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'Invisible' view of Forbidden City
( 2003-12-08 09:21) (China Daily)

As the hub of political power during China's last two feudal dynasties, the Forbidden City epitomized the glory of the ancient empire.

It's both a sparkling gem of traditional Chinese architecture and an enduring testament to the culture of human history. For most tourists, the Forbidden City - its official name is The Palace Museum - is a must-see destination in Beijing.

Few who experience the massive grouping of ancient structures in the city's core fail to appreciate its imposing magnitude.

The ancient capital recently celebrated its 850th anniversary as the capital of the "Central Kingdom," so it comes as a bit of a surprise that Li Shaobai, an established photographer who devoted 10 years to photographing the Forbidden City, chose "The Invisible Palace" as the title for his latest bilingual photo album.

It was recently published by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.

How the palace qualifies as "invisible" is the first question the title poses to readers, but Li's photos, ranging from delicate to gorgeous, provide the answer.

Beyond postcards

His work is radically different from the common images on Forbidden City postcards. Some highlight small details of the gigantic ancient structures that go unnoticed by most visitors, while others are simply taken from unimaginably odd angles that few would ever think of.

For example, Li aimed his camera at birds flying above the eaves of the halls in the early morning. He also captured the shadows of tree branches on the vermilion walls at sunset.

One of the most impressive photos in the book is "Copper Vat on the side of the Gate of Celestial Purity." The copper vat, shot from a very low angle, occupies about 60 per cent of the image area. The background is the red wall in dim light and the dark blue sky. The highlight of the picture is a solitary beam of light reflected off the worn vat.

Li's book also offers scenes of the Forbidden City under varying weather conditions and at different times of the year. He attempts to capture greater detail and more impressive images.

He is making up, to a large extent, for what people usually miss - the charms of the palace at varied times, in varied seasons, and under different lighting conditions.

It is for those reasons Li elected to title his album "The Invisible Palace."

"Ordinary tourists to the Forbidden City may only have time to see the most common and obvious, but they are not able to get a feel of the charm of the palace at different hours and in different seasons. Li's work provides such an opportunity," said Shao Hua, chairperson of the China Photographers' Association.

Shao's son, a history major graduating from Tsinghua University, has a craze for the Forbidden City. Every year he will go to the Palace Museum about a dozen times, and he's very familiar with the ancient structures.

"But Li's pictures still give him surprises," said Shao.

Shao said the photographs depicting the Forbidden City from unique angles are deeply reflective of the aesthetic taste and artistic sensibility of the photographer. Li's choice of angles to capture minute details not only gives common objects a new meaning, but highlights the beauty and the spirit of the palace.

"Looking at the Forbidden City through my lenses, I often forgot the reality of the place. The angles sometimes were so narrow that they seem to be needles pinpointing the legacy of history," Li said.

Extensive trips

To photograph the Forbidden City, Li set foot in all corners and spaces of the palace, seeing what others usually overlook.

However, when he first saw the ancient palace at the age of 10, he did not like it, even though it was the seat of the rule for the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

"The palace looked like a prison to me," he recalled.

At that time, and for a long period later, Li didn't expect his life would be so closely linked to the Forbidden City.

Born in 1942 in Southwest China's Chongqing, now a municipality, he studied at Beijing Institute of Physical Culture, majoring in football. Later he transferred to the Beijing Institute of Post and Telecommunication, majoring in radio technology.

But he was so crazy about photography, which at that time was just a hobby, that he took up it as a profession after graduation.

"Photography is part of my life," Li said.

Initially, Li's interest was in taking pictures of fashion models. He was determined to be a leader in the field of photography.

His inspiration for photographing the Forbidden City came when he was posing his models in front of Beijing's old city walls. The visual contrast of old and new, traditional and modern, suddenly struck him.

He then began arranging shoots using the red walls, glazed tiles, grey floors and white marble balustrades of the old Imperial Palace.

Gradually his roving eye landed on the buildings of the old imperial court. He discovered and reveled in the rational layout of the halls, courtyards, and balustrades of the Forbidden City, which gave him a new perspective from every angle.

Soon Li started going to the Forbidden City almost every weekend.

Sometimes he must wait a long time for a good picture, since there are always so many tourists walking to and fro in front of his camera. He's had to rush ahead of the mob in the morning and lag behind as closing time nears. He's often been the first one to show up at the Palace Museum in the morning and the last one to leave in the late afternoon.

Occasionally, when scouting for optimum shooting locations, he's been asked to produce identification for the security guards.

Today Li can hardly remember how many times he has been to the Forbidden City. In 1997 alone, he shot over 470 rolls of film.

Even now, Li still visits regularly because he continues to find creative inspiration in the old walls, he said.

Besides "The Invisible Palace," Li has published six other photo albums. He's also held several exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei.

But the publication of "The Invisible Palace" has stirred his ambition for publishing more albums. In his plan, there will be an "invisible" book series, each dealing with a cultural heritage site in Beijing.

His next title, "The Invisible Great Wall," is expected to be rolling off the presses early next year.

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