Mao (1893-1976) had always intended to destroy old
and tear down its city walls but his rule was too chaotic and he died before realizing this goal of creating a new capital for the new
began to change rapidly some twenty years later. The destructive haste was justified when
won the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
will have spent US$ 40 billion on preparing for this event, while
spent just US$ 12 billion to host the 2004 Games. By contrast, in 2006 the central government spent just US$ 560 million on health care for the 900 million rural Chinese, the vast majority of whom have annual incomes of less than US$ 360, far below the US$ 2 a day international benchmark for poverty set by the World Bank. I doubt if there is another example in history of an ancient capital being destroyed and rebuilt so thoroughly in such a short space of time. Even Baron Haussmann left 40 percent of nineteenth-century
will be left with less than 5 percent of its buildings. Out of 25 square miles of largely Ming buildings that had survived in the 1950's, just three have been kept. If one subtracts the sizeable grounds of the Forbidden City, just twenty-five historical areas have been left as isolated pockets in a new city that sprawls over 50 square miles. In 1980, there were still 6,100 old streets, known as hutongs, but only a few hundred have been preserved, plus a handful of temples and courtyard houses. Only one of the forty-four princely palaces, or
, will be saved in its entirety.
Setting to one side the Olympic Games bill, the rebuilding of
must count as one of the greatest building projects ever undertaken and the cost probably exceeds US$ 200 billion. The government has shipped in millions of peasant laborers who have worked round the clock on seven thousand building sites. It summarily evicted some three million of its inhabitants, destroying communities that had lived in one place for hundreds of years. The state ruthlessly trampled over existing planning regulations, tore up ancient property rights and overturned all earlier urban development plans, which were designed to preserve the old city, the
. It is true that Beijing needed to build a new infrastructure and to rehouse millions of people, but it would have been quite feasible to spare the historic centre of Beijing and build a modern city around it.
Imagine the outcry if in less than a decade
underwent a similar transformation. If Wall Street, Central Park, Greenwich Village, SoHo, the Bronx, the Upper East Side were to be leveled and replaced by giant new residential towers and commercial office blocks. If every landmark – Times Square,
– were to disappear at once. Consider also the political context in which the fate of old
was sealed. It started in earnest eight years after the uprising of 1989, when Tiananmen Democracy Movement brought over a million Beijingers into the streets.
President Jiang Zemin had no popular mandate to rule, let alone to order
's demolition. He had arrived from
in 1989, entering the city in secret in an unmarked car, after Zhao Ziyang, secretary general of the Communist Party, had been illegally ousted by a cabal of retired party veterans who also sent in tanks to crush the student-led protests of 1989. Jiang Zemin stayed in power only by ruthlessly crushing dissent, sometimes by withdrawing liberties adopted in the 1980's and by instituting a 'strike hard' crackdown on crime in which an estimated ten thousand people were executed every year after only summary trials. In this pervasive climate of fear, no one dared oppose the party's will, even when that will included ordering the destruction of old Beijing.
Magazine Review Jul 31st 2008
Going, gone - Hurry, to catch
's medieval capital
IN A few short years
’s Communists have used the excuse of the Olympic games to level the medieval city built by the great Ming emperor, Yongle.
was long Asia’s ecumenical
, but its 2,500 or so religious sites are now reduced to a few dozen temples mainly for tourist consumption. The Communists have also destroyed Beijing’s social fabric, cutting through rich threads of community habit, shared memory and (what always infuriated them) subversive resistance to the madder impulses of higher authority. In different ways, these three books are superb guides to a
that heart-wrenchingly is no more.
Jasper Becker highlights the breathtaking cynicism of this orgy of destruction; even the Cultural Relics Bureau formed a property-development company to pull down buildings in its charge. Yongle had used 200,000 convicts and press-ganged peasants for his project. Today a peasant-labour force of 1.3m has worked on 7,000-odd giant construction sites that have killed, in a hushed-up way, between 2,000 and 3,000 migrant workers a year. As for the city’s residents,
’s average life expectancy is now well below the national average, thanks to smog and urban stress. So much for the promised clean, green “People’s Olympics”.
