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The Forbidden City:

By Antony White. Scala, 2002. 64pp. £8.95 As an averagely ignorant Western visitor in the Outer Court of Beijing's Forbidden City, you will be both impressed and bemused, writes Ruth Slavid . Impressed because the space is immense and magnificent and allows you views of three marvellous palaces; bemused, because it is difficult to engage with it, understand what it is for, or differentiate one ornate, red-painted palace from another.

The space was designed to have just this effect, as part of the complex ceremonial web that was at the heart of Chinese imperial power.

This excellent book explains the functions and the history, shows you details that distinguish one building from another, unlocks the meanings of some of the symbols, and even translates the calligraphy. It has fine photographs showing the buildings and the courts under the relentless summer sun.

Scala has already published excellent guidebooks to World Heritage Sites in Portugal (AJ 10.8.02), and this is a worthy successor. Its slenderness makes it fit for travel, but means that, although it explains many mysteries, it still leaves much to explore. The maze of smaller buildings at the northern, most secret end of the site is scarcely touched on, and nor are the several almost unsignposted, museums dotted throughout the Forbidden City.

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