Tuesday, 17 April 2007


Sneaky me. I read another book at the same time as the others. Normally I don't read more than one book at a time, because I find it confusing. But I read this one on the internet (here), and because that makes things difficult for bed-time reading, I broke that rule out of necessity.

I can't quite remember how I came across Two Years in the Forbidden City by Princess Der Ling - probably looking for pictures. I'd never read a book on the computer before - remember years ago when everyone worried that books would soon be a thing of the past and that by now we'd all be reading EVERYTHING online? Well, there's a reason we aren't. It sucks. It's hard and uncomfortable, and you get sore eyes quickly. I won't be doing it again, and I wouldn't recommend it.

The book itself is a couple of years worth of memoirs of the royal Chinese court, written by a Chinese lady who was brought up in France, being the daughter of a diplomat. In the early 20th century, she became the first-lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager Cixi who ruled China from 1861 to her death in 1908. The book seems to have been written in large part to counteract the common (Western?) impression of the day of Cixi as a devious and ambitious despot (which as far as I can tell still remains even in China - when I visited the Forbidden City, Cixi was referred to as 'the Dragon Lady'). I'm not totally sure if the book itself is successful of dispelling this impression of Cixi though. The book doesn't go into her politics or effect on the country much, and as a person she comes of as someone who is equally capable of being very kind and generous, or finicky and cruel. (Although I guess it's hard to know what to expect from rulers. Apparently Prince Charles still has someone squeeze his toothpaste for him.) Also, the 'two years' in the title is a bit of an exaggeration. The book basically covers one year, and in the conclusion chapter the author basically states that her second year at the Palace was the same as the first.

It's an interesting book, because it describes from the inside daily life at the palace during this period, but by someone who understands what elements need to be explained to Westerners. When I visited the Forbidden Palace, I found it fascinating and beautiful, but ultimately quite an empty experience, because you can't go inside the buildings - you can only peer through dark windows at the few rich furnishings that remain. I guess it would be like a Chinese person trying to get an idea of how the British royals live by looking at the outside of Buckinham Palace. It would still be awesome, but not lead to much insight. This book does give you a good idea of what it was like to live there, and what the place looked like etc., as the furnishings and events are described in great detail.

That being said, the author unfortunately is not a great writer. The interest comes from the events and surroundings, rather than the way they are described. Princess Der Ling basically just describes day to day life, and important ceremonies and events, but there is no overarching thread or story. I've read reviews of this book on amazon, and some people argued that one of the things that helps this book is the pictures, which were absent from the internet version that I read.

If you were going, or have been to the Forbidden City, I think you would find this an interesting book to skim read, or to look at if you had a version with the pictures. It might also be a good companion book to Catherine A Carl's 'With The Empress Dowager of China' - a similar sounding book by an American painter who took Cixi's portrait during the same period. It's an interesting historical read, but unfortunatly, not a great story.

*Note: Normally I make an effort to show the cover of the edition which I read, but here, because it was an e-book, I just picked the prettiest cover I could find.


Molly said...

Oh, I TOTALLY remember that, when everyone was all "the internet will make books obsolete". I don't think they'd thought through the logistics of curling up on the couch with a PC or lying in bed with your laptop.
I'm with you, Em. Give me print on a page any day!

Margie said...

i like using my laptop in bed but it gets too hot on my lap after a while. but i do <3 my wireless connection.