But Mr Becker, a British journalist, offers something much richer than a work of reportage. “City of
” has two particular strengths. One is his reweaving of the threads of Beijing’s past to recreate the city of street markets, temple fairs and the “little games” that so delighted Beijingers: for instance, their passion for keeping fighting crickets, fed with honey, and for inserting tiny carved flutes of bamboo into the tail-feathers of pigeons; whole flocks created aerial music over this reviewer’s courtyard house just a decade ago. In search of such richness, Mr Becker writes with sympathy and humour of meetings with the last court eunuch; with some of the remaining Manchus who only a century ago ruled
but today are all but invisible; and with those few brave people who from the beginning recognised the Communists as being a danger to
’s great heritage.
The other strength is the depiction of
as a canvas for the projection of others’ fantasies. In the case of 17th-century Jesuits or 20th-century Westerners in search of the exotic, this was fairly harmless. With purges, famine and urban destruction, Mao Zedong visited immense grief on a city he treated as a blank page. But it is
’s recent dictators who have finished off
, bulldozing its past with the criminal approval of the world’s leading architects throwing up “signature” structures (I.M. Pei is the honourable dissenter). When Albert Speer, son of Hitler’s architect, was called in to make the
even more bombastic, he explained: “What I am trying to do is to transport a 2,000-year-old city into the future.
in the 1930s, that was just megalomania.”
Do not neglect two other books. Michael Meyer tells the story of
’s destruction from the perspective of one tiny
(narrow lane) neighbourhood to the south of
where he taught in a school. A spiritedness shines through among his earthy neighbours, even in the face of what Mr Meyer calls “the Hand”, which, visiting always at night, paints the Chinese character for “destroy” on houses that are to be razed.
Until very recently, numberless
ran around the
like the ramshackle castle town huddled against the surreal, claustrophobic Gormenghast. Indeed, one of Geremie Barmé’s many services is to show how
served as inspiration for Mervyn Peake, who was born in
” is the latest in an excellent series from Harvard University Press and Profile Books. A compact volume, it is an ideal and elegant history, good for keeping in the hand while visiting the vast extraordinary complex, which has at least been preserved. Mr Barmé, a noted Australian scholar of modern
, is as good at describing the Communists’ imperially-derived impulses as he is at banishments from the medieval court.
Reviewed by Tim O'Connell
City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China
The 1960 Rome Olympic Games were judged a triumph, at the time, but half a century later the Italian people came to rue them as among the worst acts of cultural vandalism in the nation's history. For in the decade before the Games, in secret and without public consultation, an insecure and autocratic government laid plans to bulldoze 95% of the ancient capital to rubble, discarding all property rights and regulations while evicting millions of residents from their centuries-old communities. A handful of major tourist sites were preserved -- not so all but a tiny fraction of the city's imperial architecture, princely palaces and charming, maze-like streets.
had seemed eternal, but one of the world's great historical, cultural and religious centers had been leveled, then "modernized", forever, in the service of two weeks of ball games.
was spared such tragedy, of course -- two new works of love and lament by long-time foreign residents of a now nearly-vanished
explore why and how the Rome of Asia met a different fate.
Jasper Becker's City of
in the History of China began life as a conventional history. But as the imperial capital crumbled around the veteran author, a former
bureau chief for the
South China Morning Post
, Becker found himself dashing to record the places, races and faces that gave the city its unique character and charm, before they disappeared forever. This beautifully-written combination of historical research and reportage is chaptered thematically, from Ming to Mao to music, with a particular focus on individuals fighting a heroic if mainly doomed rear guard action to preserve aspects of the capital's identity and integrate them with the modern.
Becker discovers how much of what he loves about the distinctive
culture and character is owed to the Manchu bannermen. That hereditary class of former warriors-turned-leisured gentlemen "exhibited an amused tolerance for life's ups and downs, a pronounced courtesy and ... a humorous, cynical reserve." They relished an unhurried life of "small games" (cricket fighting, pigeon whistles), tasty snacks and the witty banter called
the distinctive burr of the local dialect also has its roots in "the consonant-rich Manchu language." Seeking out remnants of that subsumed minority, the author meets surviving members of the ruling Aisin Gioro clan (including Pu Ren, the last Qing emperor's younger brother), and traces their troubled journeys through 20th-century
. He even tracks down the dynasty's last surviving eunuch, 96-year old Sun Yaoting:
As he struggled into his clothes…, a telltale whiff of stale urine filled the air. Beneath the white stubble still covering his head, his watery eyes looked out alertly at the foreigner but he did not seem alarmed. His cheeks were sunken but not especially beardless or womanly. All in all, his lean frame bore little resemblance to the grossly fat, vain peacocks with rouged and powdered faces who cackle their way so prominently through Chinese literature.
