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📙 Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories by Madeleine Yue Dong — free download


The Times Literary Supplement July 14, 2006 Before Tiananmen Jonathan Mirsky REPUBLICAN BEIJING. The city and its histories. By Madeleine Yue Dong. 400pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. $50; distributed in the UK by Wiley. Pounds 32.50. - 0 520 23050 7. REMAKING BEIJING. Tiananmen Square and the creation of a political space. Wu Hung. 256pp. Reaktion. Paperback, Pounds 19.95. - 1 86189 235 7. US: University of Chicago Press. $35. - 1 861 89235 7. LHASA. Streets with memories. Robert Barnett. 244pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $24.50. - 0 231 13680 3. KYOTO. A cultural and literary history. John Dougill. 272pp. Oxford: Signal. Pounds 12. - 1 904955 13 4. US: Oxford University Press. $55. - 0 19 530137 4. Asian cities are a hot academic subject these days. Madeline Yue Dong, a historian at the University of Washington, must know as much as anyone about Beijing during the past hundred years and the centuries long before. That may have saved her life. In 1989, during the army's assault on the capital's citizens, which extended far beyond Tiananmen Square, her knowledge of the city's alleyways meant that "I could always maneuver the streets and get where I wanted to be when the main arteries were blocked". But her excellent book Republican Beijing is not about the Chinese capital's most recent history, despite a few pointed remarks about how the city's residents, forced out of their traditional alleys by the demolition crews, no longer know their neighbours. Established by the Mongols as their capital in 1267, except for a brief period during the Ming, Beijing remained the capital of China until 1928, when Chiang Kai-shek settled his regime in Nanjing. In 1949, Mao reestablished Beijing's exalted status (which for many Chinese and foreigners it had never lost, except in name). Professor Dong has read everything, it seems, from Mongol times to the latest scholarship. She makes clear that she owes much to David Strand's Rickshaw Beijing: City and politics in the 1920s (1989), Sydney Gamble's Peking: A social survey (1921) and a vast array of Chinese sources, notably the great writer Lao She's stories and novels of the 1920s and 30s. Handling her sources competently and entertainingly, she surveys architecture, history, sociology, street life and literature. Dong's main point is that nostalgia among Chinese and foreign tour operators for "old Beijing" and its food, shops, manners and entertainments, is based on a false premiss. "In many ways, what is today believed to be 'old Beijing' is not so old. It is not imperial Beijing but the historically recent Republican Beijing." Part of the nostalgia, she notes, is the result of the "commercialisation of history" that brings tourists to the few alleyways not yet mowed down by bulldozers and to the "folk art center" in the Tianqiao district, to which ordinary people were allowed access only after the fall of the last Manchu Emperor in 1911. But Beijing residents themselves, once a kind of modernization began after 1912, and even after they were moved into "modern" buildings surrounded by noisy highways, clung to a past which is not so distant. Far from being a life to which they long to return, the city's past "provides a vocabulary and reference for the city's residents to criticise things they do not wish to see today". Perfect examples of this are the names of the old alleyways. The modernizing Republican city planners found that many of these 3,000 hutong had identical names: of temples, walls, or shapes -"Carrying Pole", "Pants", "Pig Tail", "Pot Mender" and "Pimp" -and changed 300 of them. "Dog Tail", for instance, became "Old Man with High Morality": from vulgar, that is, to cultured. In 1934, new street-markers appeared on every hutong, but "the old names echoed in people's daily speech for years to come". Apart from the occasional lapse into professional jargon, Dong is a vivid writer who makes not-so-old Beijing come to life. Wrestlers, food, stilt-walkers, four classes of prostitutes, missionaries longing to reform the city's wicked ways, novelists, and modern-minded intellectuals who scorned the old until they left the city, walk into and off her pages. Another of her central themes is "recycling". Republican Beijing was not an industrial city. With its overwhelming population of poor, it struggled through grinding years of Japanese pressure and loss of face and wealth when the capital moved south. Poor as it was, very little was truly thrown away. Everything was reused: paper, clothes, metal, jewellery, leather, antiques -reappearing, often dodgily restored, in a hierarchy of markets, to which the poorest of the poor and the richest foreigners found their way. Specialists for whom nothing was too worn or dilapidated collected cast-offs from every sort of dwelling. Old paper