The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Gilles Sabrié/Corbis
Prospective buyers looking at a model of a residential housing project at the Beijing Real Estate Fair, April 3, 2006

Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by its monuments,” the British journalist George Morrison wrote in 1916. His complaint was eerily similar to those of many Chinese and others today, included by Meyer in The Last Days of Old Beijing, who are sensitive to what has been lost as China’s capital has been transformed into a modern city, bristling with the massive creations of big-name architects. “Macadamized roads, electric light, great open spaces, museums, modern buildings of all kinds, one or two of them on a scale that would not be out of place in Whitehall, motorcars (there are I think at least 200), motor cycles more numerous than we care for, and bicycles literally by the thousand,” Morrison wrote.

One of the alterations that most shocked Morrison was several breaches in the Ming Dynasty–era Imperial City wall to make way for new roads “being driven through the city in many directions.” Four years later, another British writer, Juliet Bredon, complained about “masses of ugly, foreign-style buildings dotted here and there over the city [that] mar the harmony of the general view.” A few years after that, according to a report in TheNew York Times, Beijing’s residents were angry over “the determined effort to reduce this ancient capital to the status of a drab and modernized provincial city.”

But all that seems as nothing compared to what was wrought in Beijing when the Communists took power in 1949 and the city fell prey to a particularly nasty combination: an ideological enmity toward the old joined to petit-bourgeois, Stalinist gigantism. As the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys explained in his 1976 book, Chinese Shadows (excerpted in these pages), no other Chinese city had Beijing’s imperial aura, which is what made it the inevitable choice of Mao Zedong, an emperor in the making, as his seat of revolutionary government.

Mao took over what during the Republican period had been a public park, the former imperial residence known as Zhongnanhai adjacent to the Ming-era Forbidden City, and converted it into his living and working quarters. Then, over the next fifteen years or so, he presided over the destruction of most of the rest of the Ming heritage—the entire encircling wall, all but one of the magnificent entry gates, the dozens of graceful arches that broke up the monotony of the city’s wide, straight avenues. Tiananmen Square, the area in front of the main entrance to the imperial palace, was enormously enlarged, which required the destruction of many acres of old streets and dwellings. As…

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