The fateful operation, described in fascinatingly graphic detail, was of course irrevocable, although some eunuchs "believed their genitalia could regrow, like a lizard's tail, if they ate the still-warm brains of executed criminals."
City of Heavenly Tranquility
aims not just "to tell the history of this ancient, magical city," and "to reveal what made
so delightfully unique," but "to explore why the city was devastated in the name of modernity." The book surveys the country's century-long struggle to modernize, and shows how the destruction of the past decade is but the last stage of a plan envisioned by Mao Zedong, one that would have been completed earlier had it not been for the chaos of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
Becker ascribes two motives to the secretive decisions of Jiang Zemin and his successor engineer-rulers to complete the demolition of this sublime work of unified urban artistry and fill it with incoherent, largely foreign-designed "hyperbuildings". Firstly, the Communist Party has warred on
's cultural inheritance as the most serious obstacle to modernization since "Liberation" (using the Olympic opening ceremony to recast itself as its guardian notwithstanding). "Few examples in history compare with
's effort to substitute another culture for its own," the author writes, "... to Westernize ... the greatest non-Western civilization in history." The second, the Party's determination to monopolize, mold and manipulate a self-justifying version of modern and dynastic history. "It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written," Mao famously wrote. Observes Becker, "
was, after all, just a stage where the sets changed frequently to help the audience forget what had happened in the last scene. Everyone lived brainwashed in a timeless present."
The Sunday Times by
Michael Sheridan June 15, 2008
City of Heavenly Tranquillity,
in the History of
by Jasper Becker / The Penguin History of Modern
: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power 1850-2008 by Jonathan Fenby
How the Chinese Communists destroyed ancient
To the Chinese of centuries past,
was both the centre of the imperial state and an architectural expression of the spiritual order uniting man and heaven. To the Chinese of today, old
is but a memory. Part elegy and part indictment, Jasper Becker’s book on “this ancient, magical city” tells of its disappearance in just six decades since the communist victory in 1949.
A capital that survived the collapse of the empire, invasion by
’s civil war, has been conclusively doomed by the 2008 Olympic Games and by planners, speculators and foreign architects hungry for prestige. “It was filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable, it was the great
of early summer,” wrote the novelist Lao She, the Dickens of the city, as late as 1933.
Lanes of flowers and willows still led to quarters where courtesans entertained their admirers and painted boys sang operas as old as the Ming dynasty. Becker guides us to crumbling pleasure domes and gardens, turning each excursion into a pen portrait of characters who in turn animate a history of cruel splendour. He tells of a mighty general, dragged to an execution post where a man awaited with a razor to inflict death by a thousand slices, of an imperial concubine tossed down a well to die and of the sad end of Lao She himself, found dead in a lake during the Cultural Revolution.
, Becker traces the spot where the severed heads of would-be reformers tumbled amid the cabbage leaves of a vegetable market more than 100 years ago. In a pure Bertolucci moment, Becker discovers the last court eunuch eking out his days near the palace of the last emperor, Pu Yi, whose brother he finds living in a courtyard where wild flowers grow amid broken bricks.
For all its grim past, Becker clearly enjoys the sharp humour of old
, relishes the bitter toffee apples sold on the street stalls, likes its raucous individualism, its humming alleyways, its ferment of poetry and politics. His lyrical lament for its passing prepares the way for a scathing attack on the architects of its demise.
Glossy magazines tend to rave about the new
skyline. Becker, a resident critic of the Chinese dictatorship for almost 20 years, treats it as a cultural crime.
Chinese philosophers say that
was different from any western capital because it expressed its culture in spatial harmony and stone. Its geometry illustrated the view of the historian John K Fairbank that while western civilisation was dynamic, driven by trade and warfare, Chinese civilisation was stable, agricultural and bureaucratic. With the Forbidden City of the court at its centre, Beijing supported a huge cast of aristocrats, soldiers, merchants, scholars, entertainers and common folk all woven into a rich urban fabric which lay essentially unchanged for 500 years.
Becker’s unapologetic opinion is that the communists, as a peasant revolutionary movement, set out to break the capital and its people. He says that a succession of party leaders sanctioned the demolition of the old city out of political vindictiveness and a numbing lack of aesthetic judgment. Mao Tse-tung first swung the wrecker’s ball in 1950, destroying the medieval walls. Grandiose party buildings arose. Ranks of apartments mimicked the cities of eastern Europe. Factories spewed contamination over carved dragon friezes.
