Beijing: the city of lost history

China-based foreign correspondent Jasper Becker's latest book chronicle's Beijing's past in order to contrast it with its present

Taipei Times
Sunday, October 26, 2008

By Bradley Winterton

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 Beijing representative for the Guardian, the BBC and the South China Morning Post. He's lived in Beijing 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 China's authorities, seeing the destruction of old Beijing 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 Beijing 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 East Berlin -- 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, Beijing hasn't always been China's capital. The previous one (of several) was Nanjing, but in 1421 the charismatic Yongle 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, 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 who, at Qinghua University, was severely persecuted by Red Guards. She shows him where the guard factions fought and where Jiang Qing 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 Forbidden City 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 Taiwan 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 France. 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 Beijing appears to represent, and at virtually any moment.