Yellow, the Noble Color, is for Emperors and Empresses

This is a review of two books with different target audiences that have one mission: to share some of the treasures and history of the Forbidden City in China with the world. They are voices from the other side of the globe. Can you hear them?

Bowls of Happiness

Bowls of Happiness: Treasures from China and the Forbidden City 

Bowls of Happiness is a picture storybook in sections, part non-fiction. The first, Happiness: Joyful Meetings, begins with the birth of a little girl nicknamed Piggy. The type is scaled for a child and the story is fully illustrated with lovely, delicate line work and colors in an appropriately innocent picture book style. As the child grows, Mom is making a new porcelain bowl for Piggy, painting it with designs from traditional Chinese depictions of nature. See, there are the symbols for cloud, for bat, for longevity. There are peonies and egrets and butterflies just as they were painted on the emperor’s rice bowls, but this bowl is for Piggy.

The second section, Wishing for the Best in Life, is non-fiction for older kids or adults, which suggests that this is a book to be enjoyed by a family together. There are explanations of elements of Chinese language, the ritual use of some of the emperor’s bowls and the symbolism of the designs. Delicate drawings show the artwork on all sides of some, including on the inside of one – a surprise butterfly visible once all the rice has been eaten.

And the final section, Let’s Make a Bowl, talks about the parts of a rice bowl and the practical reasons for their shape. There is even a dye cut bowl on a page where the reader can make a wish, presumably for happiness or something similar.

This beautifully designed and illustrated book is a wonderful window on Chinese culture written by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, and translated by Ben Wang, through the auspices of the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop. Both this and the following book are part of a four book series which were funded by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Hong Kong to promote a deeper understanding of China’s rich cultural heritage, beginning with the culture of the Forbidden City.

What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? Life in China’s Forbidden City


Children everywhere will be amazed to read that heirs to the imperial throne of China were schooled from 5:00 am until 3:00 pm seven days a week with only five holidays each year! By comparison, this makes contemporary education appear super easy. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City is an attractive one hundred and eight page hardcover book that answers the question asked in the title by showing aspects of the daily life of each ruler within the enormous Imperial Palace complex, of 980 buildings and nearly 10,000 rooms, called the Forbidden City. I’ve been there. It is truly amazing. The map below and the photographs are meant to give context, but are not in the book. Share this fascinating slice of history and royal life, illustrated for young people, with your child.

The book shows that beginning in 206 BC Imperial Palace court officials recommended to the emperor that “studying is the only noble thing to do in life” and consequently there were always more scholars on the palace staff than military men. The emperor’s daily needs were well satisfied as shown by the list of foods cooked each day for him, although his meals were always tested first by an entourage of eunuchs. Poison and other risks to the emperor’s life needed to be guarded against. Thousands of eunuchs, female consorts, and others supplied the emperor’s every desire.

Traditionally the first born boy of the royal family would become the next emperor, so princesses were out of luck and would instead be married off young, some even at the age of ten, to suitors from faraway lands. However there was one female emperor, Wu Zetian, who reigned for a time during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Accounts suggest that she was no sweetheart.

W 238_Forbidden City

The Gate of Supreme Harmony (#5 on map) photographed by me in 2008.

This carefully designed book employs a beautiful yellow color throughout, perhaps in honor of Qin Shi Huangdi, who more than 4,000 years ago unified the various tribes into the nation of Chinese people, becoming their first emperor. He was nicknamed the Yellow Emperor. The simple graphic novel style drawings with thick black outlines and the clean page layouts, along with easy to understand text, showcase a surprising amount of information in an accessible way. This may be a good resource for report writing at the younger grade levels and there are many basic facts of interest to the book’s young audience.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (#6 on map), Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2008

Kids will be intrigued by the 12 personality symbols embroidered into every emperor’s imperial robe starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), brief bios of the Ming and Qing emperors (some wise and brave, others not), and accounts of uprisings and entertainments. There is one set of gatefolds to illustrate the ceremony at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City where Emperor Shunzhi was crowned at the age of six and eventually began his reign when only fourteen, as was customary.

Trade publishers today and organizations such as WeNeedDiverseBooks insist that books for children about the world’s cultures and ethnicities should be written and illustrated by members of that group. Diverse literature for kids doesn’t get more authentic than this non-fiction book about life in China’s Forbidden City. It was written by Chiu Kwong-chui and Eileen Ng, translated by Ben Wang, and illustrated by the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop, which Mr. Kwong-chiu founded in Hong Kong.  What Was It Like Mr. Emperor was written and illustrated by acknowledged experts from Hong Kong and printed in China as well. Although Kirkus found issue with some aspects of the book, it’s simple distillation of a complex and long history is an appropriate introduction for young audiences. The Qing and Ming Dynasties’ Forbidden City in Beijing, originally built under orders of Zhu Di, the Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1424, is now a museum and World Heritage site.

The online description of What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City states that it is intended for children grades 3 and up. In the Forbidden City, a companion book in this series, received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2015.

What Was it Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in the Forbidden City is an authentic introduction to the daily life of typical Chinese emperors, well-presented for today’s children. Note: These reviews are based on copies of the books sent to me by the publisher for that purpose, which is a common practice.

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

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