Forbidden City: The Palace at the Heart of Chinese Culture

In 2018, the luxury book publisher Assouline approached me with a fascinating idea: do the definitive book on Beijing’s Forbidden City–the palace in the center of Beijing that for six hundred years has been the home of the emperors and empresses who ran China.

At first I wondered if there was anything else to say about it. For almost as long as it has existed, the palace has fascinated writers. Especially over the past century, foreigners have written books about it, photographed it, and painted it. But many of these books were dated and didn’t quite capture the importance of the palace to today’s China.

I’d just written a piece for The New York Times on the palace’s new relevance and felt this was an important angle. Under Xi Jinping, China has pushed pride in the past and the Forbidden City is a centerpiece of those efforts. So instead of being mostly closed off to visitors, as it was for decades, many wings have been opened, and the museum has added a cool restaurant, cafes, and interesting stores. From being a symbol of a closed-off and stuffy China, the Forbidden City had become within a few years emblematic of a newly self-confident and assertive superpower.

So I contacted an old friend of mine, the former journalist and now researcher Wang Jun, to brainstorm. We talked it over and walked through the palace, where he now works in its research department. I decided that an essay on Wang’s work would be a way to introduce the incredible depth of the palace, as well as its relevance today.

Assouline’s vision required more than text. They wanted a luxury photo book using iconic images, but also unusual ones, to show the Forbidden City history and relevance today. So with Wang Jun’s help I used the Forbidden City library and went through dozens of books of photos, as well as archival material. I sent notes and phone snaps on all of this to Assouline, which then negotiated directly with the Forbidden City for permission to use the original photos.

The result is this lavish book, which at a thousand dollars is definitely for collectors, but has the weight and heft that this palace deserves.

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