CDT Bookshelf: The City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China

Taipei Times gives a review of Jasper Becker’s new book,The City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China.

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.

[…] “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

[…] 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.

The Economist also gives a review from another angle.

Mr Becker, a British journalist, offers something much richer than a work of reportage. “City of Heavenly Tranquility” 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 China but today are all but invisible; and with those few brave people who from the beginning recognised the Communists as being a danger to Beijing’s great heritage.

The other strength is the depiction of Beijing 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 China’s recent dictators who have finished off Beijing, 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 new city even more bombastic, he explained: “What I am trying to do is to transport a 2,000-year-old city into the future. Berlin in the 1930s, that was just megalomania.”

From The Globalist, here is an excerpted chapter about the Broken Bowl Tea House in Caishikou (菜市口), in memorial of “the Six Gentlemen (六君子).”

For more about the deconstruction of the old Beijing, read this early article in The New York Times and also this book, The Last Days of Old Beijing, on the CDT bookshelf.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.