It was President Jiang Zemin, a provincial engineer, who completed the reordering of the urban landscape. In 2001, the International Olympic Committee handed him a perfect excuse for radicalism by granting the 2008 Games to
. Jiang discarded plans for conservation, ignored the pleas of the Chinese-American architect IM Pei (who, alone of his peers, emerges with honour) and razed whole districts to make way for broad, windy avenues lined by buildings of no distinction whatsoever.
Becker calls this a “collective punishment” for the Beijingers’ rebellion of June 1989, saying that Jiang presided over “the greatest act of historical vandalism in Chinese history”. It was also an act of vanity to compare with that of any spendthrift emperor.
Baron Haussmann’s restoration of
in the 19th century left 40% of that city’s urban fabric intact: just 5% of old
remains. Only the
, a few famous monuments and a small area of traditional homes are preserved. The cost has been human, too. A million people have left their homes. More than 1.3m peasants laboured on 7,000 building sites in the city, often cheated of their pay and obliged to work in dire conditions. At least 10 perished to build the Olympic stadium known as the Birds’ Nest, but officials have admitted to only six fatalities during the entire Olympic construction programme.
Becker’s writing reaches its best when he scorns the foreign architects who scurried to collaborate with the Chinese authorities. The recipients of official patronage make up a distinguished list — Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Sir Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Paul Andreu, among others. At one point the Chinese consulted Albert Speer’s son about the Olympic landscaping, which seems perfectly fitting.
Becker quotes the German architect Ole Scheeren, charged with executing Koolhaas’s design for the new headquarters of
state television, on the professional morality of working for the Chinese government instead of American clients. “It’s a choice between associating yourself with a regime that is on the brink of opening up and propelling itself into a positive thinking future, or associating with another nation that is at the end of its height, propelling war plans into the world,” said Scheeren. No doubt his choice was helped by the £300m on offer to house a state television network that, as Becker says, “had a record of putting out propaganda worthy of Goebbels”.
The westerners held no monopoly on crassness. The Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing devastated the Wangfujing district to erect a concrete and glass shopping mall which he named
. Becker cannot resist observing that “there was nothing remotely oriental about it”.
A hundred and eight Chinese architects protested against Andreu’s egg-like design for the National Theatre, to no avail. The building, which drew rhapsodic acclaim abroad, is known to locals as “the big turd”.
The two lessons of Becker’s evocative, story-packed book are that public opinion counts for nothing against authoritarian whim and that the emperors had better taste than the present dynasty of suits.
Any inquiring travellers going to
for the Olympics will find City of
a provocative, saddening companion. If their curiosity is whetted, they can turn to Jonathan Fenby’s 800-page history of modern
, rather a marathon run through 158 years of famine, war, revolution and reform.
Fenby, a former editor of the South China Morning Post and a biographer of Chiang Kai-shek, has evolved a taut, anecdote- studded style to tell a complex story in a fluent, direct way. He treads a well-worn path from the decaying 19th century to the communist revolution of 1949, stating that most of
’s flaws date to the imperial era and that violence has settled political disputes for most of its modern history.
Fenby has a good eye for a quote and repeats with relish the words of Robert Hart, the Ulsterman who ran the imperial customs, that in the late empire “the comical and the tragical have dovetailed”.
The later chapters, completing the saga from the death of Mao to the Tiananmen massacre and beyond, contain echoes of this refrain as “reformers” replace revolutionaries to a chorus of obedient propaganda.
The book is a great introduction for a general audience, well-paced, with vivid scene-setting and character sketches. If it has a weakness, it is an absence of Chinese primary sources, although Fenby draws extensively and with generous acknowledgement upon recent scholarship. Perhaps for this reason, however, while the facts are told with skill, the perspective remains that of an enlightened liberal European.
For example, Fenby says that the People’s Republic, politically, is in an authoritarian time warp that can be traced back to 221BC. He is referring to an era when the first ruler to unify
buried the scholars alive. Even ardent Chinese democrats would probably concede that the governance of modern
is a little more subtle than that.
