William Bell

Forbidden City

  • 36-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 32 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an English instructor with a Master's degree in English
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Forbidden City Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 36-page guide for “Forbidden City” by William Bell includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Heroism and Social Responsibility and Journalistic Integrity as a Means of Democracy.

Plot Summary

William Bell’s 1990 young adult fiction novel, Forbidden City: A Novel of Modern China, dramatizes the story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The coming-of-age story is told in diary form, narrated from the point of view of a 17-year-old Canadian high school student, Alex Jackson. During the massacre, Alex comes very close to losing everything he holds dear, as he becomes separated from his reporter father, Ted Jackson, and has to trust to the kindness of student protesters hiding from their government.

In the beginning of the book, Alex is a regular teenager, irritated with his daredevil journalist father whose antics he often finds foolish. He has suffered through his parents’ bitter divorce and found a respite in his hobby of military history and miniature soldier molding, painting, and positioning. He enjoys tactics, maps, and stories of conquests and victory. Heroism, from Alex’s view at the novel’s start, is innate in those that fight and participate in battle. He finds those who object to war to be foolish or weak.

All of this changes when he travels to Beijing, China, with his father. Alex is initially interested in visiting the sights of great military battles. Soon enough, he comes to see that there is more of interest. He becomes obsessed with the student protests taking place in Tiananmen Square as he has never contemplated doing anything of that sort, putting his life on the line for his values. He isn’t even sure what his values are. But the students strike him as extremely brave, especially when the tanks arrive.

No one is truly prepared for the troops to begin opening fire on the crowd. Alex goes into the Square, looking for his father, hoping they can both get out of the county, but instead he is shot while running from the tanks with the friend who has served as his guide. Alex is then taken to a secret hiding place used by the protesters. He tells them about the footage he managed to capture of the massacre, and they ask him to take the coverage of the violence out to the world at large. Alex agrees, knowing it is dangerous. Though he escapes, his main rescuer loses her life in the process. In his experiences with the students, Alex is able to refine and redefine his views of heroism.

When Alex returns home again, he is changed, as is his father. They both now see both how dangerous their journalistic mission was and also how important it was. Alex sees war as no longer a heroic, romantic pursuit but as a deadly game in which too many innocent lives are lost. Students, journalists, engaged citizens, and all those who fight for freedom are the real heroes, he learns.

Forbidden City: A Novel of Modern China, while often included in North American curriculum, is banned in China.

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Chapters 1-6