was transformed into shoe soles; valuable articles ended up in the city's 240 antique shops, with their 1,400 clerks. "Used objects underwent a complex journey through a chain of commercial netherworlds before they reappeared on the open market." Probably Lao She (who would die violently, decades later, in the Cultural Revolution) best grasped the essence of the nostalgia surrounding "old Beijing". Dong writes that he "took the motionless, frozen world captured by the collectors of the miscellaneous 'old Beijing' and brought it to life by inserting living characters into it". Dong's important book is illuminated by the kind of vivid detail that many scholars ignore. It soars far above the usually earthbound specialist world. Tiananmen, the "Gate of Heavenly Peace", rises on the south side of the Forbidden City, which faces on to what since 1949 has been a great square. The five centuries of the Gate and the relatively recent Square are explored by Wu Hung, an art historian at the University of Chicago, in his Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the creation of a political space, which is a well-informed history of the transformation of the rather small, crowded, asymmetrical space, partly flanked by timber houses, in front of the Forbidden City, into a vast 50-acre "guangchang", a square, the biggest man made space in the world. It arose from the accelerated wrecking of traditional Beijing -just as Lhasa was to be wrecked -at the command of Mao Zedong (although the "modernization" of the Square began in the Republican period, as Dong shows) and the city's metamorphosis into a socialist capital. There the army would parade and hundreds of thousands of citizens "spontaneously" display their adoration of Mao, who stood on the Gate, where Emperors had once appeared, and waved to the masses. The Square also became, against government wishes, the place where great crowds gathered, in 1976, to show their anger at the Gang of Four, and again in 1989, to demand greater liberty and an end of official corruption. Professor Wu Hung sensitively intertwines his learned analysis with a personal account of how Tiananmen influenced him and his family. He explains how the Communists decided to turn the area in front of the Forbidden City from a relatively private space into an overpowering public one. There, too, as in Lhasa, Stalinist brutal buildings have been succeeded by triumphalist flashy ones. He explains as well why Tiananmen was the focus of the 1989 demonstration, why it attracted Chinese from all over the country -and why the leadership took the uprising especially seriously, because of where it took place. Wu Hung watched the killings on a screen in the United States. "Tiananmen retained its power over me, but a power that threatened to destroy my existence. I was not freed from this repressive power even after I emigrated to America: watching students killed in front of Tiananmen on 4 June, 1989, I felt as if I were there, struggling under its shadow." Lhasa: Streets with memories is really three books, all by Robert Barnett, a leading young Tibetanist at Columbia University, whose past publications are marked by originality and eloquence. He concedes the presence of two books: one examines "underlying themes in Tibetan myths and histories that might give broad clues to the ways Lhasa's residents think about their city"; the second "looks at buildings and the layout of city streets". These constructions, he claims, are "a kind of concrete spelling out of the dreams and aspirations of the state or the people who had them built". He aims "to scrape a little of the topsoil off the affective history of a city" and posits "the essential illegibility of a city to its foreign visitors". Despite his ability to speak Tibetan, many visits to Lhasa since 1987, and his more recent residence there for a few months every year, teaching foreign students, that illegibility affects Barnett himself: "A foreigner always has limited access to the associations that hover around streets and buildings in Tibet; even visitors fluent in the language are left to guess whether their more political conceptions are shared by local people". In this short book, Dr Barnett does not begin to describe Lhasa today until page 61. Before that, he surveys, as have many other authors, the views of foreigners who saw Tibet and Tibetans variously as happy, dirty, mysterious, simple, traditional and backward. Tibetans could also be cruel, and Barnett supplies well-known twentieth-century examples of what happened to modernizers or to the politically over-ambitious. He sums up, too, the complex but fascinating history of early Tibetan relations with China, especially that of the seventh-century Tang dynasty. Princess Wencheng was married off to a Tibetan King. The Chinese still imagine that she brought civilization to Tibet; probably she was a sort of protection currency, to buy off Tibetan pr

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