The late 1990s saw the start of the demolition and rebuilding of
— at an estimated cost of £100 billion. About 3m inhabitants have been evicted. In 1980 there were still 6,000 traditional courtyard homes, known as hutong: now just a few hundred remain. Only one of the 44 princely palaces, or wangfu, still exists in its entirety. “Imagine the outcry,” Becker writes, “if in less than a decade
underwent a similar transformation. If the West End, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge,
and the City of
were to be levelled and replaced by giant residential and commercial blocks. If every landmark — Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Covent Garden, the courtyards of the Temple, the alleys of Soho — were to disappear at once.” There has been no international outcry to save old
— nothing compared to the protest, say, which greeted the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in
. And now it is too late.
Sukhdev Sandhu Published 14 August 2008
City of Heavenly Tranquillity:
in the History of
, 384pp, £22
The Last Days of Old Beijing
Walker & Company, 368pp, £20
These are vertical times in
. Starchitects, egged on by politicians and developers, are reaching for the skies. "Bigger, bolder, taller" has become the mantra not just for the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, whose China Central Television headquarters building and "Bird's Nest" national stadium, respectively, draw in sightseers both local and international to swoon or sigh at their abrupt, bursting beauty, but for those planners eager to transform the Chinese capital into a version of Hong Kong or Manhattan. Modernity - and modernisation - is at stake: the skyline, as much as any diagram charting economic growth, must spike up.
risk losing through this form of urban restructuring? For both Michael Meyer and Jasper Becker, authors of new, important books on the subject, the answer is clear: memory, and a large chunk of its soul. Meyer, a young travel writer who hails from
, centres his analysis around the fate of a traditional courtyard, or
, into which he moved exactly three years ago.
is no expat paradise. Meyer occupies two unheated, bare-bulbed rooms in a shared courtyard where the nearest toilet is a public latrine - "Four slits in the floor face one another, without dividers. A squatting man hacks up a wad of phlegm" - a few minutes' walk away. The narrow, sometimes muddy lanes outside are full of hawkers and pedlars, shoeshines, bicycle repairmen, old men drinking and gambling, gossiping grandmothers. Small shops sell bootleg DVDs and hair salons act as fronts for brothels. Arguments and family rows are hard to keep private: in this form of urban village, everyone knows each other.
The word "village" is critical. Not only is it a term routinely bandied about by property developers to add value to their often soulless condos and to offer the promise of a community that their own jobs require them to monetise and disrupt, but it speaks to why the
have been patronised and punished by policymakers for many decades. Where there were 7,000 of these neighbourhoods in 1949, the year that Mao came to power and resolved that
would become the industrial hub whose factories and production plants displaced long-term residents, in 2005 there were only 1,300.
At least 1.25 million residents were evicted between 1990 and 2007. Meyer's stay is haunted by a spectre: that of "The Hand", a corporate graffiti writer who, night after night, tags buildings with the Chinese
sign that serves as an eviction notice. Residents are remunerated, but never at the market rate, for the land they formerly occupied, and are often forced to relocate to high-rise dwellings in satellite towns that have no transport links to the areas where they grew up.
Meyer, whose evocations of place and people at their best recall Richard Cobb's writings on raffish
, pays tribute to the local refuseniks who try to resist these enforced migrations, and to the handful of historians and activists who have tried to alert the world to this architectural devastation. The
emerge as a Chinese version of the kind of urbanism advocated by Jane Jacobs 40 years ago when, against the brutal makeover of New York pushed through by the city's "master builder" Robert Moses, she spoke up for mixed-use communities, pedestrian- and bicycle- rather than car-focused, whose dyna mism sprang from their diversity and density.
For Jasper Becker, a former
bureau chief for the
South China Morning Post
, the erasures that Meyer chronicles are, like those described in Iain Sinclair's
London: City of Disappearances
gazetteer, an attempt to void public consciousness of the existence of alternatives to the current metropolitan regime. He journeys to brothels, publishing houses and temples, many of them crumbling or forgotten by residents, which represent other, pluralistic Beijings.
In particular, and running counter to the common perception of the city as rather stiff and earnest next to jazzy, cosmopolitan Shanghai, he uses his discovery of the building that housed the country's first elected parliament to describe the early years of the Republic (1911-49), a time when universities were granted autonomy, a free press flourished, and customs such as foot-binding and concubinage were outlawed.
