PALACES OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY, by Yu Zhuoyun; translated from the Chinese by Ng Mau-Sang, Chan Sinwai and Puwen Lee (Viking, $75). It took approximately 20 years to build the pyramid of Cheops, but the original Forbidden City -- a complex of magnificent palaces, temples and courtyards over a 250-acre area -- was completed in only three (1417- 1420). This amazing feat required the help of over a million laborers and 100,000 planners and craftsmen drafted from all parts of China by Ming emperor Zhu Di who had relocated the capital from Nanking to Peking. The philosophy of ying and yang, the theories of the five elements (wood, fire, earth metal/gold and water) played a central role in the architectural design of this rectangular city. Why is the palace painted red? Because it symbolizes happiness. Green (for youth) rooftiles, used where the young prince dwelled, was later changed to yellow for an older resident. Yellow and gold symbolize wealth and honor, so those colors are found throughout the palace. After serving as the home of 24 emperors, the Forbidden City -- renamed the Palace Museum -- has been preserved by the Communist rulers partly as a reminder of the excessive opulence of the past. This book, opulent too with nearly 300 color photographs and drawings, was written by Yu Zhouyun of the Palace Museum staff, assisted by his colleagues. Considering the amount of information packed within, this should be the definitive study available in English for many years to come. THE SHOGUN AGE EXHIBITION: From the Tokugawa Art Museum, Japan, essays by Yoshinobu Tokugawa and Shinzaburo Oishi (University of Washington Press, $50; paperback, $24.95). So you've read James Clavell's novel and seen the television series, but want to know more about Japan's era of the magnificent samurai, especially about that lord of lords, Shogun Toranaga. It so happens that the real Toranagas, the Tokugawas who ruled Japan for nearly three centuries and dictated the aesthetic tastes among the nobility during that time, have preserved many of their family treasures in a museum in Nagoya. Three hundred of these precious objects -- swords, armor, paintings on scrolls and screens, lacquer ware, kimono, utensils for the tea ceremony -- are now part of a sumptuous traveling exhibition currently on exhibit in Munich, Germany. The book is handsomely bound and printed, with lavish use of color photographs accompanying a very informative text. KOSODE: 16th-19th Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection, by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, with essays by Monica Bethe and Margot Paul. Edited by Naomi Noble Richard and Margot Paul (Japan Society/Kodansha International, $50). The kimono worn today has changed little in form and style during the past eight or nine centuries, an astonishing fact, when compared to Western wardrobes. But the variations in decorative patterns, color, embroidery are endless, and as this collection shows, the best rival some of the most sublime paintings of the West and in terms of technical achievement surpass the accomplishments of even that much acclaimed art form -- the Japanese woodblock print. Unlike the Tokugawa collection (shown here in Washington six years ago) which featured Noh stage costumes, the focus of the Nomura collection (shown at the Japan Center in New York) is on the kosode or "small-sleeved robe" worn as the outer garment (there are layers of kimono) for a variety of occasions by the nobility, merchants and courtesans. Painters looking for sources of visual inspiration will find this book rewarding; the diagrams of weaving patterns and information on various dyes should be useful to the specialist.