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DVD Review: China’s Forbidden City

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Smithsonian Networks' look into the secret history of China's Forbidden City gives viewers a unique perspective behind a history and a culture shrouded in mystique. The filmmakers provide a stunning visual recreation of the people who populated the Forbidden City while also providing key historical information to bring to life the ruling Chinese dynasties who resided there.

The disc contains a two-part documentary; each part tells the story of a key moment in the history of the Forbidden City. Part one introduces us to Ruan An, the eunuch responsible for supervising the construction of the city compound. In the early 15th century, Zhu Di — uncle of the emperor Jianwen — overthrew his nephew to establish control of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu took the imperial name Yongle.

As the Mings retook control of China from the former Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, they sought to reassert themselves on many different fronts. China's Forbidden City focuses on the efforts of Yongle to consolidate his power by building a great imperial city as a monument to his rule.

Ruan An was the mastermind behind the construction project, one of the most detailed and complex of its time. Not only did the eunuch have to serve the egomaniacal designs of the emperor, he had to build a city that literally embodied key Chinese values. The documentary gives Dr. Yu Kongjian, from Peking University, access to a 3-D holographic recreation to the city, illustrating that the Forbidden City was built with strong attention to the values of feng shui as well as the philosophy of the yin and the yang.

Despite intrigue against the emperor and a fire that broke out in the city in 1421, the Forbidden City continued to house the Ming emperor, his family, his concubines and a large staff of eunuchs. The protection and isolation of the Forbidden City proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the Ming emperors. The disconnect between the emperor and his subjects ultimately led to the downfall of the Mings and the rise of the Manchu Dynasty.

Part two of the documentary focuses on a controversial figure in the Manchu dynasty, Cixi the Empress Dowager. Cixi entered the court as a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng. Despite her status as a lowly concubine, she gained advancement at court when she gave birth to the emperor's heir, Tongzhi. When Xianfeng died in 1861, Tongzhi assumed the throne with his mother at his side.

Cixi served as regent over her young son, but even after he came of age, it was clear who held the true reins of power. She further tightened her grip on power after Tongzhi died, as she elevated her own nephew to the position of emperor.

Unfortunately, the Manchus — like the Mings — ultimately became a victim of their own isolation. Cixi in particular was a strong cultural conservative, insisting that Chinese tradition be strictly honored and that foreign "barbarians" be kicked out of China. Unfortunately, her attitude was not backed by any significant military power. In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, western powers invaded Beijing and laid waste to the Forbidden City, driving out the imperial family and ending their despotic rule over China. Cixi died in 1908, just four years before the fall of Puyi, China's last emperor.

Even though the documentary focuses on these two episodes in the long history of the Forbidden City, it does a fine job of filling in the gaps and giving you a sense of the overall importance of the story to our understanding of Chinese history.

But what really sets this documentary apart, to me, is its look. Unlike some historical recreations, which might bring to life one scene while recycling a series of close-ups, China's Forbidden City employs a large cast of actors working in full costume in stunning recreations of the Forbidden City. This more than anything else sets this DVD apart from something you might see on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel.

Special features on the DVD include previews of other Smithsonian titles as well as a look at "Secrets from the Vault" in the Smithsonian Institute.

I look forward to more documentaries like this from Smithsonian Networks.

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