Becker is a pleasingly forthright writer with a wide frame of reference. He views what has happened over the past 20 years as an example of Sino-Haussmannisation, and also as a ruinous synthesis of Le Corbusier's desire to embrace "the mass production spirit" with an extension of Mao's abolition of the Four Olds - Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits. Wandering around the
the other week, I wondered what had happened to the
signs I'd seen when I was last there. A local told me: "There's nothing left here to demolish."
Vera Rule. 27 June 2009
Jasper Becker seems by temperament to be a "bannerman", one of the imperial Manchu followers whose amused calm and stoicism made them the gentlemen cockneys of
. He has all their enduring qualities; but he's also angry (not so much a bannerman trait) on behalf of the Beijing where he arrived as a correspondent 25 years ago, since demolished in pursuit of the quick yuan and a fantasy of western-ness more absurd than the fake rococo pavilions in the Summer Palace. When he wasn't filing for this and other papers, he used to wander around the enslummed buildings of a thousand years of city history, a past its citizens have been forbidden to remember, tracking architectural and human evidence of what once was. So this is a work of travel - Becker ecstatic at reaching the real Xanadu; of national as well as local history - Becker finding the location of liberal martyrdoms on nondescript traffic islands; and of personal loss - the ancient pagoda never visited on the way to the new Ikea store.
Far Eastern Economic Review
by Russell Leigh Moses
Posted July 4, 2008
Russell Leigh Moses is the dean of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies
from Imperial Capital to Olympic City and The City of Heavenly Tranquility:
in the History of
Any recounting of
history inevitably depicts two sides to the city: One Beijing is the scene of fast-fading history, while the other is rushing into a quickly appearing future. Both views are manufactured and misleading. But there is no middle ground, nor any treatment of
that can adequately capture where the city has been or might be heading that can avoid being selective to some extent. These two volumes will satisfy no one completely but are still praiseworthy for different reasons.
Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City
is written by three academics whose interdisciplinary talents are on display throughout the volume. Along with the social and daily lives of
’s subjects and citizens, we read of the large sweep of historical forces that gave birth to a city out of a series of struggles to control
. Beijing was from the very beginning the battleground of contending forces from without that sought to rule—though rarely successfully and never completely. As the authors aver, “throughout its existence as a capital,
has been molded by both Chinese and non-Chinese influences.” Language, food, fashion and location were subject to waxing and waning of these pressures, and the book covers them in color and detail.
The volume, in retracing history, notes that as Mongol, Manchu and Han clashed, efforts to transform
in a nearly constant state of transition. Every emperor sought a sanctuary of stability, where his stamp of authority would be secure. Kangxi initiated projects that would consolidate his rule. Yongzheng looked to administrative reform that would enable his rule to be more efficient and therefore, longer lasting. Qianlong saw the consolidation of territory—in Xinjiang and
—as essential to an empire that could be defended. All were builders—and so were their contemporary successors—basing nearly everything connected with their rule on the making and remaking of
Each head of state looked to display their prowess through the power of architecture. Qianlong, in particular, embraced infrastructure, but appears to have recognized that control rested not only on the ability to oversee territory and dispense terror but also the power to dictate aesthetics. We have a larger Forbidden City because of his attitude and a larger
because of his actions to build upon earlier palaces and gardens outside the capital. Mao Zedong and his successors followed suit largely by tearing down and building up, instead of pushing boundaries out. Power became the ability to demolish.
While architecture anchors
, one of the constants of the capital has been the pulling and hauling of politics, be it palace intrigue or struggles in the street. Leaders sought to keep
as the seat of power and to fend off challengers to their personal rule to be sure, but the city was also, the authors note, “the national center of political protest.” By the middle of the 19th century, demands for reform began to bite. Some of these retorts to state rule were cyclical and followed moments of flood or famine. But a poorly organized system of revenue collection and grain procurement, along with a currency crisis, drove some elites into despair and refugees to seek redress in the capital. As the nation went, so did
and leaders found themselves battling first natural disasters and their social consequences, and shortly thereafter foreign invaders.
