more one studies this fascinating city, old, proud and secretive, the more one realises the tantalizing difficulties of learning, even from the Chinese themselves, anything but the merest outline of its history and monuments, many of which are in existence today. Who can forget the soft enchantment of Buddhist temples, the green peace of tombs haunted by fearless things, "doves that flutter down at call, fishes rising to be fed?" Having lived in Peking…


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Book cover of City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures

English expat John Blofeld spent two decades in China (1932–51) before living out the last three of his life in Thailand. A renowned scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, Blofeld (like fellow expat Sinologists Edmund Backhouse and E.T.C. Werner) effectively disappeared into the woodwork, consorting almost exclusively with locals and mastering both vernacular and classical Chinese. In his City of Lingering Splendour, he looks back on his sojourn in the capital in the bustling 1930s-40s. But in contrast to standard accounts of Beijing’s palaces and temples (such as by Bredon and Arlington & Lewisohn above), Blofeld evocatively spotlights the often overlooked secular sites, the bathhouses and restaurants, opium dens, and bordellos, along with his connoisseurship of Chinese tea, thus conferring important archival value on his portrait of the city. This is also the side of Beijing I can relate to – the dark side, the underbelly of the great city –…

City of Lingering Splendour

By John Blofeld,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked City of Lingering Splendour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his early twenties, John Blofeld spent what he describes as "three exquisitely happy years" in Peking during the era of the last emperor, when the breathtaking greatness of China's ancient traditions was still everywhere evident. Arriving in 1934, he found a city imbued with the atmosphere of the recent imperial past and haunted by the powerful spirit of the late Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. He entered a world of magnificent palaces and temples of the Forbidden City, of lotus-covered lakes and lush pleasure-gardens, of bustling bazaars and peaceful bathhouses, and of "flower houses" with their beautiful young courtesans versed…


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.