By the early 20th century, calls for reforms to save and strengthen
regularly. Some of these pleas were the product of a deteriorating physical infrastructure in the capital proper: The sanitation system was barely worthy of the name, and public order deteriorated. When attempts to incorporate necessary changes stalled—a constitutional monarchy was stillborn and nationalist authoritarianism in the form of the Kuomintang emerged—
began to recede, replaced by
as it had been centuries earlier, and placed under Japanese occupation. Only the Communist revolution, originating from a countryside long neglected by leaders ensconced in an urban setting elevated
back to being, in the eyes of the authors, the centerpiece of
This story is well and simply told. This historical portrait of a city beset and besieged by its times, however, is hardly original and the volume rests almost entirely on the compilation and presentation of other people’s work. We have a solid summary of China’s development and good depictions of social lives in Beijing as citizens were whipsawed by events, but these are packets of information that flesh out material for the uninitiated. At a number of points, the tale is about the country and the capital’s role is peripheral. As the narrative becomes more contemporary, anecdotes tend to substitute for analysis. (At one point, featured quotes are taken from a documentary.) A ready reference book or an introduction for the tourist or first-time traveler is what this volume offers—no mean feat in the current flood of works driven by the Olympics.
Jasper Becker’s book is something rather different: elegant and at times, almost poetic, a paean to loss and memory. Mr. Becker does not merely trace the history; he employs it to illustrate the nature of
and how it came to be. Instead of seeing
through events, he writes of the city through individuals. The Chinese capital is a place made by its people. The author relates that tale by insights gleaned through interviews.
However, Mr. Becker is not a sentimentalist. He reminds us that
and its inhabitants adopted a siege mentality because the city was founded as a fortress, a base for military campaigns against the Mongols. Emperor Yongle’s efforts during the Ming dynasty were focused on commerce and his attention was largely away from
, which he saw as a burden instead of a place of economic benefit. At various points in its history,
was neither center nor centerpiece of
Much of Mr. Becker’s book is about the loss of old
and the neglect of what remains. He draws clear connections, for example, between the prostitution of the past and that which persists today. He traces and tracks down ancestors to illuminate what has changed. When Mr. Becker writes of Emperor Pu Yi, the persistence of prostitution, the mysterious death of Lao She, or an old eunuch, he demonstrates that as much as the state wishes to bury the past, it has a tendency to resurface.
No story of
would be complete without a chronicle of the people trying to save the city from becoming completely bereft of itself. Mr. Becker begins with a tale of construction and ends with one of destruction, summarizing
as caught in “the eternal present.” While the capital was extensively rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries, its transformation did not end there. New leaders tried to leave their mark with new construction, and for
, modernization has never meant preservation. After 1949, Mr. Becker notes, “
’s role as the capital was to serve as a stage for propaganda, to show what the Party wished to do.” The physical assets of people—and the emotions attached to the past—remain the property of the state to dispose of.
The few shortcomings of this book mostly stem from the fact that a substantial portion is drawn from Mr. Becker’s previous articles, and that leads to discrepancies such as years appearing out of order. Some judicious editing and more integration would have avoided the repetition of some material. But mostly one wishes Mr. Becker might have extended the book. There is a serenity and sympathy here, as Mr. Becker endeavors to light up some of the hidden histories of contemporary
By Bradley Winterton,
Sunday, Oct 26, 2008
Longtime Beijing correspondent Jasper Becker uncovers the troubled recent past of China’s Olympic megalopolis and the destruction that was wrought to build it
You might think that City of Heavenly Tranquility, with its subtitle “Beijing in the History of China,” was a serene survey of one of the world’s great cities, looking at its history from its foundation to its contemporary, post-Olympics face. And you’d be right. These things are there, with the story excellently told into the bargain. But there’s also another theme, for which even the full title doesn’t prepare you. At its heart, this book is an appalled lament for one of the greatest acts of historical vandalism of modern times — the destruction, within the last 10 years, of a gorgeous, resplendent, ancient city and its replacement by a hurriedly erected modern megalopolis that could, architecturally speaking, be just about anywhere on Earth.
As a China-based foreign correspondent, Jasper Becker should know what he’s talking about. He’s been the
representative for the Guardian, the BBC and the South China Morning Post. He’s lived in
since 1985 — not continuously, but for a large amount of the time, some 20 years in all. He knows the city, both as it was and as — tragically in his eyes — it now is.
You even feel that it’s perhaps Becker’s seniority that allows him to give vent to some of the opinions in this book. He’s relentlessly critical of
’s authorities, seeing the destruction of old
as a continuous process that began before the Cultural Revolution and is still going on today. Could this book even be some sort of Parthian shot, a last dart flung over his shoulders at those in power before he finally quits the country?
“In some ways,” Becker writes, “the destruction of old
and the eviction of its residents can be considered a collective punishment visited on a population that had dared to rebel.” He cites Bertold Brecht writing after the 1953 uprising in
— the people had failed the government, and so it was necessary for the government to relocate them and replace them with more amenable subjects.
Although it has been an important center since at least the 10th century,
hasn’t always been
’s capital. The previous one (of several) was Nanjing, but in 1421 the charismatic Yongle (永樂) Emperor moved the administrative center north for what were essentially strategic reasons. So from life in the lush world of the Yangtze delta the scholarly civil servants had to shift to a windy and dusty northern plain, cold in winter and hot in summer, and a city that had neither a seaport nor a major river to serve as its transport terminus.
Nevertheless, successive emperors made it into one of the most glorious cities on Earth. Becker is very strong on this — essentially, I’m certain, because he believes it, but also perhaps because the finer he makes the city look in the past, the more terrible the destruction that has been unleashed on it in recent years is made to appear.
The daily court routine under the Yongle Emperor is extravagantly evoked, and many more recent topics are aired as well, such as the death in 1966 of writer Lao She (老舍), giving the feeling that the author is keen not to miss any opportunity to incorporate the fruits of his long residence in the city into this book. Several of the chapters read like interviews, or clusters of interviews, or else trips to see the vestiges of former greatness in the company of some interesting, though often cautious, local authority.
This is an exceedingly engaging book, with far more detail than it’s possible to indicate here. The past and the present leap out with equal vividness because Becker combines library research with a good deal of oral history — seeking out individuals who remember things and writing down what they tell him. He finds, for instance, the wife of the famous architectural historian Liang Sicheng (梁思成) who, at Qinghua University, was severely persecuted by Red Guards. She shows him where the guard factions fought and where Jiang Qing (江青) addressed the crowds.
In his greatest coup, he tracks down the man who was almost certainly the last surviving imperial eunuch, aged 96 when Becker talked to him 12 years ago. He’d arrived in the
in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, but had nevertheless been retained right up until the final expulsion of the eunuchs in 1924. Lean and unshaven, he bore little resemblance, Becker writes, to the “grossly fat, vain peacocks with rouged and powdered faces who cackle their way so prominently through Chinese literature.” But the old man’s memory was too poor for him to be able to tell the author much. Becker gives lurid details of the castration process, but whether they come from the man himself or from independent research is unclear.
There are times when
is tacitly evoked, at least in the mind of a reader living here. You’re reminded, for instance, of the proliferation of Taiwanese fortune-tellers and geomancers when Becker writes about the Chinese Communist Party’s prohibition of such things in his chapter on calendars ancient and modern.
The obliteration of old festivals and the destruction of former sacred sites tolls like a death-knell throughout the book, but here it’s especially intense. He cites Robespierre’s abolition of both Christian festivals and the old calendar during the French Revolution, and both of course have now returned to
. But this particular chapter ends with the eruption of Falun Gong in 1999. There is no question at present of such believers being given any tolerance whatsoever. But they represent a force of irrationalism that, Becker considers, could erupt and call into question everything that modern
appears to represent, and at virtually any moment.
Toby Skinner 11 August 2008
Jasper Becker, who has been living almost continuously in
since 1985, tells the story of this great city and why it has been gutted in the name of modernity. It’s a common theme, but few writers have presented such a living and breathing vision of the city’s past and related it to today’s
– this is the history of KFC outlets, department stores, boxy apartments, and bleak highways. It’s also a history of the people who have been forgotten in the city’s misguided rush towards the future.
Becker starts his story with Marco Polo’s arrival in
, and ends it getting lost on the way to IKEA. In between, we see Beijing as the once religious and artistic centre of Asia, a city of bustling bazaars and ancient temples, which Lao She described as “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable…the great Peking of early summer.”
Though every chapter is chronological, what makes
The City of Heavenly Tranquility
such a pleasure to read is that this is really a collection of short stories about
and its people. We read about Lao She and his sexually active friends in the Crescent Moon Society of the twenties and thirties, and about the Manchu soldiers who brought over qipaos, cricket fighting, and ‘cross-talk’ comedy, among many contributions to
culture. Becker sticks to his message, but he never lets the history get in the way of a good yarn.
If many of the stories will be familiar to Sinophiles, the writing lifts this above most
tomes. An opening paragraph about being shown around a modern penthouse duplex by an estate agent called Sunshine Xiao could so easily have descended into cliché, but is told with understated accuracy.
Reading this book will make you see
in a new